How to Modernize Your Outdated Employee Handbook

How to Modernize Your Outdated Employee Handbook

When they’re created thoughtfully, employee handbooks can be useful tools for your employees not just when they’re new to your company, but over the course of their careers, too. But employee handbooks aren’t known to be riveting reading. This week, we spoke with Lacey Partipilo, Xenium’s Senior Human Relations Business Partner, on building the most accurate, helpful handbooks for your organization. Listen in to hear us discuss federal policies you can’t leave out, engaging your team with creative handbooks, and creating supplementary materials, like Xenium’s Benefits at a Glance sheet, to break down the onslaught of information.


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 Run Time: 27:14

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Brandon Laws: Well, Lacey, good to have you back. Lacey Partipilo, should I say.

Lacey Partipilo: Yes.

Brandon: Yeah. So I’m not going to go back and change all the old episodes where it says Lacey Halpern. But today’s guest, for the listeners, Lacey, just recently got married. Partipilo is her new last name. So when you see it in the show notes—Partipilo—it’s the good ol’ Lacey that we’ve had on the show. Before we started recording, we were talking about how too much time has gone by since Lacey has come on the podcast. You started with number one, recently came on the hundredth. You’ve been on like 20 episodes.

Lacey: Yeah.

Brandon: But we’ve had like 12 episodes go by before we’ve had you back. So we thought, hey, let’s talk about employee handbooks again.

Lacey: Take it back to number one.

Brandon: We actually started with number one together. I will never go back and listen to that one. You were great. I can’t listen to myself.

Lacey: No, I won’t be listening to myself either.

Brandon: I love it. But there’s so much with the employee handbooks, they’ve changed so much. I think the use of them has changed quite a bit. In today’s modern world, how are employers using employee handbooks? I imagine it’s different.

Lacey: I think some of the foundational pieces are still there. You know, setting expectations for employees, using it to onboard new employees and get them enculturated into the company values and things like that. A lot of that is still the same. We’ve seen some changes in terms of content, length of handbooks, the language being more progressive, really trying to have a focus more on culture and norms versus just policies and procedures. So some of those have shifted over the last few years.

Brandon: If you’re consulting people who are listening right now – because that’s what you do, you consult with employers – how do you want them to leverage an employee handbook? What would you say?

Lacey: The very first thing that I would encourage employers to think about is, “Are we going to use this?” because I think especially in that first podcast that we did – and I think I even wrote an article at some point about handbooks – the focus was so much on compliance and it’s just a good idea to have a handbook. But really shifting that thinking – and I certainly have over the last decade – that it’s a tool that can be incredibly useful. So just to have that focus be at the forefront, I think, is important.

Brandon: Well, there’s like this weird balance, right? You just mentioned the progressive thing and I think that nowadays, people want to be introduced to the culture and I think the employee handbook is a natural way to do that, right? In addition to the onboarding process. But there’s also the necessary evils of the compliance, right?

Lacey: Right.

Brandon: You have to get somebody to sign – I’m not an HR person. So I’m not even going to begin to guess what’s in that handbook. But to your point, people will kind of set it and forget about it.

Lacey: Yeah.

Brandon: They’ll sign it. They’ll shove it in their drawer, and they will forget about it. Part of it, I think, is because of the length. It’s too long. If you have a physical version, it’s hard to search for things. There’s maybe a table of contents that you can look at. But it’s just too much time. You would rather have something that’s shorter, and speaks to the culture. But like what do you do about those necessary evils? Do you have two separates things? Do you have …

Lacey: I’ve seen both.

Brandon: Really?

Lacey: I have a client that does a separate culture book and then has the compliance book. I have a lot of clients that are keeping these online or in some type of internal intranet.

Brandon: Searchable format?

Lacey: Yeah, intranet. You can access it more readily. You’re not digging through your drawers, wondering where it is. So I think that can be helpful. But yeah, there are policies and things that need to be included. For example, statements that the employment is at-will if you’re an Oregon or a Washington employer, details about medical leave. I’ve also seen a shift to putting summaries in as policies.

