DO YOUR “BEHAVIOUR POLICIES” WORK FOR YOU – OR AGAINST YOU?

Your behaviour workplace policies should be working for you, not against you. Clear, contemporary and comprehensive employment policies are vital in managing organisational “people risk”.

Unfortunately, the case law is littered with examples of flawed policies that have sabotaged employers’ attempts to reasonably minimise and manage conflict and misconduct in their workplaces.

The recent changes to OH & S and EO legislation have seen HR risk management move even more explicitly towards a proactive paradigm. Now, more than ever, employers have a responsibility to ensure that their behaviour policies are up to date and effective.

It’s too late to realise that your policies are inadequate when you are in the midst of dealing with a workplace conflict or misconduct issue. And whilst you may have an inkling that you need to update your policies, how often, with the best of intentions, does that get put on the “to do” list?

The scope, content and design of policies are all integral to their success. How do your policies measure up?

SCOPE

Many of the policies which we update concerning employee and employer obligations are unclear in their scope. When creating these policies, think about what you want to achieve at the other end. A policy should be clear about what your organisation’s position is and set parameters as to what is acceptable behaviour. The policy should clearly explain both the employer and the employee’s responsibilities in the workplace and the consequences for non compliance. A policy which sets standards but does not explain the consequences of breaching those standards is not going to be of much practical assistance to anybody.

Grievance handling policies, for example, should clearly set out the process by which complaints are dealt with, and what the” trigger” for a complaint handling process is. The complaint handling processes under different policies should be compatible. That way if, for example, allegations of sexual harassment and bullying are made in the same complaint, and two policies potentially apply, then there is a clear path set out for the Human Resources Manager to navigate.

CONTENT

We find that many organisations are struggling to work with “generic” policies that don’t address the needs of their particular business. Whilst it can be tempting to adopt a “standard” or off the shelf set of policies and “hope for the best”, the content should be tailored to the needs of your particular organisation.

While all employers and employees will have certain responsibilities that are proscribed by law, no two workplaces are the same. Different organisations have their own set of workplace dynamics. These will also affect what content is required.

For example, social media may be an integral part of a young advertising agency’s work and therefore the agency may set broad parameters or guidelines for employees when using social media. On the other hand, an organisation such as a bank may be subject to strict regulatory guidelines. They may want to tightly manage its employees’ use of social media in a workplace setting.

From time to time, we come across organisations that have a policy that is not even formally documented. In those cases, employees may have been operating under an “understanding” for years which can lead to inconsistent approaches and staff taking liberties. If a problem arises and there is no written policy in place, the employer will find it very difficult to enforce an “understanding” and discipline employees.

As a guide, a behaviour policy should include an outline of an organisation’s objectives, a statement about what it considers to be acceptable behaviour and what the disciplinary consequences are for breaching that policy. Examples can be helpful in assisting employees to understand their obligations.

Content should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that it is up to date and takes into account changes in legislation. We come across numerous examples of policies that contain references to legislation that has been amended. Each policy should include a draft number and date. It is important that there is a clear process in place for regular review of policies and that there is a nominated person within the organisation who takes responsibility for policy management.

DESIGN

Most importantly, a policy should be accessible to its users. Eliminate complicated legal language. Structure the policy so that it is logically sequenced and not repetitive. Are your policies in clear and plain English? If your organisation has a significant number of employees for whom English is a second language, then you may wish to provide versions in different languages.

Policies must include definitions of key terms. If not, this can lead to uncertainty in the application of a policy, and considerable time can be wasted in determining what a policy did or didn’t intend. Where the definition of a term is uncertain, the courts will generally construe the term against the creator of the policy. Definitions should be used in a consistent way throughout the document so that the application of the policy is clear. A policy should avoid the use of words that cannot be easily defined or measured. For instance, in the context of performance management, words such as “excellent” or “outstanding” are highly subjective and can lead to a multitude of interpretations.

The use of words such as “may”, “should” and “must” needs to be given careful consideration. Does the organisation intend for the action to be mandatory? If so, what are the repercussions for non compliance?

COMMUNICATION AND REVIEW

Just as it is essential that someone within the organisation is responsible for management of policy development and review, there also needs to be someone responsible for educating staff about policies.

Whilst the induction process is commonly used as an opportunity to educate new staff about employment policies, education must capture not just new staff but existing staff.

Organisations need to conduct regular training sessions to keep staff informed of their rights and responsibilities. Staff should be provided with copies of relevant workplace policies and policies should also be easily accessible to staff on the company intranet for example.

When did the policy in question last get updated? Are their sufficient internal resources to do so, given the myriad of issues that HR contends with every day, and the evolving landscape of “people risk”?

SUMMARY

Well constructed and up to date behaviour-related policies are crucial when dealing with people issues in the workplace. Make sure that, ahead of crunch time, your “people risk” policies are in good working order!

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