Worst HR Document Ever, the Employee Handbook

Ed Baldwin Ed Baldwin, Employee Communications, employee experience, Employee Relations, Employment Law, Engagement and Satisfaction 3 Comments

We all know it.  Employees know it too.  It sucks.  It’s practically unreadable. 

No one reads it unless they have to.  Only time they’ll try to find it is when they feel like they got screwed by the company, or are about to be by their manager.  So they painfully dig for that passage that will get them off the hook.  Sometimes it’s the other way around, a manager seeking justification for taking some adverse action, like denying leave time or limiting benefits. 

So why do we have Employee Handbooks in practically every company on the planet? 

For HR purposes, of course.  And for employees who are always trying to pull a fast one on the company.  It’s also a wake up call for those people in the company without common sense.  A reference manual for navigating the increasingly complex and compliance ridden workplace, for the benefit of consistency, oftentimes at the detriment of treating people like you actually care about them. 

The employee handbook protects the company, not employees.  HR references the handbook when things go awry and when stuff happens that reads like a script from The Office.  Do we actually need sections of the handbook allocated to break room refrigerator etiquette?  I suppose we do, but only for those people we probably shouldn’t have employed in the first place. 

For those of you committed to defending your Employee Handbook as a useful information tool, you might point out that the your company’s Handbook is chocked full of the benefits the company generously offers to employees.  That’s true, but only with the caveat that “we reserve the right to change it for any reason at any time, with or without notice.”  That’s comforting.  Those words increase the Employee Handbook’s already high suck rating. 

To put the employee handbook to a usefulness test, let’s compare it to another corporate document … the Code of Conduct.  At least the Code of Conduct contains some common sense.  Stuff you don’t have to read to know is wrong, and will probably get you fired.  Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, and don’t sleep with the boss’s daughter who just accepted an internship in your team.  You might as well be reading the ten commandments. 

So what’s an HR pro to do with this horrifying and yet standardized document that’s eroding the HR team’s reputation and your focus on employee trust and engagement?

I suggest considering one of three doors below, none of which include the traditional route of writing a boring 50-page diatribe that covers your ass, and that no one will read except the legal team who needs to bless every word you write:

DOOR #1:  Let’s say you work for a really cool, progressive company with hoodies in the C-suite, first congratulations!  My suggestion if you are part of this 5% of the working world is to dump it entirely.  Yep, that’s right.  Create some concise rule or rules for your company to live by like “no assholes” or “do good work” and let it ride.  Ask your employees to act like adults, and treat them that way.  And if they do stupid stuff or don’t perform, get rid of them.  No three step verbal, written and final warnings.  Nope, just let them go and give them enough money to bridge the gap to what’s next so you don’t get sued. 

DOOR #2:  If your company isn’t quite ready to go all out and hang with the cool kids of Door #1, then perhaps this door is more up your alley.  If you’re part of this segment of the working world, then write your Employee Handbook like a short story.  Concise, to the point, and in plain language that any 4th grader can read.  If you can make it entertaining, even better.  But take all the legal mumbo jumbo out of it.  Put that into a separate document, or at the very least put it all in a separate section.  Entitle that section “All the Stuff You Need to Know But Won’t Read”.  And then invest all your time writing the stuff people will read.  Remember, it’s a short story.  If you’ve gone beyond ten pages it’s not a short story – it’s the first chapter of the book you are authoring entitled, “Stuff that Sucks, and Could Get You Fired”.

DOOR #3:  This is for most HR pros that work for most of the companies on the planet.  Definitely the high majority.  You work for a company that has proudly stood behind a fully comprehensive Handbook for years, and they aren’t going to let some progressive HR pro who just read an intriguing blog post change all of that.  If you work for one of these organizations (and most of us do), then attempt to exit or remove yourself from the handbook process entirely.  Give it away to people who will embrace the suck, and who don’t have to worry about employee trust and engagement.  Say it with me … Legal.  They love writing stuff like this.  They love writing documents no one will read and using vocabulary that only they understand.  Where as, Here to.  I’m sorry, I can’t come up with more than two examples because I don’t speak “legal”. 

Regardless of which door you select, opting for any one of the three doors above makes you a winner.  Why? Because you are attuned to how your employees REALLY feel about your current Handbook and are trying to make it better.  Employee advocacy my friends, is always a worthwhile pursuit. 

Handbook image from Jared Sylvia

Comments 3

  1. Thought-provoking post. Personally… I disagree about handbooks in general, although I agree about the inscrutable legalese. I don’t think everyone hates handbooks, and those who do hate them probably haven’t thought through why handbooks exist, why they are the way they are, and what it would be like without them.
    The Door #1 orgs with the hoodies in the C-suite are the orgs that, in my opinion, most desperately need handbooks. They don’t have them because those orgs are disrupters and disrupters don’t like rules. They also don’t like: laws, regulations, city and state government statutes, auditor scrutiny, community feedback, privacy and data security, and in some cases, human decency. They don’t want handbooks because they want to be able to change their minds about policies on a whim and/or enforce them as they see fit. This does not help their employees, although they like to believe it does. It works sometimes, but then you have the Aways, the WeWorks, and the many other cautionary tales that serve to illustrate that the rest of us weren’t just being luddites, we were following norms that exist for arguably good reasons.
    I also think most rank and file employees crave structure and rules far more than they may be able to express. People who were not brought up in the business world or don’t come from families where they’ve been exposed to business norms won’t know these norms unless they’re made explicit.
    When I interview for a job, I always ask about their handbook. If they don’t have one, I flee to the hills. If they have one, I ask what it’s called, where it’s found, how it’s used, who writes it, and when it’s updated. If they don’t have answers to those questions, it shows me that they think of a handbook as an annoying afterthought, rather than a key foundational document. I self-select into the handbook-having orgs because I know they’re a better fit for me.

  2. Interesting that I agree wholeheartedly with both Annie and Ed! I guess in theory Door #1 would be nice, sort of like Libertarianism, but that can lead to anarchy…

    I live behind Door #3 and it is really hard to establish those warm, fuzzy, trusting relationships with employees and at the same time be an authority figure. That’s what management is all about.

  3. Pingback: Worst HR Document Ever, the Employee Handbook - Spotlight Data

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