So for example, if you’re an employer that’s got employees in a few different states, maybe you’d have just a couple paragraphs about medical leaves of absence that are available to employees and then – because it doesn’t happen very often; we don’t have employees taking medical leave all the time – maybe we would have a supplemental document that’s included, that has got more procedural information to answer – What do I do if I have a need for a leave of absence?

Brandon: That’s a good idea.

Lacey: Who do I contact? What are the necessary forms? So there’s some type of toolkit that goes along with it that’s separate, so that we don’t have five pages of all of the regulations around FMLA.

Brandon: Yeah. Are you seeing this? Or are you just recommending this?

Lacey: I’m seeing it and I have recommended it. So I don’t think that it’s realistic to expect an employee to know the handbook front to back.

Brandon: No way. Yeah.

Lacey: They need it to be accessible. It needs to be a document where they can find the information that they need so that they’re not constantly asking the HR person or going to the manager.

And the culture piece I think for me and for most of my clients is the most important. So what do employees need to know about what it’s like to work here? Some of that can be introduced through lots of different mediums. We have clients that have culture videos. Xenium has a culture video. But using the handbook as a way to do that is a nice touch.

Brandon: Yeah, a nice supplemental tool.

Let’s talk about the accessibility. I think it’s a really good point and I think with the development of Google, for example, content is accessible, information is accessible. That’s why people use Google. It’s because it has got such good search benefits.

How do we make handbooks in the same way? If you kind of make a parallel to like the search world, how do you get handbooks to be more accessible? Because they’re 50, 60, 100 pages. I’m not going to read through it. I’m not going to memorize it. How do you make it so that I can understand what my benefits are, what to do when I want to take PTO, what the laws say about me taking leave? How do you make that stuff layman’s terms for an employee who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time reading about it?

Lacey: Yeah. So the first thing is I would have an electronic version, especially if you have employees that have access to a computer at work, right? I can do a find option in the document, search for what I need.

I think there’s the ability to – and I’m not a tech person at all – but to set it up so that the document has a table of contents where you can click through, which would take you right to the section that you’re interested in.

Brandon: And you’re talking about like a PDF version.

Lacey: Yes, a PDF version.

Brandon: You can absolutely bookmark the sections.

Lacey: Right. So that would be a nice way to make it so that people aren’t spending a whole lot of time reading through pages that aren’t necessary.

Another thing I would think about is having an employee handbook that has the information that applies to everyone, and then if there are pieces that don’t apply to certain people, take it out and have it be something that’s separate. I’ve got clients that have an employee handbook and a manager handbook, maybe because some benefits are different and the way that PTO is administered is different. Give me the information that applies to me. So I will read it. I can access it and I don’t have to go through and figure out, “Is this policy applicable to my position or not?”

So separating that information out can be really helpful. It isn’t a best practice to have a bunch of separate policies where documents get changed or lost or forgotten during the onboarding process. I’m certainly not suggesting that we have one handbook and 50 other separate policies. But something that employees can go to; they know it’s for them; it applies to them and it’s easily accessible. And somewhere online is helpful.

Brandon: I think a lot about how content is nowadays. Like think of a blog, for example. It’s got categories; it’s got tags and it’s easy to just search for what you’re looking for.

In addition to the paper version of the handbook, what if employers kind of took a page from some of the tech geeks out there. They would say, OK, let’s get this thing electronically and let’s make it a user experience to where we can start tagging and categorizing individual policies or philosophies, or whatever it is. So that way, when you’re looking at PTO, maybe it’s tagged or categorized as compensation or time off or whatever.

Then throughout the handbook, you’re tagging it as such. In that way, you’re lumping things together and like you mentioned, applies to everybody or applies to executives or applies to whatever. You can tag that as well. Then that way, now you’re spending less time looking for what actually applies to you.

