Make your company handbook public

February 29th, 2024

At Airbyte, we did a lot of hiring during the zero interest rate era. It was ridiculously competitive. Every good candidate had multiple offers. Each company went to great lengths to close them, outbidding, out-persuading, and out-wining and dining the next one to get them to join.

We quickly learned that there are good and bad ways to differentiate ourselves to candidates. For example, whenever we won a candidate solely because of higher comp or title, it usually ended poorly. Candidates that were successful at the company joined because they were excited about our mission, the product, or how we worked, not because we offered an extra perk or marginally increased compensation (though we did pay pretty well).

To capitalize on this observation, we made our company handbook public. Our thinking was that by transparently and authentically broadcasting our mission and culture, we’d get more of those mission driven candidates who are more likely to succeed at Airbyte.

Since then, we heard plenty of positive feedback from candidates about it. Almost anyone who joined the company cited the handbook as a reason for their decision to join. In many cases, that clarity made the difference when they were weighing other offers.

Why is a public handbook useful when hiring?

An effective handbook gives a clear idea of what a company is about and how they work: their mission, their culture, what they value, what they dislike, the archetypes of successful employees at that company, and more.

For example, if I were writing a handbook today, I would include at least the following topics:

  • Company mission statement & values
  • Code of conduct around how we behave with each other & our customers
  • Expectations that apply to all employees around communication, working hours, work habits, etc..
  • Organizational principles e.g: around how to prioritize product decisions or how teams should be structured or interact together
  • The philosophy and processes underlying hiring, performance management, stock options, compensation, and promotions
  • Onboarding process for new employees and offboarding process for outgoing employees
  • Organizational defaults like default software for employees or default tech stack for the engineering team or the default hiring locations for distributed teams
  • Useful HR information like expense policies, benefits, holidays, etc..

Now imagine you were considering working at a company and wanted to learn where they stood on the points above. Sure, you could ask your interviewers about these points after each interview. But wouldn't it be better to go into the interview process already knowing all these things?

For one, it's more efficient since you wouldn't need to schedule a whole interview just to get 5-15 minutes to ask questions.

It also allows you to pick companies where you'd be happier and more successful. If you read all that and still decide to apply, it probably means you share their values and thrive on working there. I know I would also feel more trust in a company that is that transparent with their culture.

As a company, these are obvious benefits. Your funnel will contain more candidates who self-selected into your culture, which improves hire quality as well as retention since people knew what they were in for when they applied.

Plus, on the margin, a public handbook is a better differentiator than a little more extra salary or perks. This is because culture, which is what a handbook communicates, is nonfungible. Two offers with the same compensation or benefits cancel each other out, but two companies that publish their handbooks do not. So even if every company in the world published their handbook, they would still attract candidates more likely to a succeed in their respective environments. Winning candidates solely on salary or perks does not have that effect. Practically speaking, most companies don't publish a handbook, so those that do will gain an edge due to the transparency their handbook signals.

Making your handbook public will also result in a better handbook. If everyone online can see your handbook, you'll have a stronger incentive to keep it updated, clear, and high quality. And insofar as you believe a handbook is useful for your own employees, making it public means you’ll be forced to make it better, thus increasing its impact inside your company.

An example of how a handbook enables self selection: Posthog

At the time of writing, Posthog had an entry in their company handbook about how they prioritize work and how it impacts their hiring. Here are some selected quotes that I think do a great job of showcasing their culture:

[At Posthog, there is] no product management by default. Engineers decide what to build. ... In nearly any company, having each engineer decide what to work on would fail. They simply lack enough context. [But] PostHog is exceptionally transparent. ... It starts with hiring. We hire people we think will flourish in an autonomous environment. We often hire people with broader rather than narrower skill sets, who are more flexible. ... A high percentage of the company are engineers. 80% of the company are shipping product.

I love this part of the handbook because it authentically and unapologetically exhibits one part of what makes Posthog different. Lots of people - including engineers - will think it's crazy that engineers are running the roadmap. Those people will probably never apply to work at Posthog. But those who end up applying would probably thrive with this expectation.

The best part: it costs nothing

A relatively small percentage of companies publish their handbook.

I find this surprising because on top of all the benefits discussed above, making a handbook public has zero marginal cost. All the hard work is in creating and maintaining the content of the handbook, not changing its visibility from private to public.

If you're worried about the effort that needs to go into polishing the handbook, just publish a public Notion page. That's what we did at Airbyte.

If you're thinking "but we don't have a handbook!", I would be skeptical. Most companies above 5-10 employees have something written down about their process, values, culture, and expectations from employees. Slap it into a Notion directory and call it a handbook. You may need to clean it up, but given that it's a document setting expectations for your entire company, that's probably for the best.

Handbooks that influenced my thinking

Here are some handbooks that influenced how I think about culture and handbooks in general:

  • GitLab — the OG public handbook. Gitlab was one of if not the first tech company to publish their handbook and keep it up to date in public. It's more verbose than what I'd personally do, but it's a must-see if you're interested in this topic.
  • Airbyte — I was early at Airbyte and saw the handbook evolve with our culture, and I contributed to it as well. I'm biased, but I like that it's pretty informative while staying concise.
  • BaseCamp — DHH and Jason Friedman (the founders of Basecamp) are pretty opinionated about what makes a good company culture, and their handbook makes their opinions clear. It's a great example of how to highlight what makes your company unique.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, the following links collect some handbooks: