Nov 20, 2019

How to Create a Great Employee Handbook: Tips & Examples


“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Let’s face it – most employee handbooks aren’t exactly page-turners.

Often, they are long and dreary documents written entirely in dry legalese and designed to safeguard against potential workplace problems. Nothing like reading through pages of labor law guidelines and anti-discrimination notices to dampen your new hire's enthusiasm on their first day.

And many companies don't even have an employee handbook at all, leaving their new colleagues to fend for themselves and hunt for tribal knowledge on Slack.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What is an employee handbook?

Employee handbooks can go by different names, such as “staff handbook” or “employee manual”. Whatever you call them, they are documents designed to cover everything a new hire needs to know to get started at their new job and hit the ground running.

Why your company needs a handbook

The first thing to know is that there is no law requiring you to have an employee handbook. But here's why you should have one anyway:

  1. It allows you to share your company culture.

    It is designed to be the first document a new hire receives from you, so it's a perfect opportunity to introduce your company mission, core values, and unique culture to them, increasing employee engagement and loyalty.

  2. It creates transparency and communicates guidelines and expectations.

    An employee handbook is a great way to inform the new hire about your company policies and regulations – dress codes, PTO policies, sick days – not only helping them feel more equipped to handle their day-to-day work, but also protecting your company from many potential legal problems.

  3. It introduces new employees to your work environment.

    What do they do on their first day? How flexible are the working hours? How is their work going to be evaluated? Not clarifying these commonly asked questions will result in your employee feeling lost, tapping on the shoulders of the rest of your team.


Creating your own staff handbook

Rule #1: Don't use a generic template

A simple Google search for an “employee handbook template” returns thousands of results in the form of Word documents. If you are writing your handbook from scratch, it may be tempting to just download one of those. Don't.

Traditional staff handbooks – those lengthy, rigid Word docs, written by lawyers and filled with intimidating and unfriendly passages, never updated or read by anyone – are obsolete.

Crowdsource it

The best employee manual is not written by your legal department – it's written by the employees themselves. Valve CEO Gabe Newell puts it best:

“The culture at Valve is pretty much crowdsourced. The handbook is a wiki. One of the first things we say to new hires is, “You have to change something in the handbook.”

They say, “No, it’s sacred. It’s this text of received wisdom.”

Then the people who’ve been there for a long time all laugh hysterically and say, “Yeah, well, it’s your job to move it forward.”

Our own handbook at Nuclino is an ever-evolving collection of documents created collaboratively by the whole team using our own collaboration and knowledge sharing tool. Every team member is welcome – and, in fact, strongly encouraged – to update and extend its content.


And while there are upsides to printing the employee handbook – Valve, Shopify, and Zendesk are known for their impeccably designed, printed, and bound handbooks that any employee would be excited to receive as their welcome present – if you want it to continuously serve as a source of reference for your team, it needs to be searchable, and consistently up-to-date, which is not possible with a printed staff manual, no matter how shiny the cover is or how crisp the pages feel.


What to include

The employee handbook doesn't need to be a literal book – it doesn't even need to be a long document. As long as it gets the message across, it can be as short and succinct or as detailed and thorough as you want.


Here's what most employee handbooks include.

Company culture, mission, and values

If your new hire made it through the selection process, you likely expect them to already know your company mission and values – but remind them anyway. After all, it's the reason they will be getting out of bed and coming to your workplace every morning.

Policies & work dynamic

Try to explain your company policies and the reasons behind them. Communicate the unspoken rules as well – what are the implicit workflows and expectations? In most companies, answers to questions like that exist only in the form of tribal knowledge, leaving newcomers to sink or swim and taking it longer for them to get up to speed and become productive team members.


If you're investing in employee perks – and you should – include them in your handbook. And don’t bury them deep in the table of contents as if afraid they would exploit them – put them front and center and make the newcomers feel appreciated!

The legal stuff

An employee handbook is a good place to outline your employees' legal rights and obligations related to employment. Besides establishing full transparency, it also helps protect your business in the unlikely worst-case scenario – getting sued.

However, since this is primarily an employee-facing document, keep the language as conversational as you can, instead of the legal jargon native to contracts.

Our favorite employee handbook examples

While your employee handbook should be unique, writing one from scratch can be a daunting task. It helps to have examples to guide your way – here are some of the employee handbooks we love and continue to draw inspiration from:

  • Valve: When Valve's employee handbook got leaked in 2012 it immediately went viral – and for good reason! Few handbooks are as empathetic, informative, and full of personality. It strikes a perfect balance between being humorous and helpful, and will likely remain the holy grail of employee handbooks for years to come.

  • Basecamp: A few years ago, Basecamp made their employee handbook available to the public and when it comes to transparency, there is no better example. It’s both a useful resource for companies looking to write their own policies from scratch, and a genuinely interesting read.

  • Disqus: The Disqus example is not quite a handbook in the traditional sense, but rather a “culture book” which communicates their vision, values, and beliefs in a causal, playful way, filled with team photos, memes, and jokes that reinforce their brand identity.