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What are workplace policies?

Employees find it helpful to understand what the rules are that cover their workplace. These can be provided in policies, procedures, codes, rules and guidelines.

Setting clear and consistent expectations for employees across the organisation, helps to prevent misunderstandings, and employees having to guess what is expected from them. In relation to:

  • their specific job, a person’s job description and their employment agreement help set the expectation.
  • additional expectations that cover all or many of the employees in a workplace, expectations are set by creating policies, procedures, manuals, rules, codes and guidelines. These support employment agreements by providing information on rights and responsibilities in specific areas (that may or may not be also mentioned briefly in an employment agreement).

Policies, procedures, rules, codes and guidelines:

  • can cover a wide range of areas eg conduct, health and safety, workplace change, lateness and absence, IT usage, conflicts of interest and accepting gifts, privacy, training and development, flexible working, managing performance issues, overtime, etc.
  • are usually recorded in writing, however some workplace rules may not be written down but have become established as part of custom and practice. It is recommended that unwritten rules be recorded in writing if there have been misunderstandings or issues with staff not following them.
  • should never be inconsistent with or contradict employment agreements. If they do, the employment agreement is likely to apply (as long as the relevant clause is reasonable and legal).

Alerting employees to the existence of policies, procedures and rules

Many employment agreements contain clauses requiring employees to keep themselves up to date with and follow all workplace policies, procedures and rules. Even if this clause is included in employment agreements, it is recommended that employers bring policies to the attention of new employees, and alert existing employees to any changes or new policies or procedures which are developed.

If a policy or procedure is difficult for an employee to find and it has not been specifically brought to their attention, it may not be reasonable for an employer to try to rely on it if a misconduct issue for not following a policy requirement comes up.

Whether employee (and/or union) consultation is required for policies varies from workplace to workplace; this requirement can arise from being stated in an employment agreement (individual or collective), or can come from a policy itself. It is recommended that employees be consulted with on policies even if this isn’t a formal requirement. This can help to have policy that will be effective and more easily understood.

A policy usually has principles to be followed in a particular situation, for example, a leave policy might explain expectations for staff requesting leave, like applying at least a week in advance. Policies often have an accompanying procedure, the policy often contains principles - the ‘what’, the procedure is the ‘how’.

A procedure explains the way something should be done, for example, the forms that need to be filled out for requesting leave.

There’ll often (but not always) be both a policy and a procedure for a particular topic. For example, health and safety policy might be linked to an accident reporting procedure. The policy might cover:

  • the aims of keeping people safe
  • taking time off for illness
  • achieving a good work-life balance.

‘Code’ can be used as another way of describing a policy, for example, a Code of Conduct is really a policy on acceptable behaviour, a Dress Code is a policy on appropriate dress in the workplace.

Guidelines are often used to guide a person’s thinking in a situation where they have some discretion. Guidelines shouldn’t be prescriptive but provide a framework of things to consider before a person makes a decision.

Writing policies, procedures, codes, rules and guidelines

As an employer, when writing policies. do:

  • think about your organisation’s requirements.
  • think about issues that have come up in the past, and how you might avoid them happening again.
  • think about any questions you have had from staff – “How do I...?”, “Can I...?", “Am I allowed to...?”, “What would happen if I...?”.
  • consider policies and procedures that you know other employers in your industry have that might be useful.
  • ask your employees (and unions) if they think that there are gaps or areas that could be clarified by policy, procedure etc.
  • think about any legislation or common law that may apply to this area, check with your legal advisors if you aren’t sure.
  • think about what is fair and reasonable.
  • think about the workplace culture you want to maintain or create.
  • think about how you will make sure that people follow the document you’ve created.
  • use relevant documents other people have written as a starting point if you are stuck (but make sure that what you come up with suits your own organisation).

Don’t:

  • assume that just because you know what you want your employees to do in a particular area that they will think the same way that you do.
  • produce paperwork and rules for the sake of it, all your policies should be needed, for example, if you don’t issue company credit cards, you don’t need a credit card usage policy even if you had one in a previous organisation.

When the policy, procedure, code, rule or guideline is drafted:

  • you should generally ask staff and unions to give you feedback (unless the procedure etc. is minor or has no room for flexibility or changes), and consider their views before you release the final version.
  • bring the document to the attention of staff who have to follow it (and send a copy to the union); this can be done in many ways, for example, by displaying it on staff noticeboards and on the organisation intranet, discussing it in team meetings and putting it in manuals that all staff have access to, emailing it to staff or giving them hardcopies.
  • diarise a suitable review date to make sure that it is still fit for purpose.

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