Employee Handbook
30 Aug
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How to Draft a Meaningful Employee Handbook

by Devan Graham in HR Trends 0 comments

Every year as summer comes to an end, we start getting call from clients about wanting to write and implement a Handbook.  It’s like clockwork.  Something about that back to school feeling gets people in the mood for…policies?  Maybe not, but it does get us thinking about executing on projects and getting things done that have been on our list.

So why do organization’s have handbooks? Essentially, they’re your baseline.  They set the benchmarks, answer questions for employees, give leaders a tool to reference and set expectations across the board. We generally find that organizations look to first implement a handbook for a couple of reasons.  One is to be legislatively complaint, to dot those I’s and cross those t’s.  The second is to gain clarity.  They are at a size where there’s been enough employee situations happening that it is important to set expectations and give leaders guidance on the general approach to common situations.

So, how do you get started?  You need to think about your organization, the structure and what will work best.  Consider these 5 tips to help you get started.

The Need to Have

What are the regulations (either provincially or federally) that you fall under and what’s important to outline?  Protect yourself by outlining areas such as Hours of Work, Overtime, Vacation, Leaves, Drug & Alcohol, Harassment and Violence.  These are areas where you can set expectations, while also protecting the organization.  For example, having defined provisions around Overtime (what is considered overtime and how it must be approved – in advance, in writing by the leader) can protect the organization from the disgruntled employee who provides you with a spreadsheet of all their overtime hours you did not know about as they’re walking out the door!

Alternative to thinking about what you need to have, also consider what you don’t need to have.  Every organization is different, and some environments require more detail, while some can do with flexibility and less structure. Consider the needs of the organization and the employee group as a whole, and don’t create policies for outliers where it’s not needed.

The Should Have

While not necessarily legislated, areas such as Confidentiality, Code of Conduct, Social Media and Corrective Action can not only help protect the organization but clearly outline expectations to employees and the avenues in which missed expectations will be dealt with.

Also, one of the most important parts your handbook should have – a sign-off.  Ensure employees are signing off that they have read the handbook and understand the contents.

The Want to Have

What do you want to put in your handbook?  What are your pain points?  Where do you get the most questions? What are the great things your organization does that you can highlight? (Education Assistance, Training Programs, Social Events, etc.)

Infusing Culture

Handbooks don’t have to be boring!  Seriously.  By infusing your culture and language into the document you make it sound like you.  Just because we are setting benchmarks and putting structure around how things are done doesn’t mean you have to sound formal about it.  Align the handbook to your culture.  Be less formal where you can with language. Tell your history and your story. Give it your own spin.  We had a client in a very entrepreneurial environment where each section was labelled with a unique title (such as “Things we Have to Tell You, This is the Stuff You Should Know, These are the Perks”)

Another great way to infuse culture is through a Culture Deck, either tied to or in conjunction with the handbook.  A culture deck is a great way to highlight who you are and what’s important to your organization.  In fact, in some organizations, they even take the place of a handbook. There are great examples from Netflix and others found here:

Acuity’s culture deck can be found here:


Now that you’ve created this great big document, don’t mess it up by rushing to get it out there.  Put as much time into the roll-out as you did to write it.  Think about what and how you are going to communicate.  Give people time to digest this new document and ask questions.  If terms are changing from employment contracts, or if terms were not previously defined that are now in the handbook, provide notice to employees to minimize risk of constructive dismissal.

And remember, just because you now have this handbook in place, it’s not the be all and end all.  Handbooks are a great baseline, but you still have the ability, as leaders, to go above and beyond the handbook where it makes sense.  For example, if you only provide 3 paid sick days per year, and your superstar employee who NEVER misses time gets a flu and is out for a week, it’s ok to choose to pay her for the full 5 days.  And it’s ok to choose not to pay Joe down the hall when he missed his 4th sick day (and 4th consecutive Friday of a long weekend!)

Handbooks don’t replace leaders.  Leaders still need to lead, to care about their people, have the tough conversations and deal with issues when they are small, so they don’t snowball.  Handbooks don’t replace leaders, but they are an effective resource to support your leaders and the organization!


Creating effective policies takes time and expertise to get it right.  We have yet to come across a leader who loves writing policies and employee handbooks, but fortunately we do! If you need help drafting a Handbook click here for more information.

Devan is a Partner with Acuity. For more information, contact her at