How to Craft a Restaurant Employee Handbook that Staff Will Actually Care About (And Read)

How to Craft a Restaurant Employee Handbook that Staff Will Actually Care About (And Read)

Don’t think of a boring binder full of legal language.

Instead, imagine the culture you want to create in your restaurant. Then, write down all the ways you and your team are going to build that culture, together.

That is your employee handbook.

At least, that’s how it should read if you break out of the cookie cutter template and craft something that you and your team will enjoy and actually use. Developing a top-notch employee handbook is one great way to avoid costly employee turnover that dooms many restaurants.

By spelling out how employees should conduct themselves at work and how your restaurant operates internally, a well-crafted employee handbook should save you time, create a safe and enjoyable workplace for all, and protect your restaurant from legal disputes down the line.

This article will discuss why employee handbooks are an important aspect of restaurant management and tackle some of the major barriers that keep restaurateurs from creating high-quality handbooks that people actually read. We’ll walk you through a few steps you should take to make a great employee handbook for your team.

Why Write an Employee Handbook for Your Restaurant

It’s not about you—the restaurant owner. It’s about your team and how they function.

That’s the best way to frame your thinking when considering employee handbooks. Get ahead by proactively building your workplace culture. Lay it all out and invite your employees to help shape the workplace (this is why it needs to be a living document, but more on that later).

Remember that two of the top reasons employees leave restaurants are: 1) lack of quality training and, 2) the work is 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.

Why Write an Employee Handbook for Your Restaurant

Here are a few more reasons for why you should definitely write a handbook for your staff:

  • Provides greater legal protection: In many cases, there’s no legal mandate that requires you to write an employee handbook. That said, 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 eventually pop up later on. An employee handbook provides restaurant owners with a strong foundation for legal protection when disputes happen. It also helps your staff feel legally protected in the workplace as well, which is just as important.

  • Offers better onboarding for new employees: Well-crafted employee handbooks can eliminate the ambiguities that often exist for new employees. In doing so, you increase trust on both sides (employee and employer) and help them feel more at home in their new role.

  • Ensures equality in the workplace: By spelling out the rights of employees alongside the responsibilities of the employer, you make it much more likely that people will be treated equally. This means that managers and staff will still be responsible for implementing those policies fairly, but at least they are accessible and consistent in the handbook.

  • Increases employee cooperation: When management expectations are clearly outlined and different job duties are shared, employees are better equipped to cooperate with one another. Put simply, they know where their job ends and their teammate’s job begins.

  • Saves time, boosts efficiency: When everything is laid out nicely in a handbook that employees can refer back to, both management and employees save time asking and answering the same questions over and over again. Everyone can focus on their actual work instead of “how things work here” because all the basics are laid out in the employee handbook.

Why No One is Reading (or Using) Your Employee Handbook

As you begin to craft your employee handbook, it’s important to think about the reasons that so many restaurants fall short in this area. With a clear view on what the obstacles are, you can prevent yourself from making the same mistakes as you create and roll out your own employee handbook.

Here are a few key reasons that so many restaurant employee handbooks fail:

You assume people will read it on their own

Spoiler alert: They 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 check-in’s. Don’t read it to them paragraph-by-paragraph of course.

Do a restaurant walkthrough and demonstrate the different challenges or questions they might encounter, showing how the items in the handbook will help them resolve things.

Also make sure that initial training isn’t the only time you reference the handbook. Ask managers and other team leaders to show how they use it in their everyday work. Do a teamwide refresher course whenever you update the handbook (which should be at least once per year).

Why No One is Reading (or Using) Your Employee Handbook

Your employee handbook is full of corporate jargon

If your handbook reads like it’s a bunch of legal language, don’t expect people to use it

(or understand it).

Use simple language. Get a freelance designer to spruce it up and include images, infographics, and photos. Think about the experience of reading and walking through the actual document to make it more useful to employees.

Another way to make your employee handbook more realistic is to clearly lay out its goals and benefits. If your restaurant is driving for a new revenue target or working towards a specific local award, help staff understand that using this handy guide will help the team reach that goal.

Don’t forget to mention that great service and efficient operations lead to more tips and more revenue, so there’s some financial motivation in it for your team as well.

You rushed through the onboarding process

Sure, it was the dinner rush and everyone got busy. But now you’ve got an employee serving guests that doesn’t know what they’re doing. Next thing you know, a chit wasn’t completely read and peanuts were put into a dish, which lead to a guest having a severe allergic reaction on your dining room floor. Now you’ve got a legal dispute on your hands.

Don’t open yourself up for legal liability because you sped through the training and didn’t make sure the new hire was fully versed in everything contained in the handbook.

Make your handbook a series of checklists and workflows that simplify standard tasks and can be revisited on a regular basis. There should be easy-to-use “pull outs” within the handbook that staff are able to use during every shift or even weekly.

When you build your handbook into the training process interactively, you’re constantly onboarding people into doing a great job rather than a rushed introduction to the role.

You failed to link it to employee performance

Handbooks are really how (and why) you want employees to perform.

