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Opinion: Is your company handbook a missed opportunity?

Finding and keeping staff who are in tune with your organisation’s core values is no easy task, and this can be, in part, because your values aren’t clear enough, or because they aren’t reflected within your business’s day-to-day working practices.

Your company handbook can play a fundamental role in embedding organisational values in a team and instilling a strong sense of ‘this is who we are; this is what’s important to us’. But the handbook is often overlooked as a way to reinforce branding and cultural values. A great deal of effort can be spent on office interiors with pool tables and ‘chill out’ zones to prove an organisation’s commitment to being innovative or unique, but this can all be undermined if the handbook sounds archaic, legalistic and overly restrictive.

It’s time for employers to take a close look at their handbooks, and decide if the content is right for them, and if it will be used in the right way. Ultimately, if you are simply downloading generic templates, then you are not maximising the value from your handbook or policies and it is a missed opportunity. Lawyers write documents for legal matters and compliance, and HR needs to make the effort to work closely with them to bring the voice of their organisation and its people to life in policies and handbooks.

Employers are not punished in tribunals for not having policies for everything; what they are judged on is how they behave in the circumstances and the clarity of communication. The reason for having a policy is to have guidance for employees and consistencies in management behaviours that support the culture and direction of the company – not to just document something that will or won’t hold up in court.

Here are three steps to getting your organisation’s handbook right.

Ask: what’s the point?

This is the first question you need to ask yourself. Are you aiming to create a rulebook, or do you want the handbook to work as an employee’s guide to settling in and getting the best out of their time with the company?  Employers need to understand the purpose of their handbook to shape the document to fit those priorities.

If you are setting out rules, it is important that they are clear. However, policy clauses need not be completely rigid. Often, it is a good idea to leave some flexibility around a clause so that you have the freedom to apply discretion at a later date.

Where a part of the handbook is setting out aspirations and observations surrounding the culture of the organisation, the language should be fluid and relaxed in tone to make ‘easy reading’ for staff. This will make them more likely to remember what the policy says and conform to it at a later date.

Decide: what are the requirements?

A common trap is trying to use the handbook to cover every eventuality. Not only does this take all decision-making away from managers, it implies that there is no trust in managers’ ability to apply a policy in light of the circumstances. Remember, a policy is a best practice guide, but there will be times when it is reasonable to depart from the rules.

Think: how will it be used?

Employers need to think about what the handbook is going to be used for and who will use it:

  • If it is to help managers make good decisions then it should be practical in nature.
  • If it to set employees’ expectations, then above all it needs to be clear.
  • If it is about promoting a way of working, then it needs to speak in the right tone of voice.

Added: 29-07-2016
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