The Open Company Handbook

Our company handbook is open—a public record of why Osio Labs exists, how we work, and how we're evolving. Coming from the Drupal community, open source principles have influenced how we build consensus and document our work, including our handbook. If you’re considering making your company handbook open, there are a few things you should consider. In the spirit of open source, we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.

Why do you need an open company handbook?

I first wrote about why we made the employee handbook public in 2017. With an open company handbook, we can be a better company and forge better relationships by:

  • recruiting people who share our values and goals
  • optimally onboarding new employees
  • holding ourselves accountable to clear, transparent ethics and policies
  • sharing our values so that potential partners, customers, and related communities get to know us

What goes into a company handbook?

When we opened up our company handbook, we started by figuring out what to include. We had a lot of internal documentation and a copy of Lullabot’s (our sibling company's) handbook that had been edited for our needs. Our primary motivations were to help us find and onboard new employees and to make implicit information explicit.

We split our documentation into 2 resources. Our public handbook covers core tenets, policies, and a high-level overview of how we work. Our operations manual is private, and gets into actual implementation and processes for both policies and daily operations (i.e. sensitive information). As an example, the handbook explains that we cover certain expenses but the ops manual explains how to submit expense reports. The ops manual is a fluid document that changes regularly as we update our processes and tools. The handbook is a stable source of policy.

Here’s an outline of what we include in our company’s employee handbook:

  • Introduction, who we are; includes our history and values
  • A welcome to guide new employees
  • Diversity and inclusion statement
  • Benefits, including policies around leave
  • Behavior and conduct expectations with examples
  • Legal information relevant to employees

Declare your manifesto

Policy and procedure details seem to be obvious content. Many companies also include some kind of manifesto or an outline of their values to guide employees towards a shared vision. Including these acts as a kind of “compass” when you need to make choices about things not yet explicitly covered in the handbook.

Hubspot calls their “Culture code” document, “part manifesto, part employee handbook, and part diary of dreams.” Netflix garnered attention for having “reinvented HR” (Harvard Business Review, 2014). They famously published a bold manifesto titled “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility” as a slide deck, and now it’s available in the “culture” part of their hiring site. However, detailed policies aren’t shared there.

Our company handbook starts with defining our values. This was a collaborative effort on the part of our earliest team members and originally based on Lullabot's values. Ours are:

  • Do great work
  • Feed creativity
  • Spread happiness
  • Work together
  • Build trust
  • Empower people
  • Care for our customers

Explicitly defining values helps to make business decisions and keeps our actions aligned with our values more concretely. It's helpful during recruitment. We make it clear who we are and people who are attracted to our values reach out to learn more. We ask applicants to tell us which value resonates with them the most and why. Partly that’s to make sure they’ve read the values, but it’s also always an interesting conversation that helps us get to know each other.

How much to reveal?

Think about what should be public and what should be private. How much detail each company reveals in its handbook varies. The Bank of England published its full company handbook as a PDF online, covering practical details from administration to handling misconduct. On the other hand, the software company Buffer prides itself on radical transparency. They share details about salaries and business practices. They often blog about their company culture and even share their revenue dashboard. Yet they don’t seem to have their employee handbook online.

You need to consider what is “sensitive” information for your organization. Personal information about the team needs to be protected, as well as business details that might compromise security. This sensitive information is partially why we have an internal operations manual.

Another aspect of pulling back the curtain is the question: How much of your internal decision making and discussion do you want to have out in the open? There’s a risk of muddying the waters about who you are and what your organization stands for when you use a fully open source and transparent approach -- like working out company policies on a public repository. GitLab is well known for being a leading influence in the open company handbook space, but the company was criticized for “hashing its corporate policies out in public.”

We discuss most company policy internally, initially. Once we’ve agreed on a change, we create an issue in GitHub. We may hammer out the details in a GitHub issue, but often the broad strokes have already been discussed.

Make the handbook collaborative

At Osio Labs, we review our vision and values at team retreats once or twice a year. We check in with each other and discuss whether the values still fit, if anything is missing, and whether updates are needed.

A handbook must be maintained. Making the document collaborative is a natural choice, especially for companies familiar with open source. It means employees help keep it up to date. It also means new employees can quickly become high-value contributors. Basecamp, a software company, encourages new employees to jump right in.

“Please take advantage of that glorious, shiny ignorance of being new, and question things.” - Basecamp’s README on GitHub

What tools are suitable for collaboration?

Practically, a company’s employee handbook could be a shared editable document in any number of systems and services. We combine collaborative document editing with GitHub issue tracking to maintain ours.

Collaborative document editing

We use Dropbox Paper and Google Docs for collaborative editing across all functions on the team. This is a good start if you want to create a collaborative employee handbook. The main issue is that it would be hard to develop an interlinked and searchable series of documents. It can get unwieldy very quickly.

Wiki

HotJar uses Confluence for their Team Manual, a kind of Wiki by Atlassian. It’s not version-controlled the way a Git repository is, but it does keep the document history. You can also search across multiple pages in a Wiki. Years ago we kept our handbook in GitHub’s Wiki, but eventually found it cumbersome.

Git repository

In contrast to directly editing a shared document, using version control allows for a meta-conversation about changes that might take place across multiple documents.

Hosting it on a repository manager like GitHub means it’s easy for people to make changes without needing to know code. GitHub has a handy way to guide new contributors through the steps in a typical “Git Flow” in the browser, allowing you to create branches and pull requests for the review and discussion process. Since we use GitHub for a lot of our daily work, this is a natural tool for us to use, and it makes it very easy to share the handbook publicly. (We've documented how to use GitHub to contribute to the handbook in our operations manual.)

Do you want to distribute it as an open source project?

Another level to apply open source principles is to apply a license, and release the content completely for remix and reuse. Without a license, it's not open source. That said, you don't have to open source your handbook for it to be an "open company handbook."

To be sure, there’s a bit of confusion as to what exactly “open source” means. No license simply means “nobody else can copy, distribute, or modify your work without being at risk of take-downs, shake-downs, or litigation.”

The most common open source license used for company handbooks, and what our handbook uses, is the CC0 1.0 Universal License, a permissive license that puts content into the public domain. For instance, a US government office called 18F (a civic consultancy) released its handbook under this license, as did SparkNotes, who said this would “allow people to review changes over time, and to let other companies build off of what we’ve published.”

Apply open source principles in business

As a company, we’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to apply open source principles in business. If you want more ideas on how to apply open source thinking and practice to your business, follow us on Twitter and join the conversation.