The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

The Simple Manual On Survival

Finally, a welcome manual that people actually read

Growth and profit are a product of how people work together.– Ricardo Semler

In a Nutshell

What is the purpose of an employee handbook? Is it to inform employees about the ways of the company they’re joining? Is it to create a safety net of sorts for the company to guard itself against potential lawsuits? Or, should it be to encourage employees to use their best judgments; to act according to common sense; and to be brave enough to bend or break rules when following them would only compound the situation?

It’s not unusual to see most large organizations, their leaders and employees getting obsessed with their rulebooks. The need to consistently maintain the highest levels of productivity and efficiency have given birth to tomes of rules and rigid corporate cultures. And when there’s transgression, such companies unravel fast into chaos that gets irrevocably magnified by social media. However, the way in which a company reacts to such transgressions will have a huge impact on how customers perceive them.

This isn’t to say that rules and rulebooks are entirely useless either. But, rulebooks that guide people towards actions that make the most sense, in a given situation, will help companies stay nimble, make good calls and resolve problems fast. Voluminous company dictates that edify conventional laws of governance won’t work in the fast-paced and social media savvy market of today. Besides, employees are hardly going to read or internalize a rulebook that spans several pages and appears to be overloaded with text.


Create employee handbooks that improve the onboarding process with brief, visual and engaging content.


The foremost purpose of employee handbooks is to show people the ways in which they can survive their new workplace and its culture. In essence, an employee handbook needs to be a simple survival manual that people can come back to whenever they’re in doubt. Crafting a manual that’s visual and simple to understand helps people to quickly find what they’re looking for without having to comb through pages of rules. Rulebooks need to be like teachers who walk their students through serious aspects of the business in a step-by-step manner. Infusing the content with some well-placed humor can greatly impact how employees connect with the handbook and recall it when necessary.


Set up a committee to create the handbook: Whether your company is ready to overhaul its existing employee handbook, or this is its first shot at creating one, it’s important to identify a group of people who will take up the challenge. The core purpose of this committee should be to create a manual that informs new recruits about the key practices and work culture they will be encountering on a daily basis. It should also include several levels of employees to ensure the manual is co-created by a diverse group of employees. Use creativity to differentiate: It’s extremely important to create a handbook that’s nothing like the conventional, thick, boring and useless employee handbooks that most companies handout to new recruits. The committee should come up with suggestions on how to get creative with their manual. The content format should support informal language that explains the company’s core values and messages in a step-by-step fashion. Make it accessible to all levels of employees: Create a manual that’s accessible, fun and welcoming to new employees at all levels. The more visuals it contains and the less text there is to read, the better. The idea is to create a short manual that any employee – whether it’s an intern or a manger- can go through within minutes and understand what it’s all about. It should encapsulate the values and essence of the organization while also stating clearly what the company expects from its employees in terms of values and behaviours.  

Forget company vision and talk about company realities: One way to differentiate your organization’s survival manual is to keep the content strictly around what employees will find in the company today and not tomorrow. Most companies think of their employee handbooks as a platform to talk about what the company should be and not what it is today. Yours should express the values and aspects practiced today in the company. In short, there should be no gap between what is said and what is practiced. New recruits should be able to observe the behaviors, attitudes and actions recommended by the manual being practiced by company leaders and employees. They will then know what they can expect from others as well as how they should carry themselves at work.

The manual should be a point of reference: The survival manual’s job doesn’t end with just informing new recruits about the company, its values and expectations. Instead, it should double as point of reference that employees can come back to whenever there is dispute. For example, if the attitude of a specific manager or coworker makes another employee feel uncomfortable, then they should be able to refer to the survival manual and defend their case with it. In other words, the survival manual should be a co-created document that outlines how everybody in the workplace should behave with each other.  

Use it to improve the onboarding process: When a person gets recruited to fill a vacancy in a specific department, their onboarding process can be limited to just a day or two. They should be allowed to familiarize themselves with how things work at the company as well as who they’d be working with directly (leaders, mentors and coworkers). They should also be shown where the toilets, cafes and departments are situated. However, the onboarding process could take longer when it’s a strategic recruitment. For instance, the new CFO cannot interact with just the finance department, but will have to meet various departments and the factories to get a clear view of the larger picture. Irrespective of how long it takes to onboard a new employee, the survival manual should be an integral component of the process as it succinctly expresses all the ideas and big values of the company.

Level to implement



Co-create the survival manual with employees from all levels

Use creative and visual formats over text-heavy formats

Use simple, informal language that clearly explains all key aspects of company culture

Try to infuse the manual with some humor or familiar motifs

Use the manual to ease the onboarding process


Make the manual too long or wordy

– Assume a top-down approach while creating the manual

– Talk about practices that aren’t part of the company culture today


Eases new recruits into the company’s work culture

Helps employees at all levels immediately grasp the core values of the company

Acts like an ice-breaker, helping people connect better with the company and culture


In cultures that are very conservative or formal, this kind of an employee handbook may not be respected like a conventional guideline would be

For some people, who are more structured in their thinking, the manual’s guidelines may seem too simplistic or brief and they may need more guidance.


A few years after Ricardo Semler democratized the management style at Semco, the teams had mastered all the new practices introduced and the practices became an integral part of the culture at Semco. It was then that the management saw a need to organize the practices in order to make it easy for new employees to assimilate. At one point, this need became difficult to ignore and the management put together a committee to tackle the challenge of creating a new employee handbook.

The committee, which involved employees from all levels of the company, began looking into how they could inform new employees about the key practices and culture that they would be encountering on a daily basis. And that’s how they came up with the Simple Manual On Survival. The real purpose of the manual was to help new employees understand, navigate and survive a new and unique environment – and that’s why it was named thus.

Their intention was to create an employee handbook that was different from those usually given to new recruits in other companies. The people on the committee knew that no new employee actually wanted to read such handbooks because they were long, thick, boring and useless. So, they decided to create something that was much more accessible, fun and welcoming. Particularly, it was decided that the manual should have more visuals and less text. Even if they were talking about some serious aspects and values, they felt it must be presented with a dash of humour. They hoped for a manual that could be read within minutes; one that represented the essence of the company and its values; and made clear the company’s expectations from employees.

The main challenge in creating such a unique employee handbook was coming up with a format that was accessible and fun, while at the same time, supported a step-by-step explanation of the core practices at Semco. In a stroke of genius, the committee decided to invite Brazil’s most popular cartoonist, Miguel Pavia, to create the manual.

Pavia is a household name in Brazil, thanks to his regular comic strip column in one of Brazil’s largest newspapers. When new employees found his highly-recognizable style of cartoons in Semco’s employee handbook, it created an immediate sense of connection. True to its aim, the committee helped create a highly effective manual within just 50 pages. With the help of Pavia’s cartoons and the informal, humorous text that accompanied them, the manual was able to easily explain some very complex concepts to new recruits.



Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

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