Use your handbook to improve the employee experience

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Creating wonderful employee experience is essential to a successful talent strategy. And an employee handbook, though often seen as just a compliance obligation, can help. An employee handbook can play a key role in improving the employee experience by serving as a comprehensive guide for employees and setting the tone for the organization’s culture.

In this guide, we offer key recommendations to help you leverage your handbook to improve the employee experience.

Ask for employee input

Approaching employees for feedback on the entire handbook may be too big of an ask, so select specific policies that would benefit the most from employee input. Some policies are leadership or compliance driven and will not need employee input (e.g., confidentiality, discipline, overtime, etc.) but getting employees’ thoughts on other policies, like attendance, dress codes and holidays, could help the organization be more responsive to employee needs.

To help target specific policies, you can also reach out to employee resource groups (ERGs) and conduct voluntary anonymous employee surveys.

Promote the organization’s “why”

An organization’s “why” is its purpose. It’s what motivates an organization—and its employees—to continue to push forward to deliver value to its customers or service recipients. Successfully communicating the organization’s “why” in the employee handbook helps inspire employees by connecting their individual work to the greater purpose of the organization. This, in turn, enhances the employee experience.

To be effective, an organization’s “why,” which usually materializes as a purpose statement, can’t boil down to generic statements or platitudes like “bring as much value to our customers as possible,” or “continue to push the boundaries of innovation.” It has to speak specifically to what sets the organization apart.

In addition to adding your “why,” directly to the employee handbook, you can also use it to guide and frame other policies or statements. For example, your “why” can inform the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statement, or the environmental, social and governance (ESG) statement, both of which can also be included in the handbook alongside their respective policies.

Include human-centric policies

When reviewing your handbook, consider employee needs and values as people, not just employees. Then, find ways to fashion human-centric policies that align with those needs and values.

Doing this supports the employee experience by treating your employees as people first and employees second. It also communicates the entire value of what the employer has to offer, from pay and benefits to culture. This is particularly impactful for today’s workforce, which values work-life balance, career growth and recognition, and a work culture that embraces DEI.

To align with employee needs and values, consider human-centric policies that address the following:

Safe and inclusive culture

Policies that make it clear the organization seeks and supports a diverse and inclusive culture and will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind are vital. This includes the following policies:

  • DEI.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity.
  • Anti-Harassment and Anti-Bullying.
  • Open-Door.

Additionally, by having an open door for reporting concerns, management makes it clear it cares about employee issues and stands willing to help. When employees know they can communicate forthrightly and timely with management, organizations can quickly resolve issues that undermine safety and inclusion.

Health and wellness

Beyond basic health insurance benefits, there are several other types of wellness initiatives worth highlighting in the handbook. For instance:

  • Gym membership reimbursement.
  • Wellness app subscriptions.
  • Menopause support.
  • Financial counseling, including retirement counseling.
  • Weight loss support.
  • Chronic condition management.
  • Tobacco cessation.
  • Substance abuse therapy.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Your medical benefits plans may include some of these programs. However, if you don’t have a group health plan, or your plan doesn’t include these programs, you could address them in separate policies in the employee handbook.

Employees may be motivated to care for their physical and mental health if provided incentives such as lower insurance premiums or other rewards. Keep in mind that any policy considered a “wellness program” may be subject to federal laws that address employee privacy and nondiscrimination, such as the following, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and others.

There may also be state counterparts to the above laws that should be considered when drafting policies.

Time away from work

Another valuable benefit for employees that impact the employee experience is time away from work. Whether or not you already have paid leave of some kind, consider if there is room for additional types of leave and time off to support work-life balance and employee well-being beyond what you are legally required to provide.

Some policies that you might consider for the employee handbook include:

  • Personal leave.
  • Family medical leave.
  • Holidays.
  • Floating holidays.
  • Vacation.
  • Bereavement leave.
  • Sick leave.
  • Volunteer time off.

Employees feel more autonomous and valued when allowed some flexibility in their schedules to deal with emergencies or when they need a break.

Certain employers are subject to the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or similar state programs. But if your employees are not eligible for those, including some leave for family medical situations should be explored. In addition to supporting employees in different stages of their lives or through unforeseen family events, these policies improve employee wellness.

Personal leave policies might be paid or unpaid, but if drafting an unpaid policy, remember not to run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Providing non-paid flex hours for non-exempt employees must be monitored carefully so that any overtime is properly tracked and paid.

