Handley was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan in 1943. Prior to moving to the Northwest Territories in 1985, he worked as an educator.

Handley joined the Northwest Territories government and served as Deputy Minister in a wide number of portfolios including Deputy Minister of Education, Deputy Minister for the Departments of Renewable Resources, the NWT Housing Corporation, Transportation and Resources, Wildlife, and Economic Development. He left his career as a Deputy Minister to run for election in 1999.

Joe was appointed as Public Administrator for the Stanton Territorial Health Authority (STHA) effective December 1, 2011.

He is also involved with the National Board member for the Canadian Executive Services Organization (CESO), Yellowknife Rotary and is an Aven Manor volunteer.