Lacey: I think that’s great. I also think there are ways that you can design the handbook, so that you are pulling out – similar to when you’re reading a magazine article or a blog, where there are bubbles almost that come out of the content and there’s a summary, a couple of sentences that kind of highlights – what are we talking about when we say PTO? What are the most important pieces?

Then having forms and ancillary documents that are needed that go with the policy. For example, a PTO request form, a PTO repayment form. If you are an organization that allows employees to borrow against unearned time, they can click that in the online version of the document that takes them then to the supplemental document, that’s also housed on your intranet.

I certainly don’t know how to set that up. But I have clients that do it, and you want to make it easy. If you want people to follow your policies and do the procedures, fill the forms out, or even links to take them to an internal HRIS system.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So if it’s an online PTO request, let’s link it to that. So I know exactly where to go.

Brandon: What’s interesting about the discussion that we’re having is, I’m going to make an assumption that a lot of HR people who are listening are having similar problems. They’re thinking – everything is moving towards web-based; people want accessibility; but we have this tech problem. It’s not only a marketing problem because we want to inspire the culture and make it creative. I won’t talk about that.

But the accessibility problem is something that a lot of HR people, unless they have a tech background, can’t really solve on their own. They need help from IT or some sort of engineer, someone to get it on the web. Where do they go from here? Because we’re a bunch of HR consultants. We’re not a software engineering firm. We have these problems too, but we’re talking it out. Do you think other people are having the same problem?

Lacey: Oh, yeah. I think that similarly to how we have recommended that HR professionals partner with marketing when it comes to culture and onboarding and recruiting, HR should partner with internal information systems folks and the IT department, to help streamline and make these departments more lean. How can we make the information accessible and also make the process easy and simple?

There are online solutions for some of this. I’ve got a client that’s implementing a new HRIS system that’s going to house policies and procedures. Some of it’s for document control – too many policies out there floating around and nobody knows what the most current version is – but also for accessibility. You’ve got 40 remote locations for this – for this one client in particular. Employees that don’t have company email; they don’t have access to a computer – what we are going to do? Let’s put tablets in every single location that have access to this new program, so employees have the policies right at their fingertips. And we’re saving paper with a push to be more sustainable and green. I think employers are looking at those kinds of options too.

Brandon: Yes, especially when you have remote workers across the country, or international, or whatever. You’re not going to print them and mail them. That’s just irresponsible, in my opinion.

Lacey: Right. I think sometimes we assume that some of the more blue collar type positions in those kinds of industries, those employees aren’t willing to access things electronically or they’re not capable of doing that. I think that’s an inaccurate assumption. I think really those employees are people that are on Facebook; they’re using personal email at home for the most part. So if it’s a technology issue, why not supply them with the technology they need? I’m not suggesting computers for all production workers in a facility.

Brandon: Just access the employee handbook –

Lacey: Exactly. Put a tablet or one workstation that’s accessible, so they’ve got access to the information that they need and maybe not the things that would be inappropriate for them to get into.

Brandon: It’s interesting because right now – you would know this better than I would – employers are still asking to redevelop their handbook. People still inquire for us to develop a handbook for them. This isn’t going away. The employee handbook is still intact in the way it is. But it needs to evolve. I think we all agree with that. Maybe some employers –I’ve seen where they have an employee handbook that’s 60 years old and they’re just trying to get it up to today’s standard. Where does this go?

Lacey: I think it will always be here and I think employers are just shifting – like I said – the way that they’re teeing up that language, so that it reads more employee-friendly. It’s understandable. The language is progressive. Maybe it’s got some humor in there, just to lighten it up a bit.

Brandon: It needs to sound like the company though. If it doesn’t sound like you – like if you’re a blue collar organization – manufacturing, for example – yet it sounds like a marketing agency and it’s creative – that doesn’t fit.

