A Small Business Guide to Writing a Company Handbook
Read our guide on everything you need to create and what to include, in your company handbook
When your start-up or small business reaches a certain maturity, the level of staffing is appropriate, and a full HR department is still a pipe dream, in order to solidify the trust between employer and employee, and confirm what each expects of the other, it can be a good idea to create a (non-contractual) Company Handbook.
Though not legally obligatory – and in no way a replacement for the legally required contract of employment – this can prove useful in several ways.
Firstly, it helps consolidate and hone your business vision and goals. Secondly, it gives guidance and focus to new starters. If there is something that the company reasonably expects of an employee, it should be included in the handbook. Thirdly, it helps you get your head around (and formalise) the legal and moral responsibilities that go along with running a business. Finally, it helps embed the direction of the company within the entirety of the operation.
The handbook then becomes a symbolic document representing you and your business. When in doubt, you can turn to it – and so can your staff.
But what to include in it and where to start?
Though every individual business context is unique, this article suggests a useful overarching structure for contemporary small business leaders to consider.
Ethos, Mission Statement and Company Vision
Before anything there should be a personalised welcoming message for the reader explaining what this (the Handbook) is. Once this is out of the way, then comes the more meaty part – what is the defining mantra which underpins everything about your product, your branding, your internal culture and how you want your company to be known?
You may also decide to include a potted history of why the company was founded in the first place; who did what, how it has developed in the meantime, where you are now and where you intend to be in the future. What are the company’s tangible goals? What was the market gap you intended to fill in the first place? Is that still the case? Where do you go from here and what do you need from your staff in order to make this happen?
This opening section is where you lay the marker down and articulate a real statement of intent. Compress, collate and synthesise all of these things into a one or two sentence summation of what you are about.
Code of Conduct
Segueing nicely onto the next part which can map out a code of conduct for all employees. Codes of conduct gain increasing importance as the spheres in which your employees actively represent your company continue to multiply.
Consequently, you need to think about and explain how your company treats the different spheres (online and off) – making sure the consistency of approach is clear to see. You may well want to break this down; generally expected staff behaviour, internal office conduct, client contact, social media policy, best practice in terms of IT security in relation to firewalls, attracting attention from hackers and the adequate protection of passwords.
Working patterns can also be broached here. If your company operates any policies on flexi-time working (an increasingly popular facet of contemporary companies – especially those now Cloud-based), or a Working from Home option (again, an increasingly popular idea) then what is expected of your employees should be clearly and unambiguously relayed.
You may also want to clarify the company’s policy regarding smoking, alcohol and drugs here and decide whether you allow smokers the formal chance to have cigarette breaks during office hours (many companies now don’t).
Be aware that the ‘digital generation’ coming through have very little understanding of how a workplace operates. They haven’t necessarily had supermarket jobs or worked in a pub. They may well need it spelling out and the fact that it also applies to them.
Equality and Diversity
A vital element to any contemporary company handbook: an outlining of your company’s position with regard to equality and diversity in the workplace.
It is well worth the effort in taking your time to read and digest how the Equality and Human Rights Commission (set up in the wake of 2006’s Equality Act) expects and legally obliges companies to treat matters pertaining to gender, race, age, religious belief, sexual orientation. Your company handbook should be explicit in showing how it adheres to these guidelines and reiterate what it expects from its staff as a result.
NB: When considering a discrimination claim an Employment Tribunal looks for evidence of this policy as proof an employer is following an equal opportunities process; your company handbook can demonstrate this.
In the age of proliferated digital media, the amount of pathways for recruitment activities can be quite bewildering. In order that everyone within the company knows where they stand, the handbook should describe the established method: how and why posts generally arise, how posts are advertised internally and externally, an outline of the interview process, and what the company’s approach is with regard to using referrals from current staff.
There is a chance to describe here what qualities you look for in staff as well as showing your current staff and newcomers exactly what you value and why you value it.
Disciplinary, Grievance and Redundancy Procedures
Not the cheeriest section, granted, but it is essential. You should leave no room for ambiguity and should comply in full with the Acas code on grievance and disciplinary procedures and redundancy . Remember, failure to follow the Acas Code in a grievance or disciplinary matter could result in a 25% uplift on an Employment Tribunal’s compensation award.
Of course, the company policy on these areas will also be included in the Contract of Employment but it is a good idea to re-enforce those policies here too and leave no room for misunderstanding.
Whistleblowing is another topic a diligent small business leader may want to include in a handbook. Whistleblowing is when an employee reports suspected wrongdoing in the workplace, officially this is known as ‘making a disclosure in the public interest’. This may include environmental damage, endangering someone’s health and safety, covering up wrongdoing or criminality. The handbook should map out the formal process for those who believe they have grounds to make a case.
Staff Benefits, Sickness, Holidays, Training
Again, this section will also mirror part of the official contract of employment in relation to various employment particulars. This includes fairly a long list of elements such as sickness, holiday rights, working hours, company policies on maternity, paternity, adoption policies, parental leave, compassionate leave and time off for dependents.
Though there will be some duplication, it would be wise to include the full raft of information here too again for reinforcement reasons but also because it would be relevant to place it all in the same context as other staff benefits (statutory or not) like internal or external training offered, target-related bonus payments, team-building days, conferences or discretionary payments based on excellent performance (for example).
Environmental Policies + Health and Safety
Finally, contemporary businesses often have one eye on their environmental impact and how they manage that. Explaining your company’s environmental policy along with how it values an employee’s health and well-being is a sign that a company is a serious-minded, conscientious and professional one. This area should not be underestimated but many companies make the mistake of doing so.
Across the entirety of the document, you should make sure that there is an evident consistency of approach and of tone and communicate in very straight forward language. A nice balance between the formal and the friendly is advised. If you are concerned about any potential legal ramifications of what you have included, make sure you have it checked by a solicitor.
The Company Handbook can then become a living, breathing document which can be fed into on an ongoing basis, can be updated in line with current legislation as and when required and can be a keystone for your business as it moves forward.