What Makes A Good Employee Handbook

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For years, Nordstroms provided the following to its new employees on a 5×8 inch card:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

That was it. Their entire employee handbook.

Today, they do supplement this with a booklet of rules and regulations, but the above remains their over-riding principal.

According to the HR Consultants and Employment Attorneys who make a small fortunes from creating employee handbooks, Nordstroms should have fallen apart years ago, the company flooded with lawsuits from disgruntled employees.

But to the contrary, Nordstrom’s employees highly rate their job satisfaction, and the company is renowned for its service. Why? Because it has a simple message that is easily communicated to its employees and to which everyone adheres.

So, should we dump our handbooks in favor of some single page golden rule? Not quite. As Nordstrom’s has learned, some written policies are necessary. Still, a handbook should not simply be a collections of policies. Below are some steps for creating the ideal handbook:

Make it Fun
Take a look at Disney’s old handbook: The Ropes at Disney’s . Yeah, it’s sexist, but you can’t say that it isn’t entertaining. Sure, we don’t all have world-class illustrators and writers at our disposal, but still, playing with the language and the layout, and having a style that reflects your organization will help your message stick with your employees.

Make It Clear
Below is a passage from a sample handbook put out by the Society for Human Resources:

Under this policy, harassment is verbal, written or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his/her race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, marital status, citizenship, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law or that of his/her relatives, friends or associates, and that a) has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment; b) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or c) otherwise adversely affects an individual’s employment opportunities.

That’s all one sentence, no doubt drafted by lawyers or taken directly from the legal discription of harassment. A handbook should not be a legal document, written to protect the organization from employee law suits, but a guide created to provide employees with useful information. Employees would be much more likely to get the point of the above sentence if it simply said: Don’t be an asshole. Maybe that’s extreme, but at least this passage could be rewritten in simpler language with bullet points instead of as one sentence.

Begin with a One Page Statement
As I’ve said, employees don’t read the handbooks, but they might read a single page. Instead of starting the handbook with a bunch of disclaimers, start with a simple list or statement describing what your organization expects from its employees, and what your organization will provide them in return. If you can’t put your company’s values on a 5×8 card like Nordstrom’s did, you probably don’t know what your expectations are.

Provide Flexibility
I was on the phone with a manager the other day who said one of his employees asked for the following day off. He said okay, but that he would consider the absence unscheduled because it was given less than 24 hours before the time. The employee responded with saying that rule isn’t in the handbook.

No, it’s not. We provide managers with the flexibility to make their own rules regarding how they run their departments from day to day, so long as they are within legal compliance and are making decisions for sound business reasons. In this case, the manager has this rule because his department relies on its employees to be in the office and on time to serve customers. In other departments, this may not make a difference. Avoid hard and fast rules. Make it clear that situations and circumstances may change.

In the end, keep in mind that while a handbook may be a reflection of your organization, it is still just words on paper. How people are treated on a day to day basis is what matters.


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