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Getting on the Same Page: Creating a Successful Restaurant Employee Handbook

As you develop retention strategies for your business, creating an informative employee handbook should be at the top of your to-do list. Not only is it a cost-effective way to give new hires an organized onboarding experience and set your team up for success, but it also serves as a guide for your existing employees, keeping everyone on the same page.

Employee handbooks are an important aspect of restaurant management, but creating a high-quality handbook that people actually read and use can be a challenge.

Instead of thinking of your employee handbook as a boring binder filled with mundane copy-and-pasted text and legal mumbo jumbo, imagine the culture you want to create in your restaurant and the ways you and your team can work together to build that culture. Then, write it all down….that is your employee handbook.

Breaking away from cookie cutter templates and crafting something that you and your team will enjoy reading and actually use is one great way to build consistency in your operation and avoid costly employee turnover, the downfall of many restaurants in today’s climate.

Why Write (or Revamp) an Employee Handbook

The best way to frame your thinking when considering writing or rewriting your employee handbook is that it’s not about you—– it’s about your team and how they function.

A good handbook lets you lay it all out at the outset and allows you to get ahead by proactively building your workplace culture in black and white, so to speak.

Two of the top reasons employees leave restaurants are lack of quality training and work being different from what they expected. A strong employee handbook addresses both of those reasons by providing initial instructions on workplace behavior and laying out job duties clearly and concisely.

Retention is more important than ever so keeping your existing employees should be one of your top priorities. Not only is the hiring process costly, but it can cause strain on your existing team and negatively impact morale. Providing new hires with a solid foundation of your culture and each job’s responsibilities, outlined in a handbook, gives them the tools they need to perform their jobs with enthusiasm and optimism.

Additional Reasons for a Good Employee Handbook:

Provides legal protection: While there’s really no legal mandate that requires you to write an employee handbook, they are a great way to minimize legal risk. Once you spell out the norms of your workplace, it’s much easier to deal with problems that may eventually pop up. An employee handbook provides restaurant owners with a strong foundation for legal protection when disputes happen. Equally important, it also helps your staff feel protected in the workplace.

Clear onboarding experience for new hires. Eliminating the ambiguities that often exist for new employees, an employee handbook serves as a guide to new hires to help them feel more connected from the outset and increases trust between staff and management.

Ensures equality. By spelling out the rights of employees along with the responsibilities of the employer, equality is ensured. While managers will still be responsible for implementing policies fairly, it is important that these policies are consistent and accessible. A handbook acts as a guide to maintaining a safe business culture.

Increases cooperation among staff. When expectations are clearly outlined and various job duties are shared, employees are better equipped to cooperate with each other. The handbook acts as a roadmap, identifying boundaries, so employees know where their job ends and their co-workers’ begin.

Saves time and boosts efficiency. When everything is laid out in a handbook to which employees can refer, time asking and answering the same questions over and over again is decreased. This way, everyone can focus on the job at hand instead of navigating and commiserating about “how things work.”

Branding tool for job seekers. An employee handbook can also serve as a branding tool. Placing an emphasis on your business’s culture, mission, and values can be a vital component to ensure employee longevity, helping you stand out to job seekers.

Where to Begin

While creating a great employee handbook is as much an art as it is a science, there are some essential elements you can’t forgo. You may be legally required to include certain employment law information or information related to the American Disabilities Act, so be surety do your research.

Before sitting down to write, get together with your management and staff to come up with a game plan. While your handbook won’t likely end up on the New York Times best-seller list, little creative touches can make your handbook a bit more user-friendly, especially for employees who are used to the same-old handbooks from other restaurants.

Below area few tips to keep in mind when creating your a restaurant employee handbook.

  • Tell a story. Just because the content is serious doesn’t mean you have to eliminate creativity. Instead of writing in boring, uninteresting language, consider telling your brand’s story, using informal language, photos, and a concise layout that directs employees to a website for more details.

  • Pick a great name. The best way to start making your employee handbook stand out is to pick a creative name and theme. Simply titling your book, “Employee Handbook” will probably not entice people to read and use it. Instead, pick something with a friendly tone like “The Guide to the Way we Work,” “How Things Work Around Here” or “Our Team Playbook.”

  • Design a great cover. Hire a designer (or one of your staff members skilled in design) to create an enticing cover. Holding a contest for the best cover ideas can be a double winning proposition.

  • Cover your bases. Collaborate with your legal, marketing, and public relations teams so that all bases are covered. Make a point of updating the handbook often to keep the content appealing and relevant.

Key Elements of a Successful Employee Handbook

Blending brand story, training materials, and policy information are some of the ingredients to creating an employee handbook that your staff will read and use.

Personal Introduction

Start the book with a welcoming letter thanking your staff for their service. Briefly tell the story and history of the restaurant. You can even insert a short “about me” paragraph about yourself. How and why did you start in the food industry? Where was your first job? Where did you go to school?

An introduction could include:

  • An overview of your company.

  • How the business began

  • Goals you have for the future

  • Your mission and values.

  • At-a-glance information including hours, parking maps, phone numbers, emails, etc.

Pointing out a few problems and solutions can create teachable moments. Consider including examples of actual experiences you and your staff may have had when you first got started in food service. Include a story of an "oops" moment you might have had when you first got started to remind your new staffers that it's okay not to be perfect and that you and your managers have been right where they are. Stories of real people and their relatable experiences shared in a light-hearted manner will help your staff feel comfortable and connected.

Conduct & Behavior

Though you live and breathe your business, you can’t have eyes everywhere at all times. Hiring people who share your values and providing them with a code of conduct, empowers employees to do their jobs effectively, safely, and with the business’s goals in mind.