Lacey: It might not fit, right. So having that voice really be the voice of the company, having those cultural pieces in there, is important. Then using it as a tool to help hold folks accountable, manage performance. Without a policy, it’s difficult for HR practitioners and managers to enforce the rules. So being able to go back to what’s in that policy from a risk management perspective and from a growth perspective.

If we want employees performing better, we need to give them the boundaries and the parameters that they can have the ability to do good work and know what their limitations are.

Brandon: We had – and actually you made the introduction – but we had Jenny Berkedal on the podcast a few weeks back, a few episodes ago. We talked about just hiring for culture and what do you do about that. She mentioned – just kind of subtly snuck it in there – but she was talking about the employee handbook, and the “Toad Lore” is what they call it. I actually had several people reach out to me saying, “What did she say?” I just want to rephrase it for a lot of people who are listening. The Toad Lore is basically their version of the employee handbook. It’s very design-y, very culture-driven. But it’s Metal Toad. It’s them, right?

Lacey: It’s a cultural book that talks about norms and lingo and what it means to be a toad. They have a handbook though.

Brandon: There’s a separate one.

Lacey: It’s a separate book that we supported in creating with them and it’s more of those procedural things, some of that compliance-related information that’s necessary, the necessary evils maybe. It’s a good way to put it. So they have both and I do think we could maybe even link to Toad Lore because –

Brandon: I’m going to. In the last podcast, in the show notes, I linked to – I want to say there’s a LinkedIn Pulse article that Tim Winter put on LinkedIn and several people said they referenced it in either talks that they’re doing or in a blog post. They just found it super interesting and they shared it.

Lacey: It’s really well-done and it’s something that each new employee gets. It’s actually something where they’re a tech company, so most things are electronic, right? They’ve got an HRIS system. They do onboarding. But with this, they actually get a physical book. This leather-bound, beautiful book, and it was designed by their internal graphic designers and it’s a real work of art and they’re very proud of it and they should be.

I have other clients that haven’t gotten to that place yet, but they talk about it. I think that’s sort of the wave of the future.

Brandon: I think so too. It’s one of the most current things I’ve ever seen and I think employers are talking about it. We’re talking about how employers should go that direction. But it’s hard, right? They’re a tech firm. They have engineers. They have creative people. They have the resources to do it. How do the regular employers even start doing something like that – because that’s on the other end of the spectrum, right? You have something that’s paper-based and policy-driven on one end and you have Toad Lore on the other end of the spectrum. Where do employers even go?

Lacey: I think too, as a small business who’s outsourcing their HR, we don’t have the internal expertise either. They had worked with design firms to –

Brandon: Yeah, a really expensive handbook though.

Lacey: It might be. If you think about it, you spend money to make money and attracting and retaining talent is incredibly expensive. So, I think you just work backwards and decide, “Does it work for our organization?” I have some clients where it wouldn’t work. I don’t think it would be the right fit. It doesn’t send the right message and I think it would feel false and inauthentic.

But it might work for a company who thinks, “Hey, this could be a good fit for us.” Or maybe it’s something different. Maybe it’s a culture video. Maybe it’s just a unique way to get those norms and things communicated to employees through a buddy system, or mentorship programs.

There’s a million ways where you could do it. Figuring out what that budget is and finding an SME I think is where you would start.

Brandon: Any other employers that you’ve worked with who have done anything remotely creative as that, as Toad Lore?

Lacey: I have a lot of clients that have gotten really creative with the design on their handbook and included images and –

Brandon: Those are must-haves honestly.

Lacey: Absolutely.

Brandon: If you want it to look and sound like your culture, you obviously need images of your culture.

Lacey: Right. And branded things in terms of font, colors, that type of stuff. But I don’t have any other clients that have a book like Toad Lore. Metal Toad is, I think, at the forefront of some of that.

