The Value of an Employee Handbook

O, humble employee handbook! Nonprofit employers count on you to provide organizational best practices to their workforce while ensuring they maintain compliance standards. Unfortunately not enough attention is paid to updating the handbook as there should be—placing these employers at risk.

Today, companies put the handbook online, posting anything from a 2,000-page guide for GitLab to a 5x8” gray card for Nordstrom that reads “Use your good judgment in all situations.” One thing about the employee handbook has not changed. It remains invaluable and indispensable to its company and their employees.

Do you know what a help an employee handbook can be for your nonprofit, your workers, and your constituents? Let’s break the handbook down to its core elements to see what makes it so powerful and beneficial.

Employee handbooks contain both policies and procedures. What is the difference between a policy and a procedure?

A policy is a principle or rule that governs decisions and actions. It functions within the framework of a company’s mission as set by management. Policies include rules for employees regarding smoking, non-disclosure agreements, vacations, dress codes, technology use, and plenty more.

Policies have scope (covering all workers) and purpose (the law that necessitates the policy). Policies promote consistent conduct and equal treatment of all employees, keep employees mindful of their duties, and help the organization comply with the law. Noncompliance can result in fines, lawsuits, loss of the company’s reputation, or risk for the employees.

Finally, policies change as the company grows, as the larger industry evolves, and as new laws and technologies arise. With good policies in place, companies and their employees can thrive in a safe, secure environment. They stabilize a company, enabling it to avert or manage workplace incidents (like an accident) or crises (like a pandemic). They hold management accountable, uphold expectations for the workers and set behavior and performance standards so that everyone can achieve success. As personnel come and go, policies sustain resilience and continuity for the institution because they will always tell new employees exactly what to do. Without policies, a company would run on chaos, but not for very long.

A procedure is a reliable process broken down into a series of steps to attain a desired result. They are instructions adopted by management to carry out policy. While policies offer the why behind a company’s actions, procedures advise how to carry out those actions. A procedure also has scope (a specific employee performing a task and who they report to) and may not apply to everyone working at the company. Procedures are required for training, process auditing, process improvement, and or compliance initiatives. They guarantee the consistency that decreases process variation, which increases procedure control. Decreasing process variation eliminates waste and boosts performance. The best procedures are written in simple, clear, and concise language.

Compiling policies and procedures into a well-organized document accessible to everyone isn’t just a good idea. It can be a lifesaver. Can you imagine police and fire departments without well-managed policies and procedures? How about the law firm or brokerage handling your personal affairs? Or the lab manufacturing your child’s asthma inhaler? Smart policy and its consistent administration ensure safer communities, safer products, and safer work spaces. They are fundamental to any nonprofit’s long-term success.

Some companies issue a policies and procedures manual, a detailed repository of every policy and procedure, even those that don’t concern employees. Other companies issue an employee handbook, which covers everything pertaining to employees, their responsibilities, and the company’s responsibilities to them. For nonprofits, an employee or volunteer handbook would include protocols for donor privacy, fundraising, whistleblowers, records retention and destruction, in-kind gift acceptance, and other situations specific to philanthropic institutions and the laws that regulate them.

Some entities issue both, providing the employee handbook to staff and posting the voluminous policies and procedures tome on the company intranet in case someone needs detailed information about a particular subject (corporate history, news articles, etc.).

Of the two, the employee handbook is the more essential document for the following reasons:

  • As part of the onboarding process, the handbook introduces new hires to the company’s mission and principles. It helps the freshly onboarded acclimate to their new roles, enabling them to become productive more quickly.
  • It sets and sustains the company’s tone and culture and shows how employees can succeed within that culture.
  • It clarifies what the company expects of each employee as well as what it offers them in compensation and benefits.
  • It ensures compliance with the law. Clear explanations from the handbook help protect the organization, showing that it endeavors to obey the law and expects its employees to do the same.
  • It outlines the employee’s legal rights and entitlements (such as the Family Medical Leave Act) under state and federal law.
  • Managers can consult the handbook to answer employees’ questions, helping to ensure both parties are on the same page concerning a workplace issue.
  • It highlights the company’s benefits, which helps to retain valued employees.
  • It can protect the company from claims and lawsuits brought by current or former employees. The handbook is one of the most useful documents to produce in the company’s defense. A legally sound employee handbook can prove that the company has exercised “reasonable care” towards its employees.
  • It requires the employee to sign the handbook’s acknowledgment page. The signed acknowledgement page verifies that the employee had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the organization’s policies, ask related questions, and agreed to follow the terms and conditions of employment set by the organization.

With the increase in flexible work schedules and more employees working off site, companies are putting their employee handbooks and policies and procedures guides online. For many, this is more convenient and efficient—and it saves on the cost of printing. But wait! There’s more! Companies are putting their entire policies and procedures guides live on the internet for everyone to see. Why would they do that?

Many of these electronic handbooks come from newer companies or tech firms to demonstrate their commitment to corporate transparency. Such firms include Basecamp, Trello, Netflix, Zappos, Hubspot, Nordstrom, Sterling Gold Mining Corporation, Facebook, and Twitter (likely rewriting their employee handbook very soon).

Some of these handbooks are masterful achievements in design, copy writing, and corporate branding. And they are unique. Regarding Twitter, challenged other law firms to help create The Employment Twitter Staff Handbook, with policies stated in 140 characters or less. Meanwhile, Netflix kept it simple: “Act in Netflix's best interest.” These are not your daddy’s employee handbook! Did I mention these handbooks are downloadable?

Beyond their novelty, publicly accessible handbooks reap handsome rewards for their companies. Obviously, they don’t post anything confidential online for legal reasons, but everything else they share with an eye toward burnishing their employer brand as well as their products and services. As they give visitors a taste of their company culture, they get to market millions of eyeballs for minimal expense.

They can also attract desirable employees: Check out our benefits! See how well we treat our employees! Note how committed we are to the environment! Plus, it’s a useful way to engage potential donors or volunteers who are doing their homework before contributing to your cause.

It’s all there for the whole world to see, yet it still serves as the employee handbook. Expect this to become standard operating procedure for many companies, including nonprofits. The more things change, the more handbooks will need updating. Updating online is simple and inexpensive.

According to a survey conducted in 2020 for People Matters, a media company specializing HR marketing, 57% of employees actually read the employee manual. When asked if they had revised their employee manuals since the pandemic, 69% of HR professionals surveyed said no. How are these unread, outdated handbooks meeting the needs of their companies? The answer is that they aren’t.

When your nonprofit decides to invest time and money to produce an employee handbook, you will find countless resources online that can help, but…

UST understands those needs because we are the leader in the field of nonprofit HR solutions. Through our cloud-based UST HR Workplace, powered by Mineral, we offer on-demand resources and expertise to help create the employee handbook your foundation needs . . . in minutes. UST’s integrated platform of HR tools, templates, and on-demand trainings will ensure that your employee manual meets your standards while maintaining compliance with federal and state law. The platform will alert you whenever a policy or law that can affect your handbook changes. And, you can track employee acknowledgments with built-in electronic signatures. With a subscription to the UST HR Workplace, your handbook will stay current and relevant for your peeps. Request a FREE 60-Day Trial of the UST HR Workplace today!

This blog post was written by Amélie Frank, consulting copywriter to UST. To learn more about Amélie’s professional portfolio you can find her online at

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