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Published: 30 January 2020

Do I Need Policies?

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Every time I begin an engagement with a client and start to learn about a new business and industry, one of the most common questions that I’m asked, regardless of the organisation I’m working with is ‘Do I really need HR policies?’

My old school HR counterparts (and perhaps some of my legal eagle mates) will absolutely argue for the need for a detailed, readily available, signed-off and trained in Policy and Procedure manual. Policies, procedures or guidelines as they are more often being referred to these days, can be the bane of the People Team and Business Owner’s existence. If you have them, you need to make sure they are accessible to your staff, they need to be able to be read, understood, remembered and adhered to plus you’ll need to regularly review and update them so they remain contemporaneous. And… proceed with caution, because you will need to comply with your own policies and not just expect your team to adhere to them. If you’re not familiar with Nikolich v Goldman Sachs J B Were Services Pty Ltd [2006] FCA 784, it fundamentally changed the landscape of employment policies and procedures across Australia.

Why can’t you just have a good culture in your organisation and rely on that to ‘sort out any issues’ or, take the Netflix approach and just treat people like adults and expect them to behave like adults, therefore, avoiding the need for onerous policies, procedures and documentation?

Personally, I’m against having a policy or procedure for every move a staff member makes in an organisation. I think you shouldn’t dictate everything to your team and need to afford some freedoms within a healthy culture. That being said, the bare minimum guidelines I really advocate for are:

Code of Conduct: if your culture and values are important to you and you want to have a healthy workplace, why wouldn’t you document this in an engaging way so that your team can buy-in from the get go (even prior to employment offer!). This document can be your compass by which to reward and challenge all behaviours in the company. It is also most likely to be relied upon during any type of performance improvement, disciplinary process or separation for poor behaviour;
Safety & Health: aside from your Work Safe obligations, sending your team home in the same shape (or better!) that they came to work in is of paramount importance to most businesses. Whether it be avoiding a workers compensation claim, ensuring the smooth and safe operation of expensive equipment or generally being a good corporate citizen, this document is pretty much non-negotiable.
Technology (and Social Media): is prolific in our society and our workplaces these days. As the barriers between home and work, personal and professional become blurrier by the day, and the cost of technology and social media fails become more prevalent, it is unwise not to have a clear guideline explaining how this works in your business.
Leave Management: accruing and taking leave is one of the most important employment aspects to permanent staff. Given that many types of leave are governed by the National Employment Standards or Long Service Leave Acts, having a leave management guideline is more to support your team in understanding how leave works in your organisation
Financial Management: this document should cover things such as fiduciary duties, theft, fraud, cash management and reporting. It is crucial to clearly state that transparent and ethical conduct when it comes to cash, property and finances (important assets for your business) is a big enough deal to document. Note: depending on the type of business I’m working with, I’m open to negotiating leaving this guideline out!
It won’t surprise you that these minimum documents should be written in plain english so that anyone can grasp them, short and snappy, so you have a chance of them actually being remembered and followed and engaging as well as enlightening for your team. They should enhance their employment experience, not detract from it. Depending on the work environment, I also prefer to call them guidelines rather than policies, which allows a degree of flexibility and discretion by both parties in following these documents. However, this is not always appropriate for every workplace!

I also work with organisations where particular unusual guidelines are required such as special procedures around mandatory child safety reporting, Bring-Your-Own Device (BYOD), House Policies for alcohol management and even things like ‘mood boards’ for dress standards. All of these documents are specifically tailored to the organisational context, carefully evaluated (and debated!) for their utility and implemented in the most engaging way for staff.

So, the long and short answer to ‘do I really need policies?’ is generally, no! You can have a few minimal guidelines, a healthy workplace culture and we will work on the rest.

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