Staff handbook or employee handbook: what is it and why is it important?
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What is a staff handbook?

A staff handbook, also known as an employee handbook or employee manual, is a collection of documents and policies outlining everything employees need to know about working at that company.

As a small business owner, you’re required by law to have some employment policies in place such as disciplinary and grievance procedures.  It’s also a really good idea to have other policies in place, dealing with things like sickness absence or what maternity leave and pay you’ll provide.  This way, you can make clear to all your staff the detail of how you will deal with particular situations and what you will expect from them. Having them all in one handbook gives your employees and your managers easy access to the detail, and gives you peace of mind.

We recommend that you go further with your staff handbook, including detail about company values and strategy and perhaps also any benefits you offer all staff, which can help you to embed your own company culture.

Our HR expert, Kirsty explains why they’re so important to get right:

“Staff handbooks can seem dull. However, it can lead to all sorts of confusion and uncertainty if you don’t have one in place, that can end up being time consuming and costly. They help all staff understand what is expected of them, from the big things like data protection to the smaller things like whether they can use their mobile phone at work.  And it helps you, as an employer, point to a clear explanation of your expectations.

“They are also likely to be lengthy, but you shouldn’t expect your team to read everything in one go – they never will!  You can use the handbook to sort your employment policies into different categories and can use onboarding and training sessions to explain how to find your way round the handbook and direct some specific reading.”


Why is it important?

Here are just some of the reasons we think it’s really important to have a good staff handbook.

‘One stop shop’ approach

Putting the effort in early to create a good staff handbook is really worth it, not just for you, but for your staff and your managers too.  You will then be able to relax in the knowledge that you’ve created good systems and processes that are legally compliant and will help your business run smoothly.

Getting your staff to read and understand what’s in the handbook will also help you to make sure that they know what is expected of them in different situations, and gives you a clear explanation to show them when they don’t get things right.

A good staff handbook also lets you direct your managers on how to deal with situations they may face, and helps make sure you are consistent in your approach.

If your industry is regulated you can also deal with any additional specific requirements here.

Free up time for your business.

We know how difficult it is to have to take time out of busy work days to deal with queries about whether an employee is entitled to parental leave to deal with a childcare issue, for example, or whether someone can carry over annual leave into a new holiday year.  If you have policies in place that explain these and other staff entitlements, then employees can take a look themselves, and you and your managers can be clear about what the company policy is.  This makes it easy to treat everyone fairly and consistently as well as reducing the time needed to deal with these sorts of queries.

Comply with employment law.

Having a comprehensive set of employment policies gives you a solid foundation for complying with employment law. There are some that you are required to have by law, such as a Disciplinary Procedure and a Health and Safety Policy (if you have 5 or more staff).  There are a number more that we would recommend you put in place to help explain your approach to issues as varied as how to deal with bullying and harassment, or what rules you want staff to follow when talking about work on social media.

Your staff handbook also allows you to respond to changing circumstances.  You may not have considered asking staff to work from home regularly until the coronavirus pandemic hit, but many employers are now seeing hybrid working as a new norm.  A hybrid working policy is an ideal way to set out clearly and fairly what you want all your team to do (and in some cases what you need them not to do) as a minimum in your company, and to make sure you’ve considered all the employment law angles of flexible and remote working. For example many companies found it important to establish a minimum clothing standard for their people joining video calls from home to avoid awkward situations!

Increase your protection if things go wrong.

Having good employment policies in place is important to help you to avoid any potential problems escalating. But it is also crucial to make sure your people know that you have each policy, know where to find it, and ideally that you train them about the contents.  That way they hopefully won’t need to guess how you want them to behave on social media, for instance.

If you do end up in the unfortunate situation of an employee bringing a claim against you (for example, for unfair dismissal or discrimination), it will be a central plank of any defence to such a claim if you can show that you have a clear written policy in place which covers the issue in dispute and which was followed in that instance.

Give relevant detail and set the tone.  

Having policies in your staff handbook which are tailored to your needs is important.  While there may be standard elements to some policies based on employment law and best practice, we always recommend taking into account any differences there may be for your particular industry sector or size.  You may have professional guidance or even regulation from an industry sector umbrella body to take into account too, which you may need to include in your staff handbook.

