53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips)
53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips)
An employee handbook might seem like a formality: a welcome guide for new staff and a document to store relevant company information. But, it’s much more than that.
What Should Be Included in an Employee Handbook?
Your handbook should include at least the following sections:
A strong employee handbook is the backbone of your company’s culture. It tells employees what you expect of them and what is forbidden. It communicates the company’s tone and philosophy through its rules and guidelines.
A common challenge many organizations face is that their employee handbook doesn’t resonate with employees and fails to communicate the critical messages that influence employee behavior. This article will help you fix that.
(Or, skip ahead and download the employee handbook template. It includes the 50+ sections recommended here and sample text to get you started.)
As you create your plan to draft or update your employee handbook contents, it’s important to remember that this is a living document, meaning that it needs to be updated regularly. With each new year, your employee handbook may require some updates, so part of your planning should include when these updates will happen.
Given the shift to more people becoming remote workers hot on the heels of a global pandemic, some employee handbook updates you may need to address include:
- Remote work
- Workplace safety
- Vaccine and masking policies
- Sick leave policies
Why Use an Employee Handbook?
The most important reason to develop an employee handbook is that it can be a legal shield.
For example, liability shifts when an employee confirms that they read the rules and understand them. Then, it’s easier for employers to defend themselves in things like wrongful termination lawsuits.
There is no one set roadmap for how to write an employee handbook, and it should be more than just a collection of company policies. Take a look at how these 11 amazing examples have used their handbook as an opportunity to get creative and build a sense of community.
Your employee handbook needs a preface. The purpose of this section is to introduce the document and touch on the basics.
- Welcome. Say hello to the employee and thank them for coming aboard.
- Introduction. Briefly introduce the company and the CEO. You'll get into the specifics later.
- Purpose. Explain the reasoning behind the handbook, why it exists, and why it has been distributed to them.
- Usefulness. Explain the practical use of the handbook. Let the employee know that it’s filled with relevant information that they should know now and in the future.
- Disclaimer. Include a handbook disclaimer stating that the document itself is not a binding job contract. This should protect the company from litigation.
Note: A disclaimer is the most important part of the entire document. Make it very clear that the handbook is neither a contract nor a promise of employment. This way, terminated employees are unable to pursue legal action for a “breach of contract.”
A simple disclaimer for your employee handbook might look like this:
“The purpose of this employee handbook is to provide employees with general information and guidelines. It is in no way a legal contract, and employment may be terminated or resigned from at any time.”
In this section, provide a brief overview of the organization.
It’s like an autobiography of the company: where it started, where it is currently, and where it’s heading in the future. You should be able to read this section aloud and say, “yes, this is [Company Name].”
- History. Tell the story from the beginning. Introduce where the company came from and how it has evolved.
- Values. Name your core values. These are the foundation upon which the rest of the company's culture is built. Your values express your beliefs and should influence employee behavior.
- Mission. Explain what the company does, who it serves, and why it exists. A mission will help employees feel a sense of purpose, direction, and duty.
- Vision. Where does the company hope to go and what does the future hold? This can be vague; it doesn’t need to be an exact roadmap or timeline.
- Goals. Emphasizing specific organizational goals shows employees how they'll be contributing to the future success of the company.
- Culture. This section is becoming more common and important. Reference things like your open-door policy (if you have one) or the org chart (are you hierarchical or do you have a flatter structure?).
Here is sample text describing company values:
“Here at [Company Name], we prioritize three things in our operations and culture: inclusiveness, collaboration, and communication. Thanks to these values, we have achieved the unachievable.”
The goal of this section is to set the employee up for a smooth ride from day one. Provide the information necessary for them to successfully adopt their role in the company.
- Forms. Distribute insurance documents, tax paperwork, emergency contact information, and benefits forms that new employees must complete.
- Dress Code. Some companies (such as law firms) prefer a strict dress code whereas others legally require one (such as construction companies).
- Parking. Explain the company’s parking situation. This section should explain if parking is:
- Onsite or offsite
- Free or paid
- Private to your building or public
- Available or waitlisted
- Open or assigned
- Identification. How does the employee prove their identity? Explain where and when to obtain a keycard, fob, or code used to enter the building (if applicable).
