The Essential HR Handbook By Sharon Armstron Book Summary

The Essential HR Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource for Any Manager or HR Professional by Sharon Armstrong and Barbara Mitchell’s

Whether you’re a seasoned HR professional or someone in a new role, “The Essential HR Handbook” is a comprehensive resource that you can turn to for expert tools to handle any workplace situation. This book includes it all: checklists, sample forms, legal information, and more. In this Snapshot, you’ll learn expert strategies for navigating topics such as onboarding and outplacement, as well as answers to even the most complex and challenging human resources dilemmas.

The Essential HR Handbook Book Summary

  • Are looking for ways to get employees what they need to do their best work
  • Want to integrate policies that will help your organization thrive
  • Need strategies for improving your orientation and onboarding process
the essential hr handbook book cover


As a human resources professional, you care about creating a workplace that helps employees do their best work. After all, people are an organization’s most important resource and making sure they have everything they need to succeed helps the whole company reach its goals. While hiring, onboarding, and retaining excellent people will always play an essential role in human resources, there are many other challenging dilemmas managers must solve every day to maintain a healthy business environment. Human resources is a complex field, but this book will guide you through training, evaluating, and compensating employees, as well as best practices for implementing regulations concerning labor relations, safety, and inclusivity. 

One of the most important responsibilities of HR professionals is managing organizational resources, including both financial and human capital, so that your company has what it needs to reach its goals and objectives. In everything you do, from writing job descriptions to negotiating benefits packages, you help determine the course of the organization. By attracting, hiring, and retaining the best people, you enact the company’s strategic plan on a daily basis, and by continually reevaluating the efficacy of existing policies, you play an important role in helping your office remain competitive. 

Although human resources tends to function as its own department, it’s crucial for HR professionals to learn the language of the company they represent and understand the company’s culture. The more you understand about the field you’re working in, the more essential you’ll be to your workplace. Participate in discussions about your company’s overall strategy and direction and seek out leaders that can give you inside knowledge of current projects, top priorities, and ongoing challenges. By understanding the environment you’re in, you’ll be well-equipped to fulfill the needs of the people working there. After all, they depend on you for support.

Acquiring, Onboarding, and Developing Talent  

Hiring the right people is one of the most important ways you can add value to your organization. Choose talented, loyal, kind, and hardworking staff, and you’ll reap the benefits for years to come. But if you settle for mediocre hires, you’ll likely be dealing with unnecessary headaches and regrets. Not only that, but hiring lower quality staff increases turnover (and all the costs associated with it) and negatively impacts the morale of other employees. 

Finding people who are the best fit for your company starts with the job description: make sure it’s clear, thorough, and includes a list of benefits. From the start, you want to capture what makes your organization different from others, so try to describe the company’s culture accurately. When you do find qualified applicants, set up a behavioral interview with questions designed to draw out candidates’ real experiences and demonstrate their ability to function well in the job. Some important topics to cover are: ability to work under pressure, conflict management, decision-making, and problem-solving. By asking open-ended questions like “tell me about a time when…” you’ll learn how potential hires respond to diverse situations. 

Onboarding and orientation are also crucial moments for your organization and the people you hire. The training process sets the tone for what staff can expect the workplace to be like and getting them started on the right foot affects their future motivation and engagement. Your goal for orientation is to equip new hires with everything they need to perform well in their new position. Through this training, employees should develop an understanding of the company’s history, mission, and future objectives. They’ll also need to learn about specific policies, procedures, and protocols that affect how they do their jobs. The orientation process is crucial for creating a positive first impression, so managers should create a welcoming environment that allows new hires to meet their colleagues, learn more about their new role, and gradually acclimate to their new surroundings. 

Since you’re working on behalf of the people in your organization, it helps to take a moment to consider things from their point of view, especially when it comes to ongoing training and development. Almost no one wants a stagnant job with few challenges; instead, people are energized when given the chance to develop their professional and interpersonal skills. But adult learners can still seem reluctant to participate in ongoing training because they may feel defensive or insecure about learning new things, and staff can sometimes resist mandatory training sessions because they believe they’re a waste of time. When managing adult learners, it’s vital to show them practical, real-world examples of how their training will help them so that they’re invested in the process. The more you allow them to define their own objectives and choose the skills that would most help them reach their goals, the more engaged they will be.

Evaluations, Benefits, and Compensation  

Although many people claim to dread performance reviews, most employees actually want to gain a sense of how they’re doing and what they might need to do to improve. Evaluations are one of the most important tasks for managers and HR professionals to conduct because they help determine which employees are meeting expectations and which need more guidance. Not only that, evaluations communicate corporate goals, identify the best employees, and help staff take responsibility for areas of improvement. 

So, how can you administer an effective performance review? Keep these five tips in mind:  

  1. Encourage employees to participate by rating themselves, identifying challenges, and sharing their concerns throughout the process. 
  2. Maintain an upbeat, can-do attitude and try to focus on positive, constructive steps that can be taken to make improvements. 
  3. Facilitate mutual problem-solving by giving staff opportunities to find solutions to problems that are addressed in the performance review. 
  4. Equip employees to set objectives for themselves that align with the organization’s objectives and aim for goals with measurable outcomes. 
  5. Provide clear, practical examples of how results can be achieved before the next evaluation period.  

