Read the employee handbook before you accept the job

It shouldn’t take this much text to explain the dress code.
It shouldn’t take this much text to explain the dress code.
Image: Jopwell
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Between April and March of this year, the number of open US jobs reached its highest point since December 2000. There are now more job postings than there are unemployed applicants, which means that candidates have all the power.

You can, in other words, afford to interview the company just as much as it’s interviewing you. My recommendation, having worked as an HR executive for more than 35 years: When your interviewer inevitably asks whether you have questions, ask to see the company handbook.

Policies within the handbook will tell you how the company really feels about its employees.

Keep an eye out for red flags

Handbooks often include a collection of conduct rules meant to control the behavior of marginal employees. They might be written in a strict “thou shalt not” form, forbidding falsified information, possession of illegal or dangerous items on premises, theft, or violence. It’s not uncommon to see these archaic policies written in legalese across eight pages.

A great employee handbook will avoid language that assumes team members are childish or out of control, and it won’t be overly restrictive with blanket rules created after the actions of an outlier employee. General Motors’ employee handbook, for instance, used to include 10 full pages about appropriate dress. When CEO Mary Barra took the helm in 2014, she created a dress code policy—one that’s less of a red flag—by replacing the detailed section with just two words: “Dress appropriately.” If she was supposed to trust employees when it came to manning $10 million budgets, Barra said, she should certainly trust them to dress appropriately for the workplace.

Similarly, policies that define leaving early are an indication you’ll be micromanaged.

When you’re looking at your potential employer’s handbook, you should also watch for clear signs you’re dealing with a negative company culture. “Progressive discipline” policies—typically comprised of a “three strikes, you’re out” methodology that mimics a parent-child relationship, ending in a threat—are not only ineffective, but they’re also dehumanizing. Any company that supports these policies is old-fashioned, and its leaders have a dim view of their teams.

If a potential employer asks employees to sign the handbook, there’s only one reason: Leadership doesn’t trust them, and it thinks they’ll violate policies. Making new employees confirm they’ve read the handbook relays negative assumptions about them from day one.

Find the positives

A great employee handbook should be based on positive assumptions about the people working at the company instead of rules or procedures.

The tone of a good handbook is not convoluted or jargon-filled. It should be written by adults for adults in simple, easy-to-understand language. Rather than list after list of policies, it should contain nuanced guidelines that assume employees will use common sense and good judgment.

Last year, The New York Times published its social media guidelines for employees, which are a good example of policy rooted in positive assumptions and respect. It’s clear these guidelines were written by a cross-functional team who considered employees as equals. At the tail end of these policies, for instance, there is a “Still Unsure” section, which asks readers a series of questions to help them decide whether they’re posting appropriate content. A company that gives guidelines in the form of questions shows trust in its team’s abilities to make good judgments.

The best companies don’t need to regulate every negative situation; they simply have high expectations for conduct. Real leaders use their employee handbooks to show respect for their teams. Workplaces that respect employees generally expect team members to act in the company’s (and their colleagues’) best interest.

Ask to see the employee handbook before signing any agreements; you’ll be glad you did.

Sue Bingham is founder and principal of HPWP Group.