Here's an example of sample wording to explain a company’s parking situation:
“[Company Name] offers parking in the lots located at [address] for [$] per month. If you wish to obtain a spot, send an email to [name] indicating when you would like your parking to begin and your payment information.”
The purpose of this section is to inform new employees of policies in place for health, safety, and emergencies, and provide existing employees with a place to refer for information.
- Safety Procedures. Outline procedures in place to deal with health and safety issues. Where is the first aid kit? The fire extinguisher?
- Emergency Procedures. Answer any questions someone might have in the event of a fire, natural disaster, or violence in the workplace. These should include:
- Where should employees gather during an evacuation?
- Who is responsible for calling emergency services?
- Who should employees report an emergency to?
- What are the lockdown procedures for a person with a weapon?
- Additional Information. Direct employees to a place where they can find more details. Where are safety maps posted? Is there a more detailed guide online?
- Company Vehicle. How do employees report accidents that involve a company vehicle? Explain the standard procedure for reporting collisions.
In this section, explain your organization's basic employment policies such as work hours, employment classifications, and attendance policies.
- Define Classifications. List and define all applicable employment classifications (full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal, contractor, etc.).
- Explain Overtime. Overtime policies are likely regulated by your federal or state laws, so simply copy and paste the legal text.
- Work Hours. Answer questions such as:
- What is the typical company schedule?
- Do you offer flexible hours? If so, are there certain hours that employees must be available?
- Can staff work remotely? If so, how often?
- What are your emergency closings protocols?
- Daily Breaks. Set expectations for lunch and rest breaks, including how long breaks are intended to be and when they should be taken.
- Attendance Policy. What happens if an employee strays from standard hours? What’s the best practice if you come in late or leave early? Define absenteeism and its consequences.
We suggest you borrow this wording on overtime pay from the Department of Labor website:
“The federal overtime provisions are contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Unless exempt, employees covered by the Act must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek at a rate not less than time and one-half their regular rates of pay.”
Because employees often consider compensation and benefits to be the most important pieces of employment information, it’s best practice to dedicate an entire section to these topics.
- Pay. Outline your company's pay-grade structure, pay frequency, and distribution. Include information on:
- When employees are paid
- When a new employee should expect their first paycheck
- How employees receive their pay (e.g. direct deposit, checks, etc.)
- When raises and bonuses take effect
- Pay grade minimums/maximums
- Insurance Benefits. What do you offer? Hint: common benefits include dental, vision, disability, flexible spending, life insurance, and employee discounts.
- Retirement Plans. Explain what the employee can expect in terms of retirement plans, such as a 401(k) in the US or an RRSP in Canada.
- Bonuses. Do you offer merit or performance-based bonuses or incentives? Are holiday bonuses standard? What about profit-sharing?
- Additional Perks. Some companies offer additional perks to longer-term employees such as more paid time off or budget for annual training or education.
- Employee Resources. State if your company offers employee assistance programs, counseling services, advisory services, childcare, or other resources.
Try this sample text to discuss additional employee benefits:
“On their one-year anniversary with [Company Name], full-time employees will receive an allowance of $1,000 per year for work-related training or education. It is up to the employee’s direct supervisor to evaluate the relevancy and approve or deny requests.”
In this section, define and explain all types of leave available to employees, including federally and state-mandated leave laws.
- Holidays. Compile a list of the public, federal, state, and religious holidays observed by the company and explain how they affect pay or work hours.
- Vacation Time. Does your company offer paid vacation time? Explain how it accrues and how allotments are determined (i.e. by seniority? by pay grade?). Describe how to request or schedule vacation days.
- Sick Time. Does your company offer sick days? Explain how they accrue and whether or not they are paid. What is company policy regarding doctor notes?
- Personal Leave. Communicate your company policy for personal leaves of absence, including whether or not they’re paid and how they’re scheduled.
- Family Leave. Reference the Family and Medical Leave Act and legal requirements for time off. State if your company offers additional family leave.
- Funeral Leave. Does your company offer bereavement or “funeral” leave? Is it paid or not? What relationships does it cover (i.e. just immediate family, pets, friends)?
- Other. Reference other leave honored by company policy (stress days) or by law (jury duty, voting). Explain your policy for taking unpaid time off if other leave options have been exhausted.
In this section, communicate the company’s policies regarding performance. Proactively answer questions employees will have about performance reviews and assessment.