By approaching evaluations with a positive, collaborative attitude, you create the opportunity for a productive dialogue, during which your staff feels motivated, valued, and supported. 

Benefits are the cornerstone of a competitive employee package, and they’re also one of the most important ways to retain staff for the long-term. In addition to government-man-dated benefits for salaried employees — like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and family and medical leave — your organization may choose to offer perks such as paid time off, holidays, sick leave, or vacation time. Health insurance is another exceptional benefit that top employees look for, especially with the rising costs of premiums these days. Each organization must weigh the pros and cons to determine the set of benefits that best fits their culture and will keep them most competitive in the recruitment marketplace. 

Although compensation can take many forms — pay, benefits, retirement packages, pensions, and other options — most offers focus primarily on cash remuneration. It can be challenging to figure out the appropriate pay ranges for certain positions, but there are reliable resources, such as the WorldatWork Survey Handbook and Directory, that provide pay ranges and are more accurate than online sources. Pay delivers a strong message to staff, so it’s important that you communicate carefully about compensation. It’s up to your organization’s leaders to decide how transparent you want to be when talking about offers, raises, and other data, and at times, you may have to withhold information. In all cases, it’s important to exercise good managerial judgement and always check with executive leadership before making a decision.

Employee Relations and Legal Considerations  

When interacting with employees, it’s in everyone’s best interest for HR professionals to model respectful, considerate behavior. This practice helps staff feel valued and heard, no matter the circumstances. Even when it’s difficult, keep in mind that your success is measured by how well you handle employee issues, and your role is to help employees get what they need so that they can contribute to the company’s goals. 

To that end, you’ll sometimes have to facilitate difficult conversations with staff. When providing corrective feedback, clearly state the behavior that’s unacceptable and give examples of specific instances of this behavior. Then explain the effect this behavior has on the company; for example, “Katie, I’m concerned that you’re spending large amounts of time on personal phone calls, which could cost us customers and is also distracting to your colleagues.” Next, state your expectations for how the behavior should improve and give encouragement: “Katie, you can turn this around because I know you have the potential to be one of our best representatives.” During this conversation, let the employee know that you also want to hear what they need, and you want to help them get every resource so that they feel equipped to do their job. 

While it can be uncomfortable to correct unsatisfactory performance, many hardworking employees appreciate a chance to ask for help with something they don’t understand or to let you know when they don’t have what they need to do their best. Often, these conversations reveal factors contributing to poor performance that the company and employee can address together. 

When these initial conversations don’t improve the problem, it’s time to move through a series of disciplinary actions. Progressive discipline provides a chance for a manager to clearly articulate expectations, set timeframes for improvement, and give warnings about future consequences. After an informal discussion, these steps include a verbal warning, written warning, final warning, and termination notice. Along the way, if an employee has responded well and is meeting expectations, reward their efforts and praise them with success. But if they’re not responding or improving, it’s probably time to begin the termination process. 

While you should always consult legal counsel when appropriate, it’s helpful to have an overall understanding of the legal framework that guides HR professionals. There are many workplace laws aimed at protecting the rights of employees, and some of the ones you’ll encounter most often are as follows:  

  • The EEO, or Equal Employment Opportunity law, bars discrimination against employees based on race, gender, religion, nationality, physical or mental disability, or age. Mandatory retirement is illegal in most cases. 
  • The BFOQ, or Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications law, provides for certain protected characteristics in hiring. For example, if a religious institution wants to exclude applicants who don’t share its beliefs, it’s their right to do so. 
  • The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for potential hires and employees who are disabled or have a record of disability.  

When conducting interviews, making offers, and writing contracts, you’ll want to be especially careful about what you say because your statements can be legally binding, even if they’re not written down. Steer clear of statements that could be understood as promises (“You’ll be VP in six months if you stay in this position”) and make sure that the contract is written to include the statement that the employment is an “at-will” position. Carefully creating these documents is the best way to make sure you, your company, and the employee are all protected for the duration of your time together.


As a human resources professional, your role is crucial to the success of your organization. You have the special responsibility of helping choose your colleagues and the unique duty of balancing your company’s objectives and your employees’ needs. Just by doing your job, you contribute to creating a positive, productive workplace where people are valued and treated fairly. Not only do you connect people to the resources they need to be their best at work, but you also help them navigate the personal and professional challenges that often arise on the job. In this Snapshot, you learned some of the best practices for creating a welcoming, fair, and supportive workplace one where ideas can be shared, and employees can grow. Through recruiting, onboarding, and training, you have the opportunity to choose staff that will carry out the goals of your organization, and through evaluations, you can effectively address problems that might keep people from performing well. By practicing empathy and treating others as you would like to be treated, you’ll gain the respect of your staff, and by listening to their needs, you’ll be able to equip them with helpful tools to do their best. In a competitive, constantly changing market, your skills help ensure that your company thrives, and your employees are fulfilled and engaged in their work.

About the Author

Sharon Armstrong

Sharon Armstrong has worked as a human resources professional for over 30 years and now runs a talent brokerage agency. She is also the author of The Essential Performance Review Handbook

Barbara Mitchell has authored dozens of books and articles in the field of human resources and is a managing partner of The Mitchell Group, an organizational consulting practice.

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