Your handbook also gives you the chance to include and promote elements like your company values and strategy, which can be updated as your business grows and develops. There is strong evidence that many people want to work for an organisation with a purpose that they feel strongly about, as well as one which is committed to behaving ethically.  Including your vision and values in your staff handbook is a great way to let new hires and all your people remind themselves about your purpose, and is a clear sign of your commitment to it. This will encourage potential new hires to join you and get them excited to start. A vibrant company culture will boost morale, productivity, and performance in your employees.

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What should be included in a staff handbook?

Every company is different, and it’s important that your employee handbook reflects who you are and how you want to treat your staff.  Are you offering enhanced maternity pay, for instance, or are you wanting to keep to the statutory maternity pay rate?  Are you happy for staff to work from home for all or part of their working time, and, if so, what are the conditions the employee will need to meet to make that work?

We’ve put together a checklist of the 5 key elements we recommend including:

1. An introduction and welcome statement

The introduction to a handbook can be used to provide information about your business, its management and structure. This might include:

  • when the business was established,
  • the nature of your business,
  • how many staff you employ and the location of your sites or office,
  • details of the management structure and reporting lines within your organisation (a flowchart is a good way to set this out).

Using good HR software will help you set this information out clearly, and keep it up to date.


2. Your Company Values and Strategy

As we’ve outlined above, we also suggest including details at the start of your staff handbook of any vision statement you have for your organisation, as well as any core values you want employees to have front of mind when they are working for you.  This will help promote and develop your company culture and will hopefully mean that staff will have these elements in mind as context when reading the more detailed policies in the handbook.


3. Employment Policies

This is the main section of the handbook. Each business will have a different requirement of which policies are right for them, but these are some of the most commonly used policies:


  • Disciplinary and grievance procedures. By law you must give employees details of these procedures in writing to staff, so having a written policy is usually the best way to do this.  We also recommend having separate policies dealing with more detail on how you will deal with bullying and harassment, smoking and drugs and alcohol use at work.


  • Health and safety policies and what should happen in the case of injury at work.  Employers have legal duties relating to the health and safety of their employees, contractors and members of the public and if you employ 5 or more people by law you must have a written Health and Safety policy in place.


  • An equality, diversity and inclusion policy.Also required by law, you have the opportunity to state your opposition to discrimination and what steps you will take to reduce the risk of discrimination in your recruitment and other processes.  You can also give a positive message to employees and others that you value equality and diversity.


  • A sickness absence policy giving details of your sickness absence arrangements. This will include elements such as how much sick pay employees are entitled to and how you want staff to tell you when they are off sick.


  • Family friendly policies, including those dealing with maternity leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave, adoption leave, emergency time off for dependents leave, parental bereavement leave and flexible working.  These can be helpful for your employees tounderstand their entitlements but also to provide guidance for managers when navigating one of these situations with one of their reports.


  • IT policies, covering data security procedures and elements like what employees can and can’t use the internet for whilst at work and guidance on acceptable use of social media both in and outside of work, where there might be a work impact.


  • Mental health and wellbeing policy. Here you can give staff guidance on what to do if they are suffering from stress or other mental ill health and set out the support you will make available.


  • Data protection policy and HR privacy notice.  A data protection policy provides employees with clear guidance about your and their data protection responsibilities and helps you ensure compliance with UK GDPR and privacy laws. An HR privacy notice also gives you the opportunity to explain to staff what specific information you’ll be collecting about them, what you’ll use it for and how you’ll store it and keep it secure.


  • A whistleblowing policy is recommended to encourage your staff to report internally any concerns about wrongdoing or dangers as early as possible, so that they can be investigated.


  • An anti-bribery policy is also recommended to provide guidance on what you and your staff need to do to avoid any allegations of bribery or corruption under anti-bribery laws.


  • An expenses policy can give clear guidance on what employees can claim in relation to expenses for things like travel, accommodation and hospitality, and the process for doing so.


4. Employment forms and guidelines

Some details of processes you create (particularly when you’re asking employees to give you information) won’t need a separate policy, but will be better dealt with in a form, some more informal guidelines, or checklists.

