Do you know how many employees have actually read your employee handbook? Or opened it, for that matter? According to a GuideSpark benefit survey from 2014, 50% of millennials (folks born after 1980) didn’t read their employee handbook, and 36% don’t even know where it is anymore. 33% of young boomers (folks in their fifties or sixties) didn’t read their handbook, and out of the 23% that did read it, 25% didn’t find it helpful. 11% of employees didn’t even open their handbooks. 

Our director of talent and operations Kristen McConnell spoke with Jen Lowrance, founder of Storybridge Creations, about her innovative new approach to employee handbook design. Jen has worked in HR for 20 years, so she has watched trends evolve over the course of her career that has caused this problem. She believes that the slow death of the employee handbook may be contributing to some of the issues we are seeing with workplace culture, disengagement, and turnover. 

Jen shared some insights on the new kind of employee handbook revolutionizing the way that new hires read about their employer and company policies: the graphic novel format. Keep reading to discover the power and potential of this visual medium in the workplace.

The Changing Role of Employee Handbooks 

A comprehensive employee handbook has always been a key tool for impactful onboarding and wayfinding. It’s a new employee’s first introduction to company policies: it presents critical information on the company they have just joined and informs them about company values, what’s important to the company and what behaviors are valued there. It becomes a reference document of sorts for established employees to check when they have questions. And of course, it provides employer protection against legal actions that employees may take.

Because HR is typically responsible for creating and maintaining employee handbooks, we know that there’s always room for improvement—and it’s a task that often gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. We also know that even the most up-to-date and well-written employee handbooks can be neglected and forgotten by busy employees, leading to conflicts and problems that eventually result in termination. So what’s going wrong? Why are so many bright and talented professionals ignoring their guide to a great employee experience?

You’ve probably heard that the average human attention span is getting shorter: as of 2000 it was at 15 seconds, and today it has dropped to 8.25 seconds—less than the 9-second attention span of a goldfish. Combined with lower literacy rates, American employees are just not as equipped to comprehend and retain the information in traditional handbooks the way their predecessors were twenty years ago. The average American reads at about a seventh to eighth-grade level, and 14% have below basic literacy levels. If accessing information is too hard and the value is not immediately apparent, in cases like employee policies, then employees are going to move on without engaging. In addition to being a reference guide on the policies, systems, values, and behaviors that make up your company culture, the employee handbook now has to convey that information in a way that today’s employees can understand and appreciate.

Why Graphic Novels?

It may seem like the comic book is a bit too unorthodox for professional settings. But classrooms and school libraries are increasingly turning to graphic novels to help capture the attention of young readers. The same visual elements that help young students read and understand are also why social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have exploded: they help us absorb more information, faster. Lowrance describes the graphic novel format as somewhere in-between text and animated video formats; it can still be a quick reference that allows you to find the information you need right away, but it’s also more engaging and easier to absorb than blocks of text.

Illustrated handbooks are helping meet new demands for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. While this format is more accessible for a wide range of reading abilities, it also creates an opportunity to represent diverse employees and show how they fit into company culture through nonverbal cues in images and storytelling. It’s much easier to show in pictures how your company embraces all people for the talent that they bring and how those behaviors show up in real interactions. Specific situations like sexual harassment and microaggressions can also be communicated more clearly in a narrative that shows an individual’s experience. Adding that element can resonate deeply with new employees, building trust and familiarity with your company culture at the same time. The biggest reason to incorporate illustrations in employee handbooks is simply that employees are more likely to read them. 

Working with Storybridge

Not every company will benefit from doing a full handbook in graphic novel format. Lowrance recognizes the importance of keeping legal language intact and creating something that appeals to your existing culture. It may be wise to supplement your traditional handbook with a few illustrations in key sections where they will make the most impact, such as your company’s origin story, DEI policy, or anything your organization is struggling with. Storybridge can help with any and all aspects of the handbook creation process, and Lowrance encourages clients to mine their own resources first to see if you have illustrators on your team or anyone who can help structure the handbook and determine what would work best in graphic novel format.

Before agreeing to work with someone like Lowrance on an innovative new handbook, it’s important to get executives on board and plan the change management aspects of introducing this tool to your employees. Let them know it’s coming well in advance and build excitement so they are prepared to start using the new guide right away. It may take several months to develop a full handbook, so sometimes it makes sense to break it up into separate issues like a serialized comic book that you would publish monthly.

In HR, we get to see a lot of things behind the scenes that other employees don’t: specifically, what happens when policies and procedures are not followed or enforced. The employee handbook is an opportunity to show why these policies matter in a compelling way, how they show up in the workplace and how following these guidelines directly creates a great employee experience. And handbooks are just the beginning; Lowrance believes this new format also has potential applications with training and talent attraction. 

Watch the full video of this Mulberry Conversation here and stay tuned for more exciting innovations in HR!

If your company is looking to onboard an HR team that can update your onboarding process for today’s talent, let’s get in touch!