Brandon: Yeah. Like when we do employee handbooks for employers – we obviously have our clients that use us on an ongoing basis for HR – but some people just come out of nowhere and say, “Hey, I want to develop my employee handbook.” And we’ve got the base policies, but we work with them on the philosophical stuff, the culture pieces, and then we always customize based on their look and feel, for example fonts and colors and images. We always customize that because it is important, to your point. And if you have a limited budget on what you can spend on an employee handbook, that’s the least we could do to make it feel like them versus just a canned template.

Lacey: You want it to be a usable document, something that people want to reference.

Brandon: That’s the missing piece. Most employee handbooks are not something you want to reference.

Lacey: Right. It’s much easier to just shoot an email to your manager and ask the question. But if it’s a document that – hey, I think I actually even remember the picture that’s on that page – it’s something that an employer can do to set themselves apart and I do think eventually it won’t be unique anymore. But the handbooks that we mostly see from new clients coming in are often template boilerplate language in Times New Roman, and there’s no design element to it. And I think our clients have been pretty impressed and excited to be able to roll out something that feels more like them.

Brandon: Times New Roman isn’t creative? What? Come on.

Lacey: Not so much.

Brandon: We, at Xenium, had – we had our own little set of – it wasn’t a problem necessarily, but we had a hard time communicating what our perks and benefits were. A lot of times you had to go through the handbook to do that. And I think a year or so ago, we had been using a long version of – we called it “benefits at a glance” – and it was about 10 pages of language that had benefits and perks information.

Lacey: And it was very specific to the benefits. So it was a document that – it was time-consuming every year to update because it talks about deductibles on health insurance, and that can change year over year. So it wasn’t – it was too specific, I think.

Brandon: Too specific. And we already have the employee handbook. So it was basically just repeating it. So anyway, long story short, I got involved. Suzi Alligood, who’s super creative and is in tune with our culture and all that, and then Kathleen Lowe, who is our recruiting manager. We all kind of put our heads together and said, how do we communicate to our current employees? Because they’re not looking at the handbook. It’s a physical format.

Let’s create a supplement that’s even shorter, so like more of a flyer for example that can live electronically or just a one-page that you can give to people. We called it “benefits at a glance” and it’s icon-driven and it would just kind of show you what your perks are, really quickly at a glance.

Like oh, I get spot bonuses or I get peer recognition or I get a day off a year for community service. You know, those quick things that you would have to dig through an entire employee handbook to find. Now it’s on one page.

Lacey: Yeah. I have a lot of clients that have shifted to something like that. Some that have done a more lengthy version, but a lot of them have said – one page. I want to be able to print it and hand it to somebody after an interview or even …

Lacey: … so they can come prepared to ask – What do you mean community service? What do you mean spot bonus? and I think it has been really helpful.

The cool thing about ours is that the design and look of it matches our marketing materials.

Brandon: Everything.

Lacey: So we talk about that all the time that the way you market to your employees should mirror the same image. You’re the same company to the marketplace as you are to your employees.

Brandon: Otherwise it feels disjointed and that’s where the employer brand really comes into play and why the employee handbook is the lowest-hanging fruit for pairing those things together. Like, OK, what do we look like to the market? What do we look like to our internal employees? Those should feel exactly the same and that’s why as a marketer, I get really fired up about that because it should really feel the same.

Lacey: Yeah. And if employers aren’t doing that, that’s a good place to kind of look – how do we show up to our customers and to our employees?

Brandon: I’ve got to ask you this. I don’t want to, but I’m going to, because it’s the necessary evils of a handbook. Policies have to be in there. What are the newest federal compliance-related things that absolutely have to be in a handbook? Because I know people are listening and they want to know. Where do I go to get these policies, template language? What needs to be in there? What can I keep out? You know, those sorts of things.

Lacey: Right. Some of the things that I would – as you’re listening to this podcast, make kind of a list of some things to double check. If you’re an Oregon employer, making sure that your PTO or sick leave policies are compliant with Oregon sick leave. It’s not –

Brandon: Yes. Those have changed quite a bit.

