Let’s face it: Most employee handbooks are terrible. They don’t answer the real questions new employees have when they begin. They also do a terrible job of communicating an organization’s culture -- the most important influencer of employee engagement.
In the absence of a useful written guide, most companies rely today on storytelling to keep their traditions alive. Storytelling, however, offers no totems, no cultural preserves. Think, for example, of J.W. Marriott’s book The Spirit to Serve or 3M’s legendary Post-It origin story. Both pass down the company’s culture and narratives to the newest generation of employees and provide a shortcut to understanding the company’s values, behaviors and norms.
When I joined the team at tech solutions firm Metal Toad four years ago, like many businesses it had collected an eclectic set of traditions. Questions immediately popped up like, “Why do the restrooms have party lights?” and “What the heck does WFH mean?” As I discovered that the company was rich with norms and even had its own dialect, it gave me an idea: What if we combined this knowledge into one place, in a richer, more useful artifact that people would actually read?
The result was “Toad Lore,” a small, leather-bound journal that captured all the cultural quirks that make us Toads. It has become more important than merely a guide for new employees; it’s an enduring cultural artifact that ensures that the uniqueness of our firm will survive.
In today’s chaotic, ever-changing business environment, it is critically important to find new and creative ways to communicate your culture -- this can be a handbook, a totem or an artifact. Here are the necessary steps to create yours.
Manage with philosophies, not policies.
If you don’t already, treat your employees like adults that you trust to make the best decisions for themselves and the company, rather than micromanaging them with dozens of policies. Manage them with philosophies -- this is the only sustainable way to develop and maintain your company culture and retain happy employees.
In your totem and beyond, focus on your philosophies and your people. Because at the end of the day, both will outlast your tenure at the company.
Find a large and passionate group to support the idea.
Your culture does not start and end with the C-suite -- in fact, it is quite the opposite. For your project to succeed, each department should be represented in order to capture that diversity of experience in your totem. Remember that the shared experiences and attitudes of your employees are really what define your culture. To find those similarities across your business, you must go straight to the source and either get a person from each department to commit to the project or at least interview them to get their take on things.
Make it creative and be bold.
Let your imagination run wild. What would resonate within your organization? Lord of the Rings was the inspiration for our book. Find that inspiration within your own company and run with it.
But above all else, be bold. Most companies operate in the safe zone -- otherwise known as Covering Your Ass (CYA). You will never have the big relationships and the big wins if you’re constantly working by CYA. If you want to operate in a meaningful way and engage with your employees, you have to assume positive intent in everyone and go outside the safe zone. Use this frame of mind when crafting your handbook or totem and you will see big returns.
Don’t overthink it.
To prevent the inevitable “Where do we even start?” question, gather your team and get brainstorming. Write down all the things that pop in your head when you ask yourselves the question, “What is our culture?” Create a list and determine the most important points. Delegate those points and get writing -- it’s that simple.
This project should be effortless if what you’re trying to capture about your company culture actually exists. Do not force any square pegs into round holes -- if you’re trying to manufacture something that isn’t there, the resulting totem will not be authentic or genuine. People, especially your employees, will see right through it.
Consider adding a quote from a recently onboarded employee.
Your handbook is especially crafted for new employees, so try capture their experience in their own words. No one else can quite relay the sometimes-bewildering experience of the first several weeks at a new business like new hires, and their advice can prove invaluable to those that follow.
The rollout is important.
The way you present your project is almost as important as the thing itself. If you hand out the book among a myriad of other materials or focus on an overall rebranding of the company instead of the artifact you’ve spent countless hours creating, you lose sight of its purpose. This snapshot of your culture is important enough to warrant its own celebration -- so do it. Throw a launch party and celebrate your culture and employees the way you would new products, clients or customers.
Your culture matters. The way you communicate your culture matters even more. Take this advice and apply it to your own company, and I promise that you will see a return on investment in terms of employee satisfaction and your company’s impact on the world.