August 17, 2022

How to create an employee handbook

Alexis Johnson
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How to create an employee handbookHow to create an employee handbook
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Editor's note: 

Alexis Johnson is director of operations for Ride Report and formerly worked as their engineering manager. The Ride Report Employee Guide came into being when Alexis joined the company in 2018 as the fourth employee. At the time, Alexis spent a lot of time speaking to a fellow female engineer. They discussed what type of company they’d want to work for and the environment they wanted to create. As female engineers, they had experienced discrimination at previous workplaces and asked themselves, “How can we make sure we feel included in the long term at a company founded by two white males in a male-dominated industry?” After sharing their concerns with Ride Report Co-founder William Henderson, they decided that a good place to start would be a handbook or employee guide. 

Define your company’s values and align on goals

Alexis notes that the most critical part of creating the handbook was defining the company’s values. In other words, answering this question: What is our shared goal?

All CEOs have a vision of what they want their company to accomplish. That implicit founder vision comes across in the product, sales pitches to candidates, company website, etc., but when Ride Report took the step to create an employee handbook where the employees were the primary stakeholders, they started with a company-wide survey that asked:

“Based on your experience working here, what do we believe and what are we trying to accomplish?”

Ride Report’s mission was implicit in the work they were doing. No one would be working at a six-person, Pre-Seed company without knowing why they were doing it, but making the mission explicit and putting a stake in the ground was really helpful and formed the foundation for the company’s employee handbook and organizational culture.

It’s unlikely that this will be 100% right the first time, so shaping company values will be an iterative process as the company scales and evolves over time.

The mission section from Ride Report’s Employee Guide

What should you include in an employee guide?

Here are some suggestions from Ride Report's ever-evolving employee guide:

Create clarity around your company’s hiring process

The second key piece was around clearly defining the company’s hiring process. That was the first thing Alexis and team added to the employee handbook. Defining the hiring process involved outlining not only how the process itself would work, but also the underlying hiring principles and an explicit agreement around the way they were going to evaluate candidates. This came from the desire to know as employees that what they had to say during the interview process would matter. They wanted clarity around whether their evaluations would be taken into consideration or if the CEO would just decide who to hire in the end regardless. As Alexis put it, it was important to them as employees to know how their contributions would be utilized or referenced, and to at least have an understanding of why decisions were made, even if they disagreed with it.

Once Ride Report had their stated mission and values and explicitly documented their hiring practices, they had a starting point to collaborate around. The handbook has since grown into what it is today, encompassing everything from the company’s “core questions” to its vacation policies and project management.

7 tips for creating an impactful employee handbook

  • Pick a tool that you won’t hate in five minutes
    Ride Report started with Github and landed on Notion. (Airtable or Glitch might also be good options for a custom solution.) As with any central organizational tool, write everything down in a version-controlled system.
  • Make your employee handbook accessible to everyone you work with
    Give people an opportunity to comment, and make the guide visible so that everyone can interact with it in some way.
  • Define a process around change management
    Ride Report keeps an external Notion and an internal Notion. You can draft something, share it, and then depending on what the change is, the heads of the department or managers can finalize and add. 
  • Make it fun!
    Topics can be light, like an open-door policy for dogs in the office. It gets people excited about collaborating.
  • Welcome edits from the whole team
    Documentation often goes stale. It’s key to empower people to feel like they can change and add to the guide.
  • Be clear about your company’s values
    This might be the most important aspect of creating a powerful employee guide. It means making your values and processes clear and explicit. Individuals can then decide how to engage with them.
  • Start small
    One of the biggest roadblocks to developing something like this is that it takes a lot of time drafting, gathering feedback, making revisions, etc. It can be daunting, so it’s important to start with one topic at a time. For example, most of the initial handbook at Ride Report was around engineering practices. Other ideas include a company style guide. Hiring is a big one for every company, even if it’s just a paragraph outlining what you care about.

Benefits of creating an employee handbook

  • Encourages an intentional approach to positive culture-building

    The Ride Report Employee Guide helps keep the team aligned and ensures that the culture they are forming is intentional. Whether it’s the way people are using Slack or the way they resolve disputes, the Ride Report team has the opportunity to ask, “Have we aligned on this company norm or is it just coincidental?” The employee guide gives anyone in the company the chance to gather information, synthesize it, and share the practice for comment and revision.

  • Doubles as a powerful recruiting tool

    Since Ride Report has chosen to make their employee guide open source and freely available to anyone on the internet, it’s often the first point of contact that people ever have with them. A popular interview question for them is asking candidates, “Talk about something in our Employee Guide that you value.” The rubric for evaluating the candidate is the degree to which they’ve given critical thought or specific examples for the way they do or don’t value a specific practice from the guide. Alexis reflects that having this rubric in place has been a huge leverage for hiring and recruiting candidates and makes their process much more efficient.
  • Helps employees feel safe

    Ride Report recently conducted their annual employee survey, and although there are differing opinions about how particular processes work, there is overwhelming sentiment across the company that the employee guide provides clarity and creates a safe work environment where they can be their most productive selves. Alexis has observed that the guide serves as a common resource that helps provide cohesion for the team. That means the team doesn’t lose a lot of speed on the day-to-day because they know how to work together.

That being said, there are limitations to having an employee guide. At Ride Report, they’ve made a point of communicating that the guide only delineates the current state of the world. In other words, it is not completely comprehensive and won’t ever cover 100% of everything they do all the time or be 100% correct. With the exception of when someone violates the company’s Code of Conduct, if an employee isn’t adhering to practices, there are no predetermined consequences. Instead, the team tries to find the underlying cause that causes that behavior: Is it a problem with the individual’s performance? Or is the policy too prescriptive? Or is it just wrong? Are we striving for something that isn’t possible? In this way, the guide is moreso a tool that the company can use as a jumping off point for larger conversations.

For those thinking of putting together their own employee handbook, Alexis relays a piece of startup wisdom that William shared with her in one of their first 1:1 meetings,

“As soon as you think it’s time to do something, you probably should have done it already.”

The common thread that comes up in articles about toxic company cultures is that it’s extremely hard to undo things that are woven into the fabric of your organization when they are small. Alexis notes that Ride Report has gone from four to 18 employees, and it’s evident already that company practices and culture are deeply embedded, for better or for worse. To undo them or redo them is almost impossible, which makes being intentional and transparent about building your company culture even more important in the earliest stage. 

As Alexis puts it, “It’s never too early to write down things that are meaningful to you. There’s no right one way to build a company, but you can do it in a way so that employees understand why and how you’re doing it, even if they disagree. Being honest and upfront about what you stand for will empower people who work with you and give them visibility into your choices. At the end of the day, the goal of our employee guide was to foster an environment that said, ‘Please make this a place you want to be and make changes if there are gaps that you see. It is in your hands.’”

Ride Report’s Employee Guide is publicly available and "open source," so that others can use it for inspiration or as the basis for their own guide. Check it out here.

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