Lacey: Yeah, it’s not brand new. But it’s definitely something to pay attention to. Washington sick leave law will be effective next year. So making sure if you’re a Washington employer, same thing. Paying attention to policies that limit employee’s rights to talk about protected concerted activities. So making sure that your policies don’t say that employees can’t talk about their wages or working conditions. That’s part of their section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Those are some of the things that come to mind first. We’ve definitely made a lot of revisions to our handbook over the last few years. So we definitely tell our clients to look at it at least once a year, if not more frequently than that, especially if you’re a growing organization.

Because employee thresholds change. So if you get to 25 employees, that might mean something, depending on the state you’re in. And then 50, and so on and so forth.

Brandon: What’s the best way for somebody to make sure it’s up-to-date on compliance?

Lacey: Working with an HR professional that stays abreast of compliance-related topics is important. If you don’t have an HR person internally, reaching out to a provider like Xenium. Some of our companies might work with an employment attorney to keep things up-to-date. So I think an affordable option is just to pay attention, stay on alerts from legal firms, because they tend to keep employers, and companies like us, up-to-date on changes.

Brandon: What about employers? Because we have listeners who are all across the nation and even international. For those who are multi-location, maybe international, where do they begin on the compliance side of things?

Lacey: Yeah. It’s very challenging to stay on top of things – especially if you’re an employer in many different states. We have the ability to support clients like that. I have several clients who have employees in 10+ states. So we work with legal partners who are well-versed in those states to make sure that our addendums – that’s typically how we would set it up – you have one handbook that applies to everyone, and then a separate addendum for each state. That’s a nice way to kind of separate it out.

Brandon: Well, to end with predicting in 10 years where the employee handbook goes – and you touched on it a little bit – I’ve got my own thoughts. But I want to hear, in 10 years, what do you think will be the state of the employee handbook?

Lacey: Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t know that I would have predicted 10 years ago that we would be putting pictures in handbooks. So –

Brandon: No way.

Lacey: Maybe what I would say is that I think the medium that we use for handbooks may change. It would be interesting to see if we do more video descriptions of policies and that type of thing. It might be more interactive. I think that’s probably where we’re headed. It will be really interesting to see that change.

Brandon: I think you’re spot on – just because I’m on the tech side of things in marketing. Accessibility is huge, and the barrier to entry for technology is next to nothing now. It’s cheap. There are a lot of tools out there. It’s cool. Multimedia is easy, right? Video is still pretty hard because there’s some production value, and it takes time, and you need equipment and what not. But I think you’re spot on. I think whatever platform we’re using is obviously going to be searchable. You know, you’ll probably have policies and segments of your handbook all published in more of a table of contents fashion, but also globally searchable, right?

So you could probably see the whole thing laid out in outline format. But then you could also go to a global search function at the top and type in whatever the heck you want and you will find it really fast.

To your point about multimedia, video, audio, text – that will have to be in there.

Lacey: Yeah. I think it may even be something where employers look to use it. Less – here’s the handbook, read it and abide by it. But more – have the experience, be interactive.

Brandon: Great point.

Lacey: It may show up more like some type of training module where employees get to interactively go through and learn about the company versus just read about it.

Brandon: Exactly. They’re involved in the process. They feel a part of the family, all those things. I think you’re totally right. And I think if employers are listening and saying, “Well, here’s how we use our employee handbook. Why would I even need to go this route?” Well, because it’s a very competitive world out there for talent, and if you want to keep your employees and have them be part of the family, to not go this route if other employers are doing it –

Lacey: You’re going to be left behind.

Brandon: You’re going to be left behind. I mean it’s kind of silly because it’s an employee handbook and there are many areas of the business that you need to work on. You know, development and compensation. There are so many things, right? Employee handbook is one small component, but a big one.

Lacey: It is, absolutely.

Brandon: Lacey Partipilo, awesome to have you on the podcast.

Lacey: Yeah, thanks again.

Brandon: Great to have you back.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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