A recent communications study* quantified this problem for both the general employee population and Millennial employees (adults who are currently 18 to 34 - and the group who by 2016, is expected to surpass Generation X and Baby Boomers to become the largest part of the workforce). The study found:
- 30% of non-Millennials have not read most of their handbooks.
- 43% of Millennials have not read most of their handbooks.
- 11% of Millennials have never even opened their handbooks.
- 23% of non-Millennials don't even know where their handbook is anymore.
- 36% of Millennials don't even know where their handbook is anymore.
- Only 1 in 3 non-Millennials find their handbooks helpful.
- Only 1 in 4 Millennials find their handbooks helpful.
- The Forgotten Audience. One of the cardinal rules of effective communication is “know your audience” and write for/speak to them accordingly. Most contemporary handbooks have lost sight of this all-important rule. The tone, language and content of today's handbooks is at best dry and boring…at worst, heavy-handed, condescending and legalistic. Today’s handbooks are not written for employees but for their authors (the employers and the lawyers) who want to ensure the company is "covered" and "protected".
- Runaway Employment Litigation. The US Department of Labor's website* reports states, "In the federal courts alone, the number of suits filed concerning employment grievances grew over 400 percent in the last two decades. Complaints lodged with administrative agencies have risen at a similar rate..." Over three decades of handling numerous employee grievances and litigation, PhoenixHR has observed the merits of these cases to vary widely. While many were merited, a considerable number were frivolous, filed by disgruntled employees looking to “get back” at their employers and/or win some “easy money”. But valid or not, the reality is that all employment litigation burdens employers with defense costs that drain their bottom-line. So it makes sense that handbooks have been significantly hardened over time to serve as the employer's main "armor" in this escalating legal battle. Unfortunately, this hardening has stripped most handbooks of any sense of personality, inspiration or character that would encourage employees to read it.
- Poor and/or Unimaginative Templates. Understandably, the vast majority of handbook authors do not write their documents from scratch but use templates. Sadly, handbook templates vary widely in quality of content. "Quality" in this instance does not refer to legal compliance or accuracy, but (once again) to engaging content that employees will actually want to read. Imagination has long been a key part of success in American business (consider Apple, Disney, IBM, HP, and Xerox) so it is ironic that a document as essential to any company’s success as an employee handbook is so often devoid of any imagination.
- Understand the Opportunity. Like the rest of the new hire boarding process, the employee handbook is critical in shaping how employees - Millennials and non-Millennials alike - perceive their employers. Employers and HR practitioners should regard an employee handbook as not just a collection of company policies but as an opportunity to communicate in different and memorable ways how much it values its employees. Whether creating a new handbook or modifying an existing one, the content should not only excite readers about joining the company, but help foster the desire to work (and stay) there. There is no turn-key solution for how to make an employee handbook unique, relevant and interesting. The approach will vary widely based on each company’s values and philosophy, which is why templates don’t even try to address this challenge. It therefore falls to each company’s HR function to rise to the occasion. After partnering with company leadership to thoroughly understands the business it supports, HR must apply its best and most creative writing skills to produce content that makes the handbook a showcase of effective communication.
- Optimize Communications. Remember that today's workforce is increasingly mobile and Millennial workers are increasingly tech-savvy. Employers should design (or redesign) their employee handbooks as electronic documents which are easy to access, navigate and read across multiple devices and platforms. Such optimization should include applying a user-friendly layout and meaningful visuals and graphics to make the handbook a "painless" resource to refer to. Equally important, communication of handbook content should move beyond new hire orientations and be sprinkled throughout the employment experience in imaginative ways that steer employees back to the handbook. There are many low-cost to no-cost methods which can turn the employee handbook into the centerpiece of a communication strategy for periodically reinforcing selected key topics or educating on company benefits and employment law updates in fun and engaging ways.
- Minimize The Legalese. It is a given that all employee handbooks should comply with applicable employment law and be reviewed by an attorney prior to publication. However, a legal tone should not overtake an employee handbook. With extra care in composing and editing, it is possible to craft a handbook that preserves legal validity and protections without making employees feel marginalized or "talked down" to. This extra effort in handbook optimization is often overlooked because templates do not provide such guidance and HR is often under pressure to "just get it done"...but it is not impossible and given the importance of the document, will pay dividends for how employees perceive their handbook and their company.
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- * 2014 communications study on employee handbooks
- * US Department of Labor post on employment litigation