The how-to and why it matters

Features - Business Focus

Now's a perfect time to update your handbook, which puts all employees on the same page.

October 6, 2020

Lawn & Landscape photo illustration

If creating (or updating) your employee handbook feels more like a chore than an opportunity, you may want to rethink your approach.

“I think a lot of companies think of (writing a handbook) as torture, but they don’t have to be that onerous. They don’t have to be that difficult. And they don’t have to be that time-consuming,” says Christine Soderlund, owner of Soderlund Enterprises, a talent acquisition and strategic sourcing company.

Done correctly, an employee handbook offers a perfect first opportunity for your firm to outline and share a sense of your company culture, values and goals – not to mention providing employees an easily accessible resource that answers common questions about payment procedures, requesting vacation time, workplace protocol and much more.

Here, we offer a few strategies for crafting an employee handbook that’s both user-friendly and engaging, while still including all the necessary information for your current and incoming employees.

Why have a handbook?

There are no laws requiring a business to have an employee handbook, Soderlund says. But, if you don’t, you’re making a misstep.

Think of your employee handbook as an essential pillar in the relationship you’re building with your new employees, says Jason Drent, administration director at DJ’s Landscape Management in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “In conjunction with the job description and offer letter, a handbook helps build a clear, consistent foundation for a productive employer-employee relationship,” he says.

In addition to its role as a relationship-building tool, the handbook can also serve to dispel questions or disputes about workplace policies, often before they happen. As such, it can “protect (both) employees and the business from misperceptions, miscommunications, and the potential for lawsuits,” Soderlund says.

A well-done handbook outlines not just regulations for employees, but also their benefits and protections, from how to request bereavement leave to what to do if they’ve faced workplace harassment. In that way, it offers “not just rules, but also protection to the employee,” says James Hornung Jr., president of Elbers Landscape Service in Buffalo, New York.

Having a professional, engaging handbook that clearly articulates employee benefits, including payment schedules, vacation leave and more can help distinguish your firm from competitors without one. In a tough job market, it can be an important key to luring and retaining skilled employees, Hornung says.

Deciding what to include.

You’ll want to work with experts from your human resources and legal teams when drafting your employee handbook to ensure it includes all the information your firm may be legally required to share. These are based on federal, state and local requirements for businesses of your size and in your location. While no federal guidelines require companies to have an employee handbook, employers may be obligated – depending on applicable statutes – to inform employees in writing about their rights regarding issues such as family medical leave, equal employment, non-discrimination policies, sexual harassment and worker’s compensation, for example.

When working with your team, there’s no need to build your employee handbook from scratch since templates are widely available. Hornung outsources his payroll and human resources management to an HR solutions compan, and therefore receives templates and assistance in crafting his firm’s handbook via their HR experts.

Drent has used templates and employee handbook builders available to members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Guidelines are also often available via industry trade associations, says Hornung, who is a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association and the New York State Nursery & Landscape Association, among others.

These templates can be helpful in providing a framework of information that you’ll likely want to include, including sections to address basics such as: definitions of employee types (full-time, part-time, and seasonal); attendance policies; work hours, daily breaks and overtime procedures; workplace safety; and an outline of employee benefits, including vacation, sick time, family-medical leave, jury duty and worker’s compensation.

In addition to these general categories, be sure to also include specific workplace policies of your firm, whatever those may be. DJ’s Landscape Management’s employee handbook has a section on its drug-free and smoke-free policies, which prohibit smoking on client properties or in company vehicles.

Similarly, Elbers includes specific guidelines about use of company cell phones and company vehicles, as well as proper uniform attire and social media usage, including a restriction on posting privileged business information online. “Often, when an employee steps out of line, it’s not malicious. It’s just due to lack of awareness,” Hornung says. “So, we try to offer the handbook during our onboarding process and then review it with our employees seasonally to help with that ongoing education process.”

“Often, when an employee steps out of line, it’s not malicious. It’s just due to lack of awareness.” James Hornung Jr., president, Elbers Landscape Service

Setting the right tone.

Begin your handbook with a welcome letter from your company owner or CEO to share “basics about the core value and mission of the organization,” Hornung says.

Having a mission statement at the front of the handbook is essential, Soderlund says. And while this might sound daunting at first, Soderlund makes the task approachable for her clients by asking them to explain why employees should want to work for them instead of their competitors down the street.

While it’s important to cover all the basics, you want the end product to be “as succinct as possible,” Drent says. “You want no more or less than what’s needed, so that your employees embrace the handbook as a resource.”

Soderlund agrees. “If you’re putting out a long, telephone-book-like document that people will not read or use, that really doesn’t help anyone. You want to make it something that people actually want to read and engage with,” she says.

But how do you make an employee handbook engaging?

Start with what you’re calling it, Soderlund says. “The term ‘employee handbook’ makes you think of a long, boring, hard-to-read set of instructions. Calling your employee handbook something else – like “Team guide” or “How things work at our company” – offers a fresh opportunity to tell your company story, what it is and why others should care,” she says.

Add in sections that highlight the culture of your workplace. Do you offer bonuses when employees receive their CLT or IPM certifications? “Talk about that,” Soderlund says. “Find ways to communicate how a job with your firm is more than just a paycheck.”

Develop a user-friendly document.

Update your employee handbook – or team guide – at least annually and consider making its unveiling a fun event for employees. Soderlund says a staff barbecue or morning coffee and bagel gathering could work.

At the event, add in short Q&A contests with simple prize drawings to see if employees have read and understand new changes to the document. “You could hand out $5 gift cards or new company swag to winners,” Soderlund says. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but it’s a way of conveying to your employees, ‘We care about you, and we want you to know this’ in a much more engaging way than having a manager simply say, ‘Read this.’”

At Elbers, new employees are introduced to their handbook in a face-to-face orientation with their manager or foreman, who reviews and draws attention to sections the firm deems most significant. “That gives you the opportunity to highlight the things that are really important with the new team member,” Drent says. “We feel like if we’re treating (the handbook) as a valuable resource and approaching it that way, then the employees are much more likely to treat it the same way.”

You’ll want to make professionally translated Spanish or other non-English versions of your handbook available to staff members for whom English is a second language, so that all employees are on the same page. Similarly, all staff members – whether full-time, part-time, or seasonal/H-2B – should be provided with a copy of the handbook upon hiring.

If you use H-2B employees, add a section covering your firm’s H-2B policy (ensuring that it mirrors U.S. Department of Labor policies), as well as specifics on timing of hiring and rights and benefits provided to temporary, non-agricultural workers, Soderlund says.

If you have additional, specific details to share solely with H-2B employees – such as information about access to housing or transportation – you could include those on a separate document, as Drent does.

And, while you’ll want to include some basic information on safety protocols in your employee handbook, you may want to provide more specific guidelines on workplace safety procedures in a separate, dedicated safety handbook, as Hornung does.

Finally, to help ensure that your handbook becomes a document that your employees actually read and use, give some thought and care to the presentation of the handbook itself. “If it’s presented in a very formal, dry way, it’s not going to be received,” Soderlund says. “Thanks to social media and the ways we communicate now, these documents can be created in a little bit more approachable way than they used to be.”

Guidelines surrounding human resources and employment policies can change from year to year – on both the state and federal level. To help your employee handbook stay in sync with these policy changes, consider subscribing to email alerts from the Department of Labor, your state-specific or industry-specific employment associations, and/or human resources associations like SHRM, Drent says.

“There will be some sifting involved, but it’s a good way to make sure you’re not missing those changes as they come,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.