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What to Include in Every Employee Handbook

5 April 2024

While your employees should have a good sense of your organisation’s values and mission statement, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce them. This is the fundamental value of an employee handbook: it ensures your members of staff are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and of what your company stands for. This should not only reduce the likelihood of a dispute, but also ensure that your HR practices are consistent, and foster a more harmonious and productive environment. 

While the creation of a formal staff handbook is not a legal requirement in the UK, it can be an effective way to keep all of these ideas and policies in one place. For new employees, it acts as both a warm welcome and a form of reassurance, giving them something they can refer back to at a later date.

But the question facing many HR specialists is this: what specifically should be included in a staff handbook? Do you need to mention a dress code if one is absent in your office, should you include specialist health and safety information or keep it more general, and how should you communicate your flexible working policy?

Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to start by defining the concept of a staff handbook. Doing so will provide a canvas onto which you can place your policies and procedures.

What is a staff handbook?

A staff handbook, interchangeably known as an employee handbook, is an internal document that outlines your organisation’s policies, procedures, rules and expectations. Often likened to an instruction manual or a road map, the handbook guides members of staff through their employment journey. It should be readily available to be referenced should the need arise – either by managers, employees, or your HR department.

A good employee handbook should offer value to all members of staff. As well as being used to introduce your company values to a new member of staff, a more senior employee might use it to find out whether they are entitled to paternity leave, and if so, for how long and at what rate of pay. This reflects both the breadth of questions an employee handbook should answer, and the detail it should provide.

Crucially, putting all of this in writing can also help to protect your interests. In the event that expectations are not met or entitlements are not forthcoming – and the handbook is tied to the employment contract – a staff handbook can be an effective tool to resolve disputes or settle grievances more easily.

What should be in an employee handbook in the UK?

The best staff handbooks are designed with the employee experience in mind, presenting information in a clear and accessible manner.  These handbooks cover essential topics like employment terms, health and safety procedures, grievance and disciplinary processes, equal opportunity policies, and data protection guidelines in straightforward language, ensuring full compliance with UK employment laws. 

Broken down, what information should be included in your staff handbook?

1. A welcome introduction

The first section of any staff handbook will set the tone for the entire employee experience. First impressions count, and an employee’s interpretation of your communication style, wording, and how you’ve prioritised the information will shape their opinion of your organisation from day one. 

A welcome introduction provides the opportunity to start on a positive footing. Try to highlight what makes your organisation special, its history, things that are important to you (e.g. a healthy work-life balance), and how staff can contribute to your future aspirations. Whereas subsequent pages might feel quite prescriptive, this is your opportunity to inject some personality into the handbook.

2. Disciplinary and grievance policies and procedures

According to Acas, it is estimated that workplace conflict costs the UK economy approximately £30 billion every year. While that figure can feel quite abstract, it helps to illustrate the damage that unresolved or poorly managed disciplinary and grievance issues can have on an organisation. This only underscores the need for consistent, accessible guidance for both employees and managers on both subjects, something your staff handbook can deliver.

Your organisation’s code of conduct might also fall under this umbrella. This will concern things like punctuality, attendance, communication and relationships, as well as an overview of the disciplinary process. It should also highlight the importance placed on conducting corporate investigations, the assurance of confidentiality (where appropriate), and the support that can be made available should an employee’s performance fall short of the mark.

Your grievance policies and procedures might define the different types of grievances – disputes with colleagues, concerns about working conditions, and claims of discrimination, for example – followed by instructions on how to submit a formal grievance confidentially, as well as some information on the resolution process.

3. Data protection policies

Formal policies on the handling and safeguarding of personal and sensitive information are not only good business practice, but also a legal requirement. Your data protection policies should outline how the organisation collects, processes, stores, and secures data in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other applicable laws. 

Employees should understand their responsibilities in maintaining data privacy, ensuring that the protection and confidentiality of customer and employee data is upheld. By clearly communicating these policies, you not only adhere to legal mandates, but also foster a sense of trust and transparency in your workforce, making data privacy a shared responsibility.

4. Health and safety information

The health, safety and wellbeing of your employees should be of paramount importance. Aside from your moral obligations, every employer has a legal responsibility to ensure they are providing a safe working environment for their employees, and communicating all relevant health and safety information effectively. 

This section of the staff handbook should encompass vital details about workplace hazards, safety protocols, and emergency procedures. By clearly articulating your commitment to safeguarding the wellbeing of your employees, you’ll reinforce the importance of a safety-first culture – ensuring that your workforce is well-prepared to respond to any potential hazards and emergencies.

If you have specific tasks that require specialist health and safety guidance – such as driving a forklift truck, or moving hazardous chemicals – you might choose to reference these in the staff handbook, but publish further guidance in a separate document. This will ensure that your handbook remains relevant to the work being carried out by the majority of your employees, whilst still communicating health and safety policies and procedures to all members of staff.

