4imprint, LLC

| Updated: May 19, 2021

How to reflect your culture in your company handbook

For most organizations, the company handbook says very little about culture. In fact, these handbooks go on the defensive, providing a list of rules to ensure employees act, dress and speak appropriately. That’s not to say rules and codes of conduct are not important. But, a company handbook can and should go beyond that.

Nathan Christensen, CEO of the human resources consulting company HRAnswerLink, Inc., argues that the handbook should be written so that employees want to read it, not just be forced to read it.[19] “The handbook is, after all, often the first document a new hire receives, sometimes the only document all employees are required to read and acknowledge, and a document that gets reviewed, revised, and recirculated every year,” he says. “Seize the opportunity.”

So, throw out the handbook template, and create a guide that is completely your company’s own. Christensen has five tips to get you started:

  • Don’t call it a handbook. Employees will equate a boring title with information not worth reading. The title doesn’t have to be overly creative. Christensen suggests “Team Guide” or “Our How-To Book” as better options.
  • State your mission and values on the first page. This not only engages your employees, but will help you structure the rest of the handbook around the mission and values.
  • Personalize your policies—explain your reasons for having each of the policies and do it in the voice of your company.
  • Give a shout-out to your perks, and do it early in the document. Tell employees what to expect and how you will invest in them.
  • Be creative in its presentation. Don’t just send a PDF copy by email. Make it attractive, and find ways to ensure people read it (maybe with a fun quiz).

Consider a culture handbook

An even more creative way to communicate your company culture is to develop a handbook on just that—your culture. Culture handbooks may be incorporated into or stand alongside a traditional handbook. And, when done right, they not only serve as an essential source of information for employees, they can serve as a recruitment tool.

Andy Parker, co-founder of London’s Zealify, a company that helps others attract talent, describes the ultimate culture handbook in this way:[20]

  • It’s a guide to a company’s DNA.
  • It tells everything about how a company behaves.
  • It’s for more than just internal use—it’s also a recruiting tool.
  • It creates unity among staff members.

Some companies point back to their culture handbooks as one of the defining reasons for success. Parker uses Buffer®, a social media sharing app, as one of those examples.[21] Surf around Buffer’s website, and you’ll see total transparency about the company’s work life, from its lack of hierarchies and formal managers to how it calculates salaries (including posting actual salaries of all staff members). This formula appears to work—Buffer received 2,886 job applications in one month alone during 2013.

If you are considering a culture handbook, several companies have made theirs available online:

EF Education®: Fast Company® magazine posted EF Education’s culture handbook on its website and held it up as an example of one “you’ll actually want to read.”[22] The company, which provides guided world tours, used its core competency—education—as a hook, creating a culture handbook that reads like a children’s story.

HubSpot®: The inbound marketing company decided to share its culture handbook online because, like Buffer, the company values transparency.[23] The company calls its 128-page slide deck part culture handbook and “part manifesto.” The slides—short on copy and long on poignancy—explain company values and expected employee actions without discussing policies and procedures (of which it has very few, if any). The slide deck has been popular, to say the least. It’s logged more than 1.3 million views so far.

Disqus®: The blog comment-hosting service separated its official, legal handbook from its culture handbook. NASDAQ® lists the culture handbook as one worthy of noting and, in a recent article, includes a link to a PDF version (PDF).[24] Besides company information and values, the handbook is heavy on action photos of employees at work and at play. One of the final slides welcomes new employees and invites others to apply.

Zappos®: The online shoe retailer is most often hailed as a company that gets cultural fit right. It’s famous for offering brand-new recruits a monetary bonus to leave, believing that those employees who take the offer weren’t committed to the company in the first place.[25] They would rather pay the “fee” early than pay recruitment costs later. Zappos also makes its culture handbook available for online viewing or download. Like EF Education, its handbook reads like a story book, but its design is reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland.” Its 297 pages primarily are filled with employee photos and insights about what the culture means to them.

What can you take from these examples? It may be that the time it takes to create a well-designed, storybook-like handbook isn’t worth the effort if you own or manage a small firm that recruits new talent sporadically. But, if you are trying to recruit top talent and believe your company has a culture worth working within, let these and other examples inspire you. Don’t be bashful about what makes your company great. Allow team members to speak on your behalf and get your new culture handbook out to the masses. Your recruitment budget will be glad you did!

Follow through with onboarding

Just as your handbook should be more than a litany of do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs, your onboarding should be more than just an orientation session (or worse, yet, no session at all). New employees are fragile—their decision to remain with your company for the long haul is made within the first six months.[26] In a survey of new hires who had quit within the first six months, about one-third said they had very little or no onboarding, and 15 percent said that lack of onboarding contributed to their desire to leave the company.[27]

This time of uncertainty for new hires is no time for dull, boring orientation sessions full of compliance issues. The focus, instead, should be on reaffirming employees’ decisions to take the job.[28] Treat onboarding more as a team-building exercise, and employees will be more likely to feel like they made the right decision. In addition to team-building, Megan M. Biro, who writes about HR issues, suggests making the session personal.[29] Get to know employees beyond what you learned in the interview. Finally, new employees were attracted to your company for a reason. If you portray your culture in your recruitment materials, let that culture show through in your onboarding process.

Most experts also agree that once and done is not a good onboarding strategy. The Society for Human Resource Management® (SHRM) says onboarding starts before the employee’s first day and continues through the first year:[30]

  • Before they begin: Engage and inform new employees. Fun notes, welcome messages and photos help introduce managers and teammates. Have them complete paperwork in advance, and send your handbook, department information and job responsibilities to review. Make sure the employee’s desk, phone, computer and passwords are ready.
  • Day one: The two goals for the day should be setting expectations and fostering social interaction. Employees should leave that day knowing their job and their co-workers.
  • Month one: Consider having a buddy system or mentor who the employee can tap with questions. Manage on-the-job training so that it’s a balance between being productive without being overwhelmed. Managers and HR should do a one-month check-in to ensure the employee is happy and engaged.
  • Months three to six: This is the point where many companies abandon onboarding, yet it’s also the time 90 percent of employees are deciding whether to stay with the company. Continue to check in to show you care.
  • Year one: By now, employees should have a solid grasp on their job and daily tasks. This is the time to show them what their future looks like as onboarding morphs into continuous development.

Companies that successfully onboard new team members show great returns:[31]

  • 66 percent claim a higher rate of employees understanding the company culture.
  • 62 percent say productivity increased.
  • 54 percent report higher employee engagement.

As you can see, your company culture is closely intertwined with lower recruitment costs and higher employee productivity and engagement. No matter your industry, the opportunity is ripe for creatively telling your story to capture the attention of the best employees and keep them.


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