Remember, for the sake of efficiency, seek attorney feedback on your policies early in the process. This will help you prioritize your work, starting with the most critical policy changes so you can initiate the feedback process while you work on more minor tweaks.
When you write a new policy or procedure, follow this general template:
- Identify the key information the policy or procedure must convey.
- Consider why the policy or procedure was established.
- Customize the content from steps 1 and 2 so that it is well-organized and reflects your brand.
- Review the text, looking for ways to make it friendlier to your audience (i.e. why does the policy or procedure improve the workplace?).
By communicating the value behind a policy, you empower employees to understand the need for the policy and its ultimate benefit. Cynthia Gore did this when she communicated her company’s work-from-home policy.
Having an up-to-date handbook can serve as a valuable defense in a lawsuit. It’s really important to have written a policy and that it’s clear what that policy is.
How to Write a Policy
Now, that you’re ready to jump in with both feet (or both pens), here are some tips to keep in mind when writing policies:
- Be specific and provide all necessary details for the policy.
- If you’re writing a policy that's required by law, do your employees a favor and translate the legalese into conversational language.
- Determine if there are any exceptions, limitations, or restrictions that need coverage. If so, list those after the policy.
- Avoid ambiguous language. If a policy is prohibitive, then avoid verbs like “may” or “should.” These words imply that the employee has a choice in following the policy. At best, your employees will probably skim the policies, so be as clear and concise as possible.
- Read your content backwards or out loud and look for words that can be deleted. Brevity improves clarity.
- Use simple sentences in standard structure (subject + verb).
While writing your policy, you may inadvertently drift back into legalese. Flag these sections for revision for a more conversational tone that reflects your brand. For ease of understanding, it’s best to write at a sixth-grade level; Microsoft Word has tools for determining readability.
Your Policy’s Audience
It’s important to understand your audience for each policy because employees will wonder whether it applies to them and under what circumstances.
Some policies differ per audience, such as:
- Information for employees in different states
- Information for employees in different departments or teams
- Information for different title types
Make the differentiation clear across these types. You can also look for policy management software that makes it easy to personalize policy content to individuals and groups (like Blissbook!)
Case Study: Distributing Handbooks
Chanin needed to build and distribute handbooks to several hundred employees spread out across four different locations.
By using Blissbook, she can publish the handbook, and only employees in New York can see what’s applicable to New York. This reduces the amount of information any one employee has to review, and it also ensures that everything they read pertains to them.
SVP / HR Manager at Merrick Bank
The Policy’s Introduction
Once you’ve ironed out the policy details, you may want to add an introduction. Give employees a brief summary of what the policy is about, why it exists, and why they should care. Be as conversational as you can, writing in the same language you would use in a one-on-one conversation.
Why didn’t we talk about the introduction first? For many, writing a summary can be challenging because of the amount of information there is to convey. If you are struggling to summarize your points and stay true to your company brand, write the policy before you write the intro. If you write the intro after digging into the policy, you’ll have a better idea of how to briefly articulate what it is and why it matters.
You’re serving dual purposes of making sure you’re in compliance with the law and giving employees a roadmap of the relationship.
Employees want an easy reference to related policies, which is another benefit of an electronic format. By linking to related policies within the context of a particular point, you make it easy for employees to find information themselves, reducing the number of questions you’re likely to receive.
How to Write a Procedure
When writing procedures, keep the same conversational tone. If you can help employees understand a procedure visually, use an infographic, flowchart, or other image. Not only can this add flair to your policies, but visual elements can be helpful for comprehension and memory.
For the parts that need to be straight-up text, keep in mind:
- If an employee will use a procedure to follow a policy, write it in the order it should be executed, when applicable.
- If a procedure can be followed in any order, use design elements or alphabetical order to make it easier to find specific actions at a later date.
- Include necessary forms, guides, or other resources employees will need to follow the procedure. If you’re distributing your policies digitally, it should be easy to link to any of these documents stored in the cloud.
Once your procedures are written, take another look to remove excess text. Can something be replaced with an image or an infographic? You can always flag content and ask your designer for suggestions later. The more visually engaging your handbook is, the more likely it is that employees will read and remember it.
Things to Remember
An employee’s job is not guaranteed by simply following your company’s basic rules and regulations. Your standards should be higher and, because of that, your collective policies and/or employee handbook are not a contract. This is especially important in at-will employment states.
At some point in your handbook, you should say this plainly. Don’t lead with this, though, because it can throw off the feel-good vibes created when you start with engaging culture content like your mission, vision, and values. Feel free to title the disclaimer in a non-threatening way (such as “about this handbook”) at the end.
Something like this will suffice*:
This handbook is designed to familiarize you with our company and provide you with information about our brand, policies, guidelines, and programs, all of which affect your life here at Acme Incorporated. Please keep in mind that it is not intended to be 100% comprehensive, and it is not meant to address every application of, or exception to, the general policies and procedures described. If you have any questions about any topic covered within, please contact your manager or the people department.
This handbook is not a contract for employment, express or implied, and it does not guarantee any fixed terms and conditions of your employment. Your employment is at-will, and you or we are free to end the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause and without prior notice.
Last, the policies, procedures, and benefits described within may be altered or discontinued from time to time. Although we will try to communicate changes with you when they occur, a policy may be changed or eliminated without notice.
*Consult with your legal counsel, we are not lawyers and this is not legal advice.
Content Not to Include
Since your employee handbook should not be confused with a contract, you’ll want to keep some content separate from your handbook. Don’t include any policy or content that could unintentionally turn your handbook into something a judge or jury could confuse for a contract.
You also want to exclude any content that’s usually customized on a per-employee basis.
- Non-compete or confidentiality agreements
- NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements)
- Trade secret, inventions, or IP agreements
You want to make sure that you’re not creating a contract for employment with your handbook, especially if you’re in an at-will employment state.