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Mind-map your way toward creating a great employee handbook

Sitting down with pen and paper and freely jotting down ideas may not sound like the best path toward creating a well-crafted employee handbook, but it’s a great place to start.

That free-flowing process, called mind-mapping, unleashes the creative part of your brain and is far more effective than writing a content outline for your handbook, according to writing coach and author Daphne Gray-Grant of Vancouver, BC.

Mind-Mapping 101

To start the mind-mapping process, take a blank newspaper-sized piece of paper and turn it sideways. Write your main theme in a few short words in the middle of the page, such as “handbook food for thought.”

Then, letting your mind flow freely and without stopping to think, quickly write down whatever comes to mind, whether it’s dress code, no flip-flops policy, or a cell phone use policy. Use only a few words for each thought.

Keep your writing hand moving, don’t be critical about what you jot down and don’t try to be too organized. Draw pictures if it helps you or write things down using pens of different colors if you aren’t artistic.

Why you need an employee handbook

A well-crafted employee handbook helps ensure that all employees in your medical office are treated fairly and consistently.

“It spells out the rules of engagement in your firm. It tells people what they can expect about things like a dress code, if you have one; what to expect about holidays, when and how they will be paid; and all those kinds of day-to-day issues that, if you’ve worked at the firm for a number of years, you just accept as a given and you know how the system works,” says Gray-Grant.

A comprehensive handbook can help new employees become acquainted with your medical firm’s rules, regulations and your office culture far more quickly, she adds.

After reading it, they’ll have a better sense of your expectations of them. They will do a better job and that will help your firm meet its business goals, according to Gray-Grant.

Your employee handbook also makes it easier for your managers to use their discretion when dealing with employee issues, providing it doesn’t spell things out so irrevocably that a manager loses the ability to manage his or her employees.

“A good employee handbook can actually reduce legal claims relating to inconsistent or discriminatory treatment,” she says.

Examples of items you might want to consider including in your handbook are:

  • A message from the president or CEO of the firm regarding what he or she wants employees to keep in mind while working.
  • A brief history of your firm.
  • A section on your firm’s vision, mission, values and goals.
  • A confidentiality agreement covering issues about which employees are not permitted to speak with others, including their spouses.
  • A telecommuting policy that prevents workers from asking for permission to do different things. Without one, you are opening the door for inconsistent employee treatment.
  • A dress code statement if you have had past issues with inappropriately dressed employees.
  • A section on benefits offered by your firm.
  • Time-off-work policies.
  • A computer and Internet use policy. It should spell out such things as whether employees are allowed to send personal emails on company computers and whether they are allowed to use Facebook while at work.
  • A policy on conflict resolution. It should detail how same-level employees are to handle conflicts.

Gray-Grant says an excellent resource for other subjects you might want to consider including in your handbook is:

That website provides a suggested table of contents for an employee handbook that will eliminate the need for reinventing the wheel.

Don’t go it alone

Gray-Grant warns against trying to write an entire employee handbook yourself. You need to assign various sections to other qualified employees in your office.

“Give small jobs to many people,” she says, adding that you should choose handbook subjects that will appeal to individuals’ expertise.

Give them a specific word count, whether it’s 300 or 500 words, so they will know the level of detail you require. Assign each section and put a deadline in the subject line of emails addressed to each worker involved in the writing process.

Set an artificial deadline that’s two or three days away from when you actually need the material delivered. That will give the authors a cushion to get their assignments completed. Send out a reminder email one week before the handbook sections are due.

The writing process

Gray-Grant says the ideal division of time is 40 percent in preparing and researching what to write, 20 percent in actual writing, and 40 percent on rewriting and editing. She warns against editing as you go, because it hampers the creative process and dramatically slows your progress.

“First drafts don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written, she says.

Shut off all distractions such as email and your phone, and use a loud, old-school ticking kitchen timer to block off writing time increments of 15 to 25 minutes. The ticking of the timer can help you stay focused on writing. When the timer dings, take a short break and then resume your writing.

Aim for a variety of sentence lengths, ranging from 14 to 18 words in some to up to 40 words in others. Gray-Grant says a great computer application that can help you simplify and clarify your writing is available at

Guard against legal risks

There are some legal risks for your firm that can crop up in an improperly worded handbook. For example, Gray-Grant says it could appear to create a contract, which could reduce your company’s ability to manage its employees.

Certain language might not protect your firm against claims, or it might appear to show favoritism toward certain employees or certain types of employees.

For those reasons, Gray-Grant says your handbook should be examined by an employment lawyer before it is printed to ensure that there is no language that could come back to haunt your firm later.

“Every handbook should include a disclaimer clearly stating that the handbook only offers policies and guidelines and is neither a contract nor an implied contract,” she says.

Your handbook should also include a receipt and acknowledgement form for each employee to sign and date. This form should be placed in each employee’s personnel file so that if a problem crops up you can inform the employee that they signed a form stating there are no contracts or implied contracts in the handbook.

Watch out for too many cooks

Gray-Grant warns against having too many people put eyes on your handbook before it is published. She suggests finding a senior champion in your firm to gain support for a very small group of people to sign off on it.

The more “cooks” involved in the approval process, the greater the chances that senior people will rewrite huge swaths of it, using long-winded, confusing language.

She suggests starting out with a small handbook and then expanding it periodically over time.

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