When HR professionals talk about an employee handbook, the image in their heads is likely one of a large volume of rules, regulations, policies and similar information delivered either electronically or in physical form.
While that may be the case for employee handbooks in many U.S. workplaces, some employers treat these documents differently. Some might highlight their company culture, or supplement their handbook with a welcome kit.
And then there are those adopting an anti-employee handbook approach, like auto manufacturer and energy company Tesla. A leaked version of the company’s "Anti-Handbook Handbook" was uploaded to literary platform Scribd last month by Business Insider.
"If you're looking for a traditional employee handbook filled with policies and rules, you won't find one," the document reads. "Policies and rules tell you where the bottom line is — they tell you how poorly you can perform before you get shown the door. That's not us." The document points employees to an internal website, where they can find information about pay, time off and other policies.
Tesla did not respond to an HR Dive inquiry attempting to confirm the document's authenticity, but Business Insider reportedly reviewed photos of the handbook.
Overall, the anti-handbook focuses on Tesla's standards rather than serving as a detailed description of the company's obligations under state, federal and local laws. It contains bullet points about safety and brief descriptions of Tesla's time off, attendance, tardiness and vacation policies, among others. A section titled "stupid stuff" outlines potential infractions and includes the following: "If you think you're the type of person who might do something that could be on a list of stupid stuff, do us all a favor and leave now."
Upon reading Tesla's anti-handbook, Vedder Price shareholder Jonathan Wexler told HR Dive in an interview that he was initially surprised.
"I've never seen a handbook like this."
Shareholder, Vedder Price
Wexler said, noting that in his experience, most companies tend to create handbooks that are filled with volumes of policy — a more traditional approach. "Tesla is intending to be the polar opposite."
While atypical, Tesla's casual approach is somewhat similar to onboarding materials used by other companies. One example is video game developer Valve, whose 2012 "Handbook for New Employees," obtained by The Verge, took a conversational approach. The handbook even included light-hearted, step-by-step comics demonstrating how employees take vacations and move their desks.
Wexler said he's not aware of any state or federal law that requires employees to have an employee handbook, but said there are certain notices employers must post on their premises.
That includes poster requirements for laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as similar requirements under state and local law. California, for example, requires that employers post notices about the state's paid sick leave entitlements and whistleblower protections, among other items.
There may also be situations in which an employer's failure to spell out the details of policies might end up being an issue in the event of legal action. One 2017 lawsuit saw a judge refuse to dismiss an employee's FMLA claim after the employer's poorly-worded policy allegedly caused the employee to be confused as to how much leave she had available.
However, it doesn't necessarily matter that Tesla's anti-handbook omits much of the pieces of a traditional employee handbook, Wexler said, as the company seems to indicate additional information exists on an internal page. The company appears to divide up those traditional components and provide a shorter summary in the anti-handbook document.
"I think it's a highly idiosyncratic decision, which may be fine," Wexler said, noting that it appears Tesla wanted to set expectations for employees and inform them the company will treat workers like adults. "I think that's appropriate."
Is it for everyone?
Though the anti-handbook may help set the tone Tesla wants to put in front of new employees, Wexler said he wouldn't necessarily recommend it to clients.
"I don't think many employers would make a choice like this," he said. "I would add everything."
A traditional handbook with all of the details about the employer's legal obligations and policies makes sense, Wexler said, although it may be a good idea to take cues from Tesla's decision to use an intranet. That could make it easier for employees to access and easier for employers to update, he noted. "When there's a change in policy, let employees know in an email."
The anti-handbook format may also fit the needs of an employer that wants to lay out its philosophy on employee relations instead of doing so in a large document, but it still lacks much of the information employers must convey to their workers, Wexler said.
"It's interesting. It's different. I suppose it will be seen whether it works for Tesla."