Four Pitfalls to Avoid for a Relatable Employee Handbook

New employees are psyched to have landed a job. They come into the company with energy and expectations. Does your employee handbook keep the vibe alive? Or does it rip the plug out of the wall with rules, legal speak, and do’s and don’ts? We’re not saying you need a fun, illustrated handbook, but you do need one that’s welcoming and readable…and doesn’t sound like a suspicious neighbor wagging a finger at you.

Whether it’s being sent to a new hire or refreshed for an existing employee, the employee handbook is often HR’s biggest “customer-facing” communication. It should shine as an example of the department’s friendly voice and willingness to help (and yes, also your knowledge and authority).

Below are some pitfalls to avoid as you’re creating or refreshing your handbook. Our downloadable “Team Member Handbook” is a great guide to help ensure you put forward a positive, welcoming voice to employees.

Pitfall #1: An Immediate Disconnect

So many employee handbooks start with a full-page letter from the CEO, someone most employees will rarely, if ever, chat with. What if it started with insights and tips from other employees? Or an upbeat introduction to company culture? If the CEO wants some real estate, maybe it’s not a full page, but rather a quick “welcome to the team.”

Pitfall #2: Too Formal and Hard to Read

The handbook is not a policy, so it should not read like one. If you have semicolons or Roman numerals in the text, chances are the language isn’t understandable for all education levels. The average reading level among employees is eighth grade.

Avoid unnecessarily complicated words like “thus, utilize, and which.” Instead, use “so, use, and that” — words you would speak in a conversation. Sentences are more easily understood when they’re short and in plain language. The same goes for paragraphs — keep it to a max of four short sentences.

If it’s been a while since you’ve updated your employee handbook, there’s a lot of new information to include since the events of 2020.

Pitfall #3: Overwhelmingly Long and Dense

If you’re reading a user manual for your new television, would you opt for a 100-page comprehensive booklet or 25-page “highlights” document? A handbook can’t contain everything an employee might ever need to know. But it can highlight the most important information and point employees in the right direction for more details.

In general, compliance documents aren’t known for clever design and witty language. But they can be readable…and, most importantly, helpful to employees. Read how.

A page that’s crammed with single-spaced text is hard on the eyes. It’s fatiguing to read. Use bold sub headers to break up content and add space to the page. Where possible, incorporate bullets instead of lists in a paragraph. Really need to emphasize a point? Put it in a callout box.

Pitfall #4: A Bit Bossy

Search your handbook for the word “must” and see how many times it appears. If it’s more than three or four, it’s too much. Try for softer approaches like, “we expect” or “you should.” Apply that same guidance for the word “don’t.”

A handbook shouldn’t read like the company almost expects rule breaking and bad behavior. And an employee shouldn’t feel like HR is wagging a suspicious finger from the handbook’s pages. Strive to communicate expectations that sound reasonable and make HR seem approachable.