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How to Draft an Employee Manual

How to Draft an Employee Manual or Policy  Manual When it comes to drafting an employee manual and a policy manual, many of you may ask, “Do I really need either of these documents?” Even more, there’s often confusion about what the difference is between the two types of manuals.

How to Draft an Employee Manual or Policy  Manual

When it comes to drafting an employee manual and a policy manual, many of you may ask, “Do I really need either of these documents?” Even more, there’s often confusion about what the difference is between the two types of manuals.

While reading and understanding your organization’s mission statement is a good way for applicants and employees to learn what the organization is all about, it doesn’t go far enough. Employee and policy manuals add detail to that picture. Consider the employee manual and policy manual important tools for helping the people you hire become part of your employee team. By thinking about how you will lead employees through this training process will help you discover whether your organization needs both a policy manual and an employee manual.

The Different Focus of a Policy Manual vs. an Employee Manual

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When you review a policy manual, it often lacks the detail of an employee manual. For that reason, some people may find a policy manual vague or less informative than an employee manual. Really, this lack of detail in the policy manual is intentional and occurs because policy manuals are not meant to provide exact instructions.

A policy manual provides your employees with the broad principles that your organization follows. By contrast, a company employee manual provides implementation parameters for company policies, a basic orientation to your organization, and how to process work there. This day-to-day, step-by-step instruction requires a much greater level of detail.

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Your company’s parameters and processes explained in the employee manual may be fairly standard across the field in which you work, or they may be unique to each organization in the field. Often, there is a mix of both standard and specific employee policies – such as how employee performance reviews are done and how often, or your company’s safety standards that go beyond normal industry standard.

Sometimes that mix of industry-wide and specific qualities is what gives your organization its identity. This identity is helpful to define because it can help in recruitment and retention of employees. It can help your company be known as “the” place to work or to do business.

So … Should You Draft an Employee Manual or Policy Manual?

Sometimes, people may intend to draft an employee manual and a policy manual both, but partway through writing they realize their two manuals differ very little. Instead of providing unique information the two documents may convey very similar information. By nature, the two manuals should supplement each other. In cases where the two types of manuals are so similar, they can be folded together.

For example, your organization may be small enough that all the policy-level information may be adequately covered in the employee manual, and it is not necessary to have a separate policy manual. Generally, larger workforces experience a wider variation in implementation of employee policies and employee manuals are often a must to address a wide range of implementation techniques.

Some companies may be so large and diversified in their operations, and spread through so many locations, that each division may need their own sections in the company manual. Or the division could write one that addresses its unique operations and reprint the portions from the other manuals that apply to them as well. An example may be the pension program that is the same throughout the whole company and covered in a manual addressing the unique needs of the European or Asian operations in a company.

The goal in creating each of these manuals is getting information to your employees that they need to become part of a productive team. Both manuals are means to achieve that goal, and there is no need to be redundant.

I’m going to make a stretch here to describe this relationship further. A policy manual has essentially the same relationship to an employee manual as state law has to administrative regulations. One provides the principle and the other provides the implementation guidelines.

Why You May or May Not Need Both Manuals

Policy statements are a little murky sometimes, which can cause different interpretations depending on the type of organization at which they are implemented. So, simply providing the policy statement to employees without the translation provided by the employee manual, you run the risk that employees will not understand what the organization wants from them.

The following is a list of possible scenarios within an organization that can help you determine if you need both types of manuals or if you can combine them into one. For instance:

  • A group of employees familiar with language of laws or with bureaucracy may understand what they are to do when they see a policy and a “translation” in the next paragraph.

This group may not need two manuals. You may just give the employee policy in the paragraph above the implementation and they will understand. They read policy language all the time and are familiar with it. Reading it will not turn them away before they get to the translation.

  • A group of employees who are not as experienced in reading “legalese” or “bureaucratese” may not even pay attention after the first couple of words of the policy and may simply put down the manual and intend to “wing it” in case they ever need to know what was in it. Trouble!

An employee with this frustrated attitude can later cause a major issue. For instance, if the employee had read the first paragraph fully, he or she would have known the company will not tolerate any employee altering or modifying equipment in any way. The implementation part in second paragraph, which could also go into the employee manual, would have told him or her they will be dismissed immediately if seen modifying equipment. The second paragraph would have probably gone on to say that operating modified equipment may be unsafe and lead to injury. This is the part of the paragraph that might keep them out of the hospital.

Know your employees. When making the choice of splitting information between a policy manual and employee manual or combining the information into one manual, consider the likely effects of your decision on the employees. Weigh the pros and cons of getting some information to your employees but not all the information. In other words, it might be best not to ask your employees to read the policy behind something, and to instead stress the implementation steps in the employee manual.

Sample of an Employee Manual Entry

As a parting point, I thought it might be helpful to include a sample of an employee manual entry.
A good way to learn how to draft an employee manual can be to work from a sample document. For my example, I will use a Washington state law which states that there can be no smoking in public buildings or within several feet of doorways or air intakes leading into the building. An organization may simply put the actual text from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) in the policy manual. This copy would perhaps be confusing to your average reader and have a lot of legal jargon.

In the employee manual, though, the organization could try simpler language to convey the law to its employees. This language could state, “Employee cannot smoke in the building, or within 25 feet of doorways or air intakes.” That’s a very direct, short and easily understood statement. In general, I prefer to use this kind of straightforward wording when I draft employee manuals so there is a better chance employees will read them and know what they mean.

Best wishes deciding which manual is best for your organization. Feel free to write me with your questions.


Joe Gross
HR and Policy Solutions, PLLC

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Catherine Kendall
Catherine Kendall

This article would be better titled “How to Decide Whether to Create a Policy Manual, an Employee Manual, or Both”.

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