Matters Column

The employee handbook: essential or obsolete?

May 18, 2018
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When was the last time your handbook was reviewed and/or revised? For many organizations, it’s one of those tools human resources hands out when you are hired and nobody reads. You might even have to sign a form that says you’ve read it. This, in itself, is a bit ludicrous when you just received it earlier in the day. Some organizations at least modify the statement form to say that you understand you will be treated according to the guidelines/policies in the handbook regardless of whether you’ve read the manual or not. Most organizations discuss at least a few of the statements from the handbook they think are somewhat critical and then say it is your responsibility to go over the rest.

Reviewing multiple pages of rules isn’t very exciting or likely to be successful in having you remember all the critical points. So, how do you address the role of the handbook and its content? First, you have to recognize the handbook is a foundation and building block for establishing the culture of the organization by educating employees about company vision, values and operating style. It can and should be a critical link between management thinking and what will be expected of employees, as well as what management is prepared to provide for employees, both in terms of rewards for performing their jobs and what tools will be available, and the environment (physical and emotional) where the work will be performed.

With all this important stuff riding on this one document, it seems surprising how often management gives so little consideration to its content, its visual impact and its utilization until there is a crisis or employee behavior is affecting the bottom line. In fact, it is amazing how frequently organizations are willing to have an off-the-shelf version or a copy from another organization with a few tweaks. With some care, this would be a superb document if the organization looked at it with as much consideration as it does a product brochure that will disappear with the next ad campaign. So, are your handbook and its use effective?

The audience

Approaching the employee handbook like your client base might be one of the smartest things you can do. You want your clients to stick around, buy into your product changes, tell others about your business, buy more stuff and do those things that will make you successful. These are the same things you want your employees to do. So, the first thing you must do is tell them what you are about, very similar to the vision. You also want to let them know what they can expect from you, which is based on your values, operating objectives, promises and how you will treat them as certain events occur. There are a lot of elements to the operations manual that goes out with most product sales that should be part of the employee handbook, like safety procedures, how to proceed in startup and maintenance matters, how to get the best performance from the product and what to do when there are problems.

If you look at your product manuals or the marketing materials, you provide lots of information in a way that doesn’t beat the client over the head but lets them know what they can expect and, hopefully, in a way that lets them have a positive perspective of your organization. You also adjust the documents as new considerations come into play, through regulations, through product improvements that will make you more competitive or through special promotions when you want to address some particular circumstance. You don’t print your materials and look at them five years later because of some government regulation. Yet, you can find many handbooks that aren’t touched for years. A lot can happen in your labor market in five years.

Many organizations might keep on top of the necessary changes and send out a bulletin when they want to notify you of a change, but ask yourself what impression this makes or how effective it will be? First, when you use cheap paper or a cheap insert for the handbook, it implies the message is not important. Secondly, getting it saved so it is around for future reference has a low probability, as it will be put in a stack someplace for future filing and untraceable when needed.

With today’s communication options, the cost and efficiency of getting information to any audience are improving each year, especially when you consider electronic document distribution. In fact, the systems that are available are not only cheaper but logistically easier, and can be more timely with a little planning. Perhaps, it really starts with considering what you are trying to accomplish.

The hidden message

The handbook is generally thought to be a tool to shape behavior and, therefore, support the desired culture. So, if your principle intention is to get everyone on the same page, you are going down the right path. However, many organizations see the handbook as a tool to make sure “employees toe the line.” When you look at the tone of such documents, it seems to address the issue of employee alignment but not employee engagement. The tone can come from the selection of topics, the amount of emphasis on a subject, choice of words and even the size of the font.

We’ve seen handbooks where some points are mentioned multiple times, such as “at-will employment” or the longest topic is use of computers and internet. Each such presentation sends hidden messages to the employee. By the same technique, we’ve seen a handbook where the first topic mentioned is about employee safety. It was a foundry, and management wanted to be clear protecting employees was very important.

Making these decisions is often shaped by attorneys, emphasis on a certain operating style, perception of employees and risk management, to name a few considerations. Perhaps the best results will come when all aspects are considered but with recruiting, onboarding and employee relations playing the strongest role.

It also is important the handbook is clear as to the nature of the information included. The statements can be high-level overview commentary, guidelines that have flexibility, firm policy documents or detailed procedures. Depending on the topic, a particular type of statement may be more appropriate to protect the organization or provide the flexibility to give management the desired latitude. One size does not fit all situations, and it is desirable to take a conscientious long-term approach when drafting the various parts of the handbook.

Today’s handbook role

It is easy to state the role of the handbook in today’s business climate: IT IS ESSENTIAL!

Unfortunately, having an effective handbook may not be an easy process. It requires careful thought in content and in style. It should be an on-going assessment and updating process, and it should take the proper formats based on current workforce and management needs, legal requirements and available technology. Then it requires an intentional effort to educate all appropriate parties, but maybe with a special emphasis on leadership and middle management, as they are responsible for making sure what is stated is how the organization actually operates.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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