Creating an Employee Handbook for a Company that Hates Rules
August 17th | 2017

Zeus Jones is a company very confident in its cultural foundations.

So, it might surprise you to learn that, despite being 10 years old, we unveiled the first-ever Zeus Jones employee handbook about a month ago. Until now, our stories have remained unbound, passed from person to person through a fine oral tradition, slowly morphing from truths to kind-of truths to myths.

This is not to say we’ve been telling ourselves lies, necessarily, or that we’re clinging to some sort of old-timey cultural nirvana. But when you’ve grown from five employees to 55 employees, there’s bound to be some fuzziness in your knowledge transfer. And when you’re talking about a place that prides itself on being loose, nimble, and ready to evolve at any time, putting a pin in culture is a little like capturing lightning in a bottle.

But, eventually, you hit a tipping point.

Over the last couple of years we’ve done quite a bit of hiring. (“Quite a bit” for us is like, six people.) Each new employee is unique in his or her approach to understanding Zeus Jones, to defining what it means to work in a place where “sometimes” and “it depends” are the likely answers to most questions.

What these people had in common, though, was that it took about a year to find their footing. A year! For the most part, they understood how to manage day-to-day tasks. But it took much longer for ZJ to feel like home – to feel like they were part of our culture. Part of that delay was due to our size, and part of it was due to moving into our new space and no longer sitting around two big tables. People could no longer learn by osmosis. We needed to be deliberate, with a single purpose: cut the onboarding time in half (or better).

But – there is almost always a “but” at Zeus Jones (or an “also” or a “maybe”) – we didn’t want the thing we created to feel like the last word. It needed to feel like a guidebook, full of suggestions to be applied in multiple, personal ways, instead of a map with just a few ways to get somewhere. It couldn’t be your Grandpa’s employee handbook, full of rules and regulations.

We set out, then, to be deliberately open to interpretation. Which is pretty much what it feels like to work here. And, in true Zeus Jones fashion, we did it non-hierarchically and collaboratively, experimenting all along the way.

We pulled together a group of about 12 people, comprising the most recent hires, some old timers, and some folks in between. They represented all departments. And there were no partners.

We started by asking ourselves three questions:

1. What are our truths?

We started by looking at our founding principles - which existed only in a dusty Keynote presentation stored on someone’s laptop - as well as the previously undocumented parts of our culture that felt sacred. Not icky-sacred, but important to capture and carry forward.

2. What are our myths?

I am bastardizing the word “myth” here, but what I mean is: what are the things that we say are true, that maybe aren’t quite true? As this list started to grow, we realized that it comprised two categories: one, stuff that’s evolved over the last 10 years but whose evolution hasn’t been properly acknowledged and two, stuff that we want to be true but isn’t quite (aka stuff that needs attention and work).

3. What are the stumbling blocks?

Everyone who participated came into the room with a short list of info they wished they had known in their first days and weeks on the job, and, unsurprisingly, the lists were not dissimilar. The number one thing everyone had in common? “I wish I had known it was okay to freak out when I didn’t know everything right away."

We stood back and looked at the white board, acknowledging different experiences/opinions, and then we got to work. We funneled the more tactical bits into a list for our future Zeus Jones wiki. We created a table of contents. We agreed on a format. We started writing and designing. It was only at the end that we gut-checked with our partners, primarily to make sure we had properly represented foundational elements.

And with these three questions, “The Un-Definitive Guide to Zeus Jones” was born. We think it’s a little bit different from other employee handbooks, in that it doesn’t so much have rules and regulations, or even clear answers. What it does have is some friendly wisdom, some cultural grounding, and, we hope, a sense that we trust and respect the people we hire. It’s basically a written version of who we are, including our philosophy that when people use their best judgment, we all do our best work.

And, while we ultimately did decide to create a physical artifact, we used a print-on-demand platform that would let us upload and print new versions whenever we needed to. (We’re not crazy. We know we can never capture everything, and that things will change.)

The jury is still out on whether this will help our new hires onboard faster. (Because our last new hire started a month before it launched, natch.) It does feel good, though, to hold a real, honest-to-goodness book in our hands and feel at least a little bit of the weight and importance of our culture.