5. Flexible or remote working policy

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the world left the office behind, and is yet to fully return. One in five organisations now report that they include some form of working from home in their permanent business model. Every employee now also has a legal right to request some form of flexible working arrangement, such as remote work, amended hours, or compressed workweeks.

In light of this, your staff handbook should include a flexible or remote working policy that outlines the organisation’s stance on remote work. This will typically include the eligibility criteria, application procedures, and expectations for employees engaged in flexible arrangements. Doing so reinforces your commitment to adaptability and employee wellbeing, potentially reducing staff turnover.

6. Maternity and paternity policies

The birth or adoption of a child is one of the biggest milestones in an employee’s life, and it’s important that you support them throughout their journey. All members of staff are entitled to statutory maternity and paternity leave, both of which should be detailed in the handbook, with details including duration, rates of pay, eligibility criteria, the notification process, and the process for returning to work.

Taking these statutory entitlements one step further, you might choose to offer enhanced paternity or maternity leave, increasing the rates of pay or the leave durations. Doing so – and communicating it through your staff handbook – can demonstrate your commitment to a positive work-life balance and overall well-being, and reduce the stress people may have around the work implications of having children.

7. Equal Opportunities policies and procedures

Your workplace culture should be one that values diversity, and actively combats discrimination. Policies within this section should communicate the organisation’s commitment to treating all employees fairly and equitably, regardless of their race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics. 

In the event that discrimination, harassment or unequal treatment does occur, your staff handbook should provide a structured process for your employees to raise their concerns. It should also detail the subsequent steps that will be taken to address the issue.

8. Internet, email and social media policies

Your organisation occupies a world in which social media can be used as a marketing tool, a source of news, and a way to communicate. The World Wide Web is an infinite library of information, but it can also prove to be an unwelcome distraction. As such, it’s vital that your staff handbook clearly defines how work equipment, social media, and other digital tools should be used appropriately, both within work and outside of it.

Internet and email policies establish boundaries for safe and efficient use, mitigating the risk of data breaches and legal compliance issues. Social media policies meanwhile set expectations for representing the organisation online, safeguarding sensitive information, and maintaining a professional digital presence.

9. Eco-friendly initiatives

According to Forbes, approximately 83% of employees believe their employers are not doing enough to improve sustainability, and to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We are all aware of the importance of this subject, so it can be a refreshing change when new members of staff are greeted with a handbook that highlights your eco-friendly initiatives. You might, for example, set an ambitious target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2025, and include the steps you are taking to reach that goal in your handbook, such as implementing a cycle-to-work scheme or enhancing recycling efforts.

By including these initiatives in your staff handbook, you could help to inspire employees to become stewards of the environment, adopting the attitude of ecological improvement within their own lives. You’ll also demonstrate to employees that your green policies go beyond ticking regulatory boxes, and help to make a genuine and tangible difference to the world.

10. Whistleblowing policy

A whistleblowing policy is a critical component of any ethical and transparent organisation. It is the mechanism through which employees can safely and confidentially report any wrongdoing or unethical behaviour, whether it’s related to financial improprieties, safety violations, discrimination, or any other form of misconduct. Signposting steps that the employee should take if they wish to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the staff handbook can promote collective responsibility to always do the right thing, and to do it in a safe way.

11. Intellectual property rights

Where a role involves the creation of content such as code, soundtracks, images or text, it is necessary to distinguish who retains the intellectual property rights to that work. Often, work created by an organisation’s employees – especially during work hours – belongs to that organisation. Conversely, many employers choose to relinquish their rights to a piece of content if it does not directly relate to the core business, in the hopes of sparking innovation and creativity. Whichever route you choose to follow, it is a good idea to be clear as to the ownership of the work by setting out how intellectual property rights are dealt with within your contract of employment, leaving no doubts as to who owns what.

12. Your organisation’s attitude to artificial intelligence

In 2013, just $16 billion was invested in AI technology. Eight years later that figure jumped to $276 billion, and the figure continues to climb. It is an unignorable and inescapable fact that artificial intelligence plays an increasingly important role in the working world, automating many of our routine tasks, and even helping us to innovate more effectively. 

Due to the prevalence of AI, it might be a sensible idea to communicate your stance on the technology within your staff handbook. This should relate directly to the work undertaken by your staff. For example, are marketers allowed to use AI to plan their social media strategies? Should your customer service team use these tools to craft communications? Or should you have a zero-tolerance policy towards the use of artificial intelligence in a work capacity?

Including some guidance on the subject of artificial intelligence can ensure that you avoid disputes down the road – such as an employee who has achieved higher than expected sales due to their use of AI to automate much of their work.

A staff handbook is a foundational document that outlines your employee’s rights and responsibilities. It provides a first impression to those who are joining your company, and a handy HR reference guide to those who have been with you for a while. 

With a staff handbook in place, you’ll promote better teamwork and cohesion, whilst also avoiding disputes that could arise from unclear policy, helping to protect your business. In short, an employee handbook keeps everyone on the same page – ensuring that the story of your business has a happy ending.

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