An effective employee handbook establishes a clearly defined working relationship and helps protect you from litigation. “A handbook should tell employees: ‘This is what we expect of you, and this is what you can expect of us,’ ” says Kristen Zagozdon, vice president of human resources for Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, a 15-unit chain based in Countryside, Illinois.

Here are 10 tips on how to develop an employee handbook. This doesn’t constitute legal advice. Consult an attorney as needed. 

1.  Start with a template. For your first handbook, use a template as a starting point, Zagozdon recommends. Labor law attorneys, restaurant consultants and human resources consultants are good sources. The Society for Human Resource Management provides a template to members, as does Some states offer handbook templates or advisory material. For example, see the Texas Workforce Commission’s template.

“If the template is not restaurant-specific, make sure you incorporate issues such as tip-reporting and cash-handling policies,” Zagozdon says. Keep the focus on policies, reserving best practices, like service guidelines, for a training manual instead.

Adjust a template as needed to reflect your policies and company culture, says human-resources consultant Joleen Goronkin, president and founder of People & Performance Strategies. “Don’t just blindly cut and paste another company’s policies.”

2. Tell your story. “A handbook can help get employees hooked on your brand and stoked about working for your company,” says Jim Knight, managing partner for People Forward, which provides organizational services to the restaurant and hotel industry. Include company history, a mission statement, organizational values, company trivia and quotes from company leadership, says Knight, who previously supervised training and development for Hard Rock International.

3. Include a disclaimer. State that the handbook and its policies should not be considered a contract, says attorney George R. Wood of Littler Mendelson, an employment and labor-law practice with more than 60 offices worldwide. Specify that employees are “at-will employees” and that you have the ability to terminate employment at any time consistent with that at-will employment.

4. Require employees to sign-off. Have employees sign a statement acknowledging receipt of the handbook and acceptance of its terms. At Cooper’s Hawk, employees must re-sign an acknowledgement statement every time they receive an updated handbook with policy changes. To make documentation easy, employees sign electronically using PeopleMatter human-resources management software.

5. Maintain flexibility. You can’t anticipate every possible scenario that may arise under a policy, so make your policies as flexible as possible to maintain your ability to handle different situations, Wood says.

6. Make it approachable. Knight recalls his eyes glazing over as he read through long, wordy employee handbooks early in his restaurant career. “If I had the chance, I would carve up this information and present it like a comic book,” he mused. That’s exactly what he did at Hard Rock, creating a manual with short paragraphs, lively photographs and artwork contributed by staff. Bullet points, white space and font selection also made the handbook more approachable.

Craft subheads that refer to your restaurant concept, Knight suggests. Hard Rock uses song titles for headings. Include humor when appropriate, but stick with the legalese when needed for compliance-oriented content to protect yourself, he advises.

7. Establish a clear process for reporting concerns. View employee complaints as an opportunity to resolve an issue, Wood says. “You would rather deal with a complaint when it first becomes an issue, rather than months later when it may be viewed as a larger issue.”

8.  Make it easy to reference. Consider guiding employees through the handbook during orientation. Some restaurants, like Cooper’s Hawk, also post their handbooks in an employee self-service portal for easy reference.

9. Hire an attorney to review the handbook. It’s a small investment to make sure your bases are covered, Goronkin says. Look for an attorney familiar with federal, state and local labor laws, which can vary by jurisdiction.

10. Review and revise. “A handbook should be a living, breathing document,” Wood says. “If you just leave it on the shelf, it can become a landmine rather than a helpful document.” Review your policies regularly to assure compliance with the most current statutes, rules and laws.

Update your handbook to reflect changes in internal policies. Clarify ambiguous statements, and add new policies to address current concerns, like social media. As always, welcome feedback from your employees in the revision process.