Undoubtedly one of the most important sections of your handbook, it’s important to be thoughtful and comprehensive. Include:

  • Details about the dress code and uniform. Be specific about what you expect your team to wear and what’s not allowed. Include any policies dictated by health or safety codes, like avoiding open-toe shoes and keeping hair away from the face. If you require employees to wear a uniform, this would be the place to spell it out and explain if uniforms are provided or available to purchase. You might also include tips about the frequency of laundering uniforms and expectations about cleanliness.

  • Code of conduct. Setting your expectations for your team through a code of conduct gives employees the autonomy to make decisions on their own. A strong code of conduct leans on your company’s values and explains what behavior is unacceptable.

  • Absence or lateness policies. If you expect employees to arrive early to get settled or stay late to clean up, they need to know that. Outline lateness or no-show policies here so your staff can plan accordingly. If a server has to pick their child up at daycare by a certain time, for example, and they aren't expecting to have to stay past their assigned schedule time, problems will emerge at the outset. Remember, each one of your staff members has a life outside of work and shouldn't be expected to know what's expected if you don't tell them. The handbook is the place to put it all out in black and white.

  • What constitutes a fireable offense. Though it’s a scary thought for your employees to think about getting fired, your staff deserves to know your expectations from day one. Tell new hires what behavior is expected and what actions are not tolerated early on to establish a mutual understanding from the outset.

  • Anti-harassment & anti-discrimination policies. Including an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy is a smart legal choice that benefits you and your team. This reassures employees that you do not tolerate harmful workplace behavior and protects employees who may feel the need to report unfortunate events, should they arise.

  • Daily operating procedures. New hires will soon get the hang of what an average shift is like, but listing expectations and operating procedures helps things run smoothly from the beginning. Ask floor managers and veteran staff members for their input on this section to improve accuracy. Consider including the following:

  • Expectations for opening, closing, and customer service. Provide any and all pertinent information about what a shift typically looks like. Include all side work responsibilities to ensure everything gets done.

  • Meals and breaks. Let employees know when and where they are allowed to take a break. This might be one of the most important bits of information to new staff, so don’t keep them wondering.

  • Discounts or perks. Your team puts a lot of time and energy into helping your business succeed. Show them how you show your gratitude with additional perks or discounts. Let them know how and when discounts can be applied and clarify whether they can share with friends and family.

  • Back of house vs. front of house operations. With delivery orders, take-out, and dining room operations all happening at once, your BOH and FOH need to be run like a tight ship. Let new hires know exactly how the two areas interact, who's in charge, and who is responsible for what.

  • Delivery, pick-up, and packaging. Equally as important as table service policies, the ins and outs of your restaurant’s off-premise operations are critical to your success. Make sure new hires are aware of where and how delivery orders are taken, where driver stations are located, and how your to-go orders are packaged. Let staff know if they are expected to help with these orders during slow times so they won’t be surprised.

Communication & Workplace Safety

Give your team the tools they need to communicate effectively and safely. A strong communication policy not only clarifies the way your team communicates (via email, text, or by phone), it also outlines how employees should talk about your business on social media and specifies possible repercussions for infractions. Because workplace safety procedures vary from business to business, make sure you include the most important ones in your handbook, including:

  • How and when schedules are produced. Will your employees need to download an app, check their email, or look on a printed job board? Make sure your staff knows exactly when and where to find the schedule to avoid conflicts and confusion.

  • Policies. Explain your policies and local regulations and post any new regulations or policies along with the weekly schedule.

  • Workplace safety information. Include information about food safety, health department standards, cleaning procedures, hygiene, and attire.

Pay & Benefits

Many employees will make a beeline to this section before reading further. They rightfully want to know the details surrounding how and when they get paid and what benefits you offer. Providing this information in the handbook saves you from answering the same questions repeatedly.

  • How and when employees get paid.

  • Holidays

  • How to request time off.

  • Leave policies

  • Benefits

  • Meal discounts

Acknowledgment of Receipt

You’ve put a lot of effort into writing this employee handbook, so it’s important that your team reads it. After giving new staff time to review the policies and ask questions, ask for their signature to confirm they understand your expectations.

Why no one is reading (and using) your existing handbook

As you begin to craft your employee handbook, it’s important to think about the reasons that you might have fallen short in the past. With a clear view on what the obstacles are and how previous attempts at creating an effective handbook may have failed, you can avoid making the same mistakes again.

Top reasons restaurant employee handbooks fall short:

  • You assume they’ll read it

Hate to break it to you, but they probably won’t!

That’s why you need to make your handbook an interactive part of the training process. Walk through it together with employees as part of their on-boarding or quarterly reviews.

Make sure that initial training isn’t the only time you reference the handbook. Ask managers to show staff how they use it in their everyday work. And be sure to hold a teamwide refresher course whenever you update the handbook.

  • Corporate jargon and legal language

If your handbook reads like a legal brief or corporate statement, don’t expect people to use it (or understand it.) Use simple language and think about the experience of reading and walking through the document to make it a useful, understandable, and relatively enjoyable tool.

  • Hurried onboarding process

We all get busy, but rushing the onboarding process can leave an employee serving guests without knowing what they’re doing, leaving you open to all sorts of problems. Make time to be sure that every new hire reads and understands your handbook even if that means staying late or coming in early. When you build your handbook into the training process, you’ll be assured that you’re onboarding people ready and equipped to do a great job rather than a rushed introduction to the role.

After you’ve done the hard work creating an engaging employee handbook for your restaurant, there are a few final steps you’ll want to take before you print the book and distribute it to your staff:

  • Have a lawyer review it.

  • Document previous versions of the handbook.

  • Give the staff a refresher.

By Eileen Strauss


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