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The Startup’s Secret Weapon for Saving Time, Reducing Risk, and Retaining Talent

As the old saying goes, 'how you spend your time is how you spend your life.' That certainly applies to entrepreneurship as well -- spend your time wisely and your business will flourish. In this guest post, Bob Cerone, CEO of Cognos HR, shares his tips on how you can make the most of your startup's most precious commodity

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Guest Author: Bob CeroneCEO, Cognos HR

If you’re a startup founder, time is your scarcest and most valuable resource. And no wonder: when priorities change by the minute, it’s almost impossible to establish processes that boost efficiency. And it’s just as hard to delegate when everyone’s already wearing several hats.

The good news: there’s a simple document that will not only save you time but also help you reduce risk and retain top talent. It’s time-tested, it’s proven, and every business should have it – it’s the employee handbook. Yes, that old thing. You thought you didn’t need one but you actually do.

Here’s how it helps:

    • You won’t have to answer the same questions over and over.

What’s your PTO policy? Do you offer dental insurance? How do you calculate bonuses? Without a handbook, you have to answer these questions every time they’re asked. When you put them in a handbook, all you have to do is point your team there. Sure, there will always be more complex questions but with fewer interruptions to your day, you’ll get more done.

  • You’ll reduce your risk exposure.

No law requires you to have a handbook, but you are required to inform your employees of certain federal, state, and local laws. You’re also required to have certain policies in place (including ones for discrimination and sexual harassment). Most founders say they have a zero-tolerance policy for both, but guess what: if it’s not written anywhere, there is no policy. The handbook takes care of both requirements while making sure essential information lives in one place.

    • You’ll establish consistency.

Do you have a plan for making sure every employee receives the same treatment and has to follow the same rules? Usually, this isn’t a problem in the early days. But right around the five-employee mark, problems start to crop up. Why is so-and-so allowed to work remote when we all have to be here? Why does this guy come in late when I’m here at 8:00? In your handbook, you can lay out clear performance expectations and what happens if people don’t meet them. Then you avoid internal resentment (which can sap productivity) and, in extreme cases, lawsuits from employees who feel they’ve been discriminated against.

  • You’ll avoid decision fatigue.

How do you handle time-off requests? Salary negotiations? Remote work requests? Document your policies in a handbook, and you’ll only have to make the decision once, rather than every time an employee has a question.

    • You’ll avoid misunderstandings around PTO.

Unlimited PTO is hot right now – and a great way for startups to compete with big companies for talent. But without guidelines, someone will inevitably use their unlimited PTO in a way that feels like they’re taking advantage of you. Avoid this problem by laying out guidelines in your handbook: you can’t take off every Monday, for example, or you have to get written approval.

    • You’ll have guidelines for maternity/paternity leave.

Whatever you do for the first person who wants to take time off for a new baby is what you have to do for everyone. This is not something you want to decide on the fly. It’s also not something you want to delay planning: we’ve worked with companies whose employees were actively job hunting simply to find an employer with a stated parental leave policy. This is a big deal to people!

  • You’ll have support for any performance related conversations

One nice thing about an employee handbook is that it’s a really adaptable document. In addition to including legal policies, you can include expectations about workplace behavior and company-related social media use. In the event that you need to talk to an employee about behavior that’s causing a problem, your handbook will provide you with a framework for the conversation.

When & How to Make Your Handbook

While every startup is different, we’ve found that the best time to start documenting your policies is around the five-employee mark. At that point, your risk exposure is still relatively small, so you’ll set yourself up to avoid more risk as you grow.

Just as important, creating a handbook at this phase is valuable as an exercise. Putting policies in writing forces you to clarify your philosophy, which helps you build your business with intention and grow the culture you want. If you’ve established your brand’s mission, vision, and values, these can go in there too. Yes, creating the handbook takes some time, but think of it as a small investment now that will pay for itself every time you can point to the handbook rather than explaining a policy (again).

As for the how, you can find handbook templates online, but we don’t recommend them. Often, they’re out of date (laws change!) or designed for larger companies. If you use a handbook template for a company of 50+ employees, you could be agreeing to do all kinds of things you’re not legally obligated to do, which can be expensive.

Instead, we recommend working with an employment lawyer or an HR expert. Once you have your handbook in place, set aside time every year to update it as needed (changed policies, new laws, etc.). Again -- for a little time cost now, you can save hundreds of hours down the road.


The opinions expressed here by 1871 guest writers are their own, not those of 1871. To learn more about Cognos HR, follow this link.

Topics: Insights

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