If in doubt, leave it out: Making workplace policies work

It’s only natural (for some) to try to pin things down in writing. This is particularly true for those in the people management business, and especially for those among them who are exposed to bureaucracy. That way everyone knows where they stand – right?

And so the drafting of the HR policy manual begins. Cutting and pasting from here and there while adding their lashings of common sense, the drafters of an HR policy manual do their best to spell out all manner of things relating to work. What is the social media policy? What is the organisational policy on the Christmas shutdown? Where are the tea towels kept? Then the CEO and the Board add in a few of their pet peccadillos, and a HR policy manual is born.

Sooner or later the original drafters leave the organisation. Eventually, the new policy person gets around to looking at the HR policy manual. They notice a gap in coverage, and add a few more policies, drawing from their previous workplace experience and their own brand of common sense. The new CEO and Board members do likewise. The cycle repeats itself.

Within a few years, the manual has grown to 5 times its original size. The policies overlap. Inconsistencies emerge between the ‘grievance policy’, the ‘dispute resolution policy’ and the ‘Code of Conduct’ and nobody knows which policies to apply when an intra-staff spat breaks out. In fact, the CEO isn’t even sure if the staff concerned know of the existence of the updated policies, since the version published on the intranet isn’t the version that was included in the employee induction pack. Plus one of the staff members involved in the spat is out in the field and doesn’t have access to the intranet anyway.

Does all this sound familiar?

Policies are just that – policies. That is: a document drafted by the organisation for the benefit of that organisation. Unless a policy is serving that purpose, it should be ditched.

For a start, this means policies should be clear, and internally consistent. If they aren’t, the organisation should change them so that they are. Make sure all your staff know where to find the policies, and make sure any updated versions are clearly published to everyone.

Secondly, policies should not duplicate or, worse, be inconsistent with employee entitlements located elsewhere (for example, in the employee’s contract, the relevant Modern Award, the Enterprise Agreement or the Fair Work Act). This just asks for trouble. While this all sounds terribly obvious, in my practice it is routine to see (for both NFP’s and FP’s alike) HR policy manuals including substantive entitlements (to, say, redundancy and termination of employment) that are different to the entitlements in the employee’s contract or Award. This can have unintended consequences for everyone and is particularly hard to watch given it was a wholly avoidable situation in the first place.

Thirdly, the promises (if any) made in the HR manual must be achievable. Courts will not allow clear policy statements to act as a ‘cruel hoax’ on employees.[1] Also, on a common sense level, it just upsets staff when their employer doesn’t follow its own rules. So, if the policies proclaim that the organisation ‘will investigate all grievances within 48 hours’, the organisation must be able to deliver on that – in all cases. If it can’t (and, let’s face it, who wants to be pinned down to that anyway?) then the policy should be recast in more aspirational terms. For example: ‘where appropriate, the organisation will investigate grievances within the earliest practicable timeframe.’ Workers are people, and no two people (or situations) are exactly alike. Policies must be drafted to give your organisation the ‘wiggle room’ it is going to need to respond fairly and reasonably to every workplace situation.

Finally, give some thought to whether the policy should even exist at all by asking yourself “do we really need to write this down?” Remember, the only HR policies that should exist are the ones that are necessary. Specifically, the ones that:

  • avoid legal liability (e.g.: include policies on sexual harassment, workplace surveillance, and work safety);
  • provide necessary workplace directions to employees that, if breached, can be treated as a disciplinary issue (e.g.: regarding the use of electronic communications and social media in relation to work);
  • give information to employees about basic workplace operations (e.g.: this is how to apply for annual leave); or
  • contain statements of aspiration about the organisation (e.g.: ‘we strive to be a family friendly workplace’).

HR policies that seek to go beyond this list need to be carefully contained and justified. While NFP’s have some compliance obligations they cannot avoid, they are not the public service. This means that if you look carefully at HR policies, you may well find that less is more.

[1] Nikolich v Goldman Sachs J B Were Services Pty Ltd [2006] FCA 784, [223].