Used in the right away, a handbook can be a good way to measure employee performance. If you take the time to spell out how you want specific roles to be carried out in the handbook, this makes total sense.

Back to the idea of checklists, you can find ways to score checklists as they are completed to help understand where gaps in performance are and assist employees with improving their skills. There are even restaurant inspection apps out there to help you automate this process.

Lastly, make sure you explain the “why” behind specific workplace norms. Go through the reasoning so that employees are more motivated to comply because they understand the value in doing things a specific way.

Your handbook doesn’t help employees solve real problems

A good handbook will include two important aspects in terms of problem resolution.

The first should be clear steps for employees to take to be able to solve (most) problems on their own. The second should be an issue management chain that directs them how to escalate issues (generally to management) so they can get resolved. This can be anything from conflicts with guests to lack of supplies needed to complete their work.

The instructions in the handbook should be integrated with the systems you’re using in the restaurant such as mobile auditing software and POS systems. This keeps employees referring back to the handbook as a living document because they need it to tackle their everyday tasks.

How To Create (and Get Your Team to Use) a Great Employee Handbook for Your Restaurant

While creating a great employee handbook is more of an art than a science, there are some essential elements. In some cases, you may be legally required to include certain employment law information so be sure to check out the relevant regulations on this in your respective area.

Here we’ll talk through the specifics of pulling together and using a high-quality employee handbook while sharing a few examples of restaurants that have gotten it right:

Research restaurants (and other businesses) that have nailed it

Chili’s did a great job on theirs by taking a different approach to employee handbooks. In their revamped handbook, they insisted on telling a compelling brand story, used informal language, and kept it concise by directing employees to a website for more details.

The chain restaurant also made it a collaborative process across their legal, marketing, and public relations teams so that all bases were covered. They also make a point of updating the handbook often to keep the content appealing and relevant for employees.

Don’t be afraid to look to other industries to see how they’re innovating when it comes to employee handbooks.

Pick a great name for your handbook

The best way to start making your employee handbook stand apart is to pick a creative name and theme.

We do not recommend “[Insert Restaurant] Employee Handbook.” That will not entice people to read it and use it.

Pick something with a friendly tone such as “The How Things Work Around Here Guide” or “The Way Our Team Works Together.” You can also tie it to the kind of experiences you’re trying to foster for guests by calling it “The Guide to Great Dining Experiences” to give it more of an aspirational touch.

While it likely won’t end up on the bestseller list, little touches like this can make your handbook a bit more lively. For employees who are used to tedious handbooks from other restaurants, giving them a refreshing approach will help build a better culture and provide them with value for their work.

Make it personal

Take the time to actually welcome people to your team.

Write a personal welcome letter and put it at the front of the handbook. Tell your own story and the history of the restaurant itself. Talk about what inspired your restaurant’s roots. Discuss the people who helped make it a great place for guests.

Even as you get into the meat of the document, consider including example boxes of actual experiences in the restaurant that you can use as teachable moments. Your staff will appreciate the inclusion of real people and stories that livens up the copy.

Include the essential elements in your employee handbook

Include the essential elements in your employee handbook

While it might seem like a surefire way to get people to avoid your handbook, some stuff just needs to be covered. Here’s a quick list of the items you’ll want to consider including:

  • Scheduling policies (no-call, no show policy, swapping, time off, leave policies, hours, overtime, holidays, breaks, etc.)

  • Payment policies (tips, salary, bonuses, etc.)

  • Benefits (health, dental, vision, etc.)

  • Code of conduct (dress code, behavior, disciplinary procedures, harassment statement, phone usage, etc.)

  • Safety policies (reporting incidents, documentation, etc.)

  • Technology (kitchen systems, POS systems, training technology, etc.)

  • Referral program

  • Human resource policies (hiring, onboarding, termination, resignation, exit interviews, etc.)

  • Disclaimer (just a note that the handbook is a general guideline for employees and not intended to be comprehensive)

  • Employee sign-off form (where employees indicate that they’ve received the handbook, read it and understand it)

The final steps to take with your employee handbook

You’ve done the hard work to create an engaging employee handbook for your restaurant. Now it’s all about how you get it ready for use and how you actually leverage it with your team. A few final steps you’ll want to take as you prepare your handbook for the team:

  1. Have a lawyer review it. Work with an employment law attorney to ensure that the language in the document is within legal parameters and covers all your legal bases.

  2. Document previous versions of the handbook. You’ll need this in the case of litigation. It’s also good practice to be tracking policy changes over time.

  3. Give the staff a refresher. Walkthrough the new handbook with your current staff. Even if not everyone is new to the team, the handbook has changed and everyone needs reminders from time to time. Be sure to get new staff trained on it as well in between updates.

Once you’ve put some creative energy into making a truly unique employee handbook and taken these final steps, make sure you’re keeping this tool alive with your team. Whether you turn your handbook into an interactive website, an app, or just a simple paper document with checklists, following these tips to help your restaurant stand apart with an excellent employee handbook.

Justine Lachapelle
Justine Lachapelle
Head of People Operations
ChefHero