- Assessment. Communicate the company-wide key performance indicators of success such as diligence, attendance, or knowledge.
- Review. How often will staff have performance reviews (e.g. annually, biannually, quarterly)? What kind of review system should the employee expect? Who conducts the reviews?
- Grievances. Explain how employees can file a grievance specific to unfair or inaccurate performance assessments or reviews.
Use this text to get started:
“At [Company Name], we believe that quarterly reviews are rarely an accurate indicator of success. For this reason, managers conduct annual performance reviews for their employees.”
Here, outline expectations regarding the use of company property. Offer specific examples of appropriate and inappropriate use.
- Appropriate Use of Telephone. State the expectations the company has for telephone (landline and mobile) use in and out of the workplace. Answer questions such as:
- Can employees keep their personal cell phones with them?
- What can employees do on their company-issued cell phones (e.g. make personal calls, download apps, connect to public wifi)?
- With whom can employees share their work landline or mobile numbers?
- What are the time limits/acceptable reasons for personal calls during work hours?
- Appropriate Use of Company Equipment.
- How is equipment (such as laptops and tablets) obtained?
- How should the equipment be used?
- Where can it be used?
- What happens if it’s damaged?
- Can employees connect personal devices to company computers?
- Appropriate Use of the Internet. Outline the standard use of the internet in the workplace. Touch on things like banned websites, personal use, and monitoring practices.
- Appropriate Use of Email. Explain standards for email use in the workplace. Remember to clarify things like personal use and best practices for safety (not clicking on unknown links, encryption, etc. ).
- Appropriate Use of Company Vehicles. Communicate the basic rules for company vehicles including what to do if you get a ticket and how mileage reimbursement works.
Include something like this to prevent inappropriate use of company-issued mobile devices:
“Mobile devices issued by [Company Name] are intended to be used for business purposes only. The company reserves the right to monitor employee usage of the device and review mobile phone bills to confirm proper usage. This includes cellular phones and tablets.”
Don't forget about social media!
Include a social media policy to ensure no unsavory employee posts come back to haunt your company. Start writing yours with our free social media policy template.
Include any conduct- or behavior-related policies that exhibit how the company expects its employees (and therefore readers of this employee handbook) to behave.
- Conduct Policies. Include all relevant policies relating to employee conduct such as an anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, anti-theft, drug and alcohol use, conflicts of interest, code of ethics, fraternization, etc.
- Reporting. Explain standard company practice for reporting inappropriate conduct or behavior. Give a step-by-step guide on how to submit a complaint using your hotline or other reporting method.
When did you last update your code of conduct?
Use this free code of conduct template to make sure that your company's code checks all the boxes of a successful workplace policy.
Acknowledge that your organization has disciplinary procedures in place to combat misconduct (but without instilling unnecessary fear in the reader).
- Disciplinary Process. Specify what constitutes grounds for disciplinary action and the disciplinary process for each infraction or level of misconduct (i.e. step one: written warning, step two: suspension, step three: termination).
- Resignation. Explain the proper process for announcing resignation from the company. Do you require a written notice? How far in advance should it be given? Should it be given to the employee's manager, HR, or both?
- Exit Interviews. Do you always conduct exit interviews? When are they conducted, where, and by whom? What is the overarching goal of one?
Ensure your termination letters are consistent and compassionate.
To avoid wrongful termination lawsuits and protect employees' well-being, use our free termination letter template.
Keep a glossary of terms commonly used in the company to help new employees assimilate quickly.
- List of Jargon. Maintain a comprehensive, well-updated list of the words, acronyms, or abbreviations used to communicate in the office. This can include industry jargon as well as company-specific terms employees should know.
At the very end of your employee handbook, attach agreements or forms the recipient needs to sign.
- Acknowledgment of Receipt. By signing and submitting this form, the employee confirms that they agree follow the policies in this document and take responsibility for understanding them.
- Other Agreements. Include other agreements you want to obtain a signature for, such as non-disclosure or non-compete agreements.
One final tip: review the employee handbook with a legal professional before distributing it. Since a key purpose of this document is to protect the company from litigation, you’ll want to double or triple check it’s doing just that.
As you can see from the above list, your employee handbook should be comprehensive and detailed. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out these 11 amazing employee handbook examples. From there, download the free employee handbook template to get started drafting your employee handbook.
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