Salaried workers, even if provided non-paid flex time, generally must be paid their entire salary for any week in which work is done and may not be docked. As long as you construct clear boundaries in a written policy, you can lessen the chance for abuse or compliance problems.

Flexible work

If you’ve determined your employees want more flexibility regarding where or when they work, include a written policy for flexible work, or more specifically, hybrid or remote work, so that everyone follows the same rules. In addition to preventing potential discrimination claims, a policy helps build trust and promote flexible work practices that contribute to the overall success of the business.

Don’t forget to include these key provisions in a flexible work policy:

  • Eligibility. Make sure criteria is non-discriminatory.
  • Expectations. Set out core work hours, responsibilities and work location requirements.
  • Security. Communicate security protocols to safeguard company data, computer equipment and IT systems.
  • Reservation of Rights. Ensure there is no alteration of employment at-will status and that permission to work remotely can be revoked.
  • Compliance. Address tax implications, leave and accommodations.

Career development

When employees feel unappreciated, undervalued or limited in their career growth, it can damage the employee experience, manifesting in disengagement from work, low performance and increased turnover. It can also lead to physical illness and mental stress. To combat these negative outcomes, programs supporting career development, rewards and other recognition can be helpful and should be included in the handbook.

Even smaller organizations can benefit from formalizing career development and upskilling opportunities. Consider a policy that outlines when employees are eligible for development and promotion and how the process works.

Although leadership may be resistant, HR can serve employee and employer interests by advocating for paid development opportunities, such as:

  • Job-related certifications.
  • Tuition Reimbursement (including training schools).
  • Continuing education opportunities.

The most effective career development policy will provide transparency on how employees can access development programs, who qualifies, and the requirements. Employees who take advantage of these programs may feel more engaged at work, more content and less stressed as a result of employer investment in their career growth and development.

Use inclusive language in the handbook

An inclusive culture supports a great employee experience by helping employees feel welcome and safe to be themselves. One quick, yet very important way to do this is to ensure your handbook uses inclusive language.

The following are a few common language changes to support this effort:

Singular they

“They” is the most inclusive pronoun and should be used in place of “he or she” so that the handbook is gender neutral and speaks to a diverse audience. Readers that notice will see it as a reflection of the organization’s inclusiveness.

Family leave not maternity leave

When discussing leave, be mindful of gender issues. Describe leave for the birth, adoption or placement of a child as “family leave” rather than “maternity” or “paternity leave.” This language encompasses all kinds of families, not just heteronormative ones.

Birthing parent

Use “birthing parent” to describe a parent who is physically giving birth to a child instead of “mother.” For many lesbian families, both women will be mothers.

Describe the varying levels of benefits accordingly, too. Birthing parents will be eligible for short-term disability (STD) given the medical complications of giving birth, while non-birthing and adoptive parents will not be eligible for STD but can still take unpaid leave (or paid leave depending on the organization and the jurisdiction where the employee works).

Dress codes

In today’s world, there is almost no reason a policy should say “women must wear pantyhose” or “religious symbols should be avoided.” Dress codes continue to draw the ire of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as sources of gender and religious discrimination.

To avoid this, describe the dress code without any mention of gender or religion. Even where your main concern is safety, you can easily rephrase gendered language: “Women should remove dangly earrings prior to entering the manufacturing floor” can be changed to “Employees should remove dangly earrings prior to entering the manufacturing floor.”

People-first language

When discussing disabilities in the workplace, people-first language means putting the person first when referring to a “person with a disability” instead of saying someone is a “disabled person.” Ensuring employee handbook policies that discuss disabilities and workplace accommodations use people-first language helps reduce the stigma of discussing disabilities and sends a welcoming message to employees.

Prioritize the handbook reading experience

Finally, when using an employee handbook to improve the employee experience, the handbook itself is only as effective as it is easy to read and navigate. Consider the following practical recommendations to improve the handbook’s reading experience:

  • Use an easy-to-read font (and font size) that is listed as an accessible font for people with dyslexia. Also consider narrower margins to make each page less overwhelming.
  • Include navigational elements such as a table of contents with anchor links, distinct headers and “back to top” buttons.
  • Ensure the handbook can be accessed online. Carefully consider where you’d like the handbook to live so that it’s easy to find. This is particularly important if you have multiple handbooks for separate regions.
  • Always include contact information where appropriate.
  • To increase familiarity with the handbook, include a handbook orientation in employee onboarding and refer to it in regular communications where it might be helpful.