Examples here include a health and safety risk assessment for an employee who has told you that they’re pregnant, or a checklist of what to include in a new employee’s induction process.  It’s much easier to have something ready to use for these situations, so that you know you’re covering all the elements you need to consider, and also so that you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time it happens.  Good HR software and support services will have forms ready for you to adapt to your specific situation, and will provide you with notifications if you need to change anything because of a change in employment law or good practice.


5. Employee Benefits information

You can include a section in your handbook of details of any additional benefits that staff can take advantage of, such as pension schemes, any relevant bonus schemes, private health or life insurance schemes, or employee assistance programmes.  This will help to make this sort of information very transparent for all staff to see, and good HR software will make it easy for you to amend or add to this information and to highlight to staff when you do make any changes.




How can the staff handbook help with onboarding?

Taking all new starters through your staff handbook is a crucial part of any successful induction programme. As part of that process it will be important to highlight any policies, such as the Data Protection Policy, that staff will need to read straight away, so that, for instance, they are fully aware of their responsibilities before they deal with any personal data as part of their new job.

One option is to include a written guide in the handbook, aimed at new starters, on how to navigate the employee handbook that managers can refer to when setting up a new member of staff.  You could also set up some required reading of key policies as part of the onboarding process, and you can use HR software to help you track whether someone has acknowledged that they have read and understood a particular policy and keep that information for training and monitoring purposes.


Tips for creating a staff handbook

Create it online

Having your staff handbook readily available to your team in a digital format, with a clear contents list, will help them find the particular policy they are looking for easily.  It will also help you avoid the costs of printing bundles of documents that will probably become out of date quite quickly.

Make it non-contractual

You will generally want to say in your policies and procedures that they are non-contractual, so that you can change elements at any time without having to get agreement from your staff (which would be the case if they were contractual terms).  Your employee’s employment contract is the place to put all the elements of the contract between you and them, like their working hours and salary details.

Update it regularly

Keeping track of any changes in employment law is an important element of keeping your staff handbook up to date.  This could be because a new law comes into force, or because a case decided in court gives a decision about an uncertain area of law, or gives further guidance that changes what is regarded as best practice. Good HR services will flag any changes as they arise and advise on what, if any, changes should be considered.  You will then have the information you need to decide whether and how to change your staff handbook.

Make sure your employees read it

It’s best to make your staff handbook easily accessible, and explain clearly what types of information employees can find in there so that they know when and where to look.  We recommend requiring staff to read key policies as part of their induction, and to check back with their manager with any queries or questions. Having people sign an acknowledgement form to confirm they’ve read key policies will help protect you if a dispute ever arises.

We recommend keeping your staff handbook online, so that it can be well ordered and kept up to date as well as easy for staff to access at work or at home and 24/7. Using good HR Software to track that employees have read any new policies or any revised policies will also help with your record keeping and HR software will usually enable you to run reports so you can see at a glance who has and hasn’t read any latest policy changes.

Train your managers

Managers will need to feel confident that they will be able to apply the relevant policies to common situations and to know who to ask for further support with tricky issues.  Training is therefore really important, as they will be the ones implementing your policies and procedures on a day-to-day basis, so they need to be familiar with the ins and outs of every procedure to ensure everyone is treated fairly. Handling employee issues inconsistently can leave you open to allegations of discrimination and unfair treatment, and having a written policy but not following it is a common mistake that can result in successful employee claims.


How should a small business get a staff handbook?

HR managers will usually write a staff handbook for large companies – but most smaller businesses can’t justify the cost of employing an HR professional. You can buy standard policies online, but these tend to be very basic and will need adapting to your particular situation and it can be dangerous to change them unless you have up to date employment law knowledge. And if the law changes, then further expense or amendment is necessary.

Most small businesses therefore use an external HR support service or consultant, or sometimes an employment lawyer, to write their staff handbook.

HR Software (such as the software citrus HR provides all its customers with) can provide useful tools for displaying policies and getting them used easily by staff in a way that can be tracked.

HR Support services, using professionally qualified HR staff to help you create and adapt policies to your particular needs, provide the best and most cost-effective route to getting a robust staff handbook for most small businesses, in our view.  A support service will also help you with any changes you need to make because of changes in employment law or best practice.

If you’re thinking about putting together an employee handbook for your small business, our HR Consultants can help.

Get in touch on or give us a call on 0333 014 3888 to find out more about how we can help your business with friendly, expert HR support.


The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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