Table of Contents

Table of Contents

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Anyone who works in HR has heard the question “Hey, do we have a policy about XYZ?” But what even is a policy? Read on to learn more about workplace policies, how to write them, and how to use them.

What Are Workplace Policies?

Workplace policies are the rules and guidelines that dictate conduct in your organization. They address expectations for behavior in the workplace, refer to procedures and processes, describe the chain of command, and more.

Why Are Workplace Policies Important?

Workplace policies lay the foundation for how employees and employers interact and are key to a successful working environment.

  • Shared expectations. Good workplace policies spell out what is expected of employees and of the employer, so there is a shared understanding of how the work environment functions.
  • Cause and effect. Workplace policies offer both employees and employers a way of understanding cause and effect. If you do this, we do that (i.e., if you show up and do your job, you get a paycheck).
  • Equity. Used consistently, standard policies create equity for staff. In the absence of written guidelines or rules, some employees may be treated differently than others because of who they know, their gender, their title, lack of seniority, or any other characteristics that could lead to treating people inequitably.
  • Legal requirements/protection. Some policies are legally required either on a federal, state or local basis (see next section). Beyond that, having written policies that are applied equitably is a great way to ensure that you as the employer are not opening yourself up to litigation that could easily be avoided.

Types of Workplace Policies

Workplace policies typically fall into one of a few categories. Read on to learn about the major policy areas.

Legally Required Policies

All businesses, even small ones, are required by federal law to publicly post anti-harassment and anti-discrimination information, provide equal access to employment opportunities (including jobs and promotions), and provide equal pay for equal work. Many states have similar laws. Your organization should have written policies or statements addressing each of these items, usually in an employee handbook. These policies should include anti-retaliation information (whistleblower protection), which means that the employer will not punish (in any way) someone who reports discrimination or harassment.

Work Environment/Operational Policies

These are the basic policies that tell your employees what to expect in the course of work, including time and attendance practices, records retention, dress code, breaks and rest periods, drug and alcohol use, employee health and safety, expectations around ending your employment (notice period), and so on.

Compensation and Benefits Policies

These are policies that lay out compensation practices, including an explanation of who is eligible for overtime and shift-differential pay, any bonus or incentive structures, pay scales or bands (if applicable), timing of pay periods and paychecks, time off (paid and unpaid), leaves of absence, short- and long-term disability, and any relevant benefits information. Business expense information may also fall under this heading.

Performance, Conduct, and Disciplinary Policies

These policies spell out what kinds of behaviors are and are not acceptable in the workplace. This is where you would find information relevant to employee performance, including the structure and schedule of employee reviews, how disciplinary action is carried out (verbal/written warnings, Performance Improvement Plans, etc.), and what employees can expect if faced with a performance or disciplinary issue. These also include policies about nepotism, conflicts of interest, use of company resources, and similar information.

How to Create Workplace Policies

Creating workplace policies need not be overly stressful if you put in some due diligence. Here are some steps to take when creating a new policy.

Step 1: Research Federal, State, and Local Labor Laws

Some of your policies will be dictated by labor laws, depending on the type and size of your workplace. Before you begin drafting a policy, check on any labor laws that might apply. Believe it or not, Google is actually a pretty decent search tool for finding applicable laws, as are your state Department of Labor and city government websites. You can find a great overview of federal labor laws here.

Step 2: Consider Your Company

The key to a great workplace policy is to make it relevant and applicable to your workplace. If you’re a small nonprofit, chances are that a large corporation’s workplace policies won’t be applicable. Think about the makeup of your workforce: is it mostly exempt (salaried) or non-exempt (hourly) employees? Does everyone generally work 9-5, or do you have staff working alternate schedules, overnights, weekends, etc.? Do people work on-site, remotely, or a combination of both?

Step 3: Legal Review and/or External Consultation

You can always start on Google, researching the policies similar companies have written. Alternatively, you might get assistance from external sources like HR blogs, other HR professionals, etc. Just to be sure you’re in compliance with your local and state labor laws and with HR best practices. If you work for an organization that is smaller or less hierarchical/more consultative, you might also want to preview the draft policy with a select group of staff from your organization before submitting it to leadership before approval. However, unless you’re experienced in writing HR policy, consider having an employment attorney review any major policies you draft.

Step 4: Rollout

Technically, this isn’t a step in writing the policy but is still absolutely critical. How and when you roll out a new policy to staff should consider equity, accessibility, communication, timing, and more. Think through your audience and how they receive new information; for example, if you have multiple shifts or overnights, a posted notice might work better than a live announcement at an all-staff meeting, or if you have mostly lineworkers or other staff who don’t have computer access, email might not be most effective. Organizational timing is also key; it’s best to announce new policies at a time when there is sufficient space to do so; if you’re running benefits open enrollment and employees are focused on that, wait until that period closes before announcing a new policy. Once you have the policy written, draft an outline of the rollout plan and approach your leadership team member (this might be the HR Director, CFO, COO, or CEO depending on your organization) to coordinate the best way to share the new policy with your staff.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Workplace Policies

Yes. There are federal and state regulations that apply to employers of any size. There are some additional regulations that kick in at 15 employees, 50 employees, and 100 employees, so do some research at the Department of Labor depending on the size of your workforce.
The answer to this question is the perpetual answer to any HR question: it depends. It depends on your individual workplace and what the policy says. Including consequences for a policy violation within the policy itself is the best way to avoid any confusion.
HR should be involved (or at the very least consulted) in the creation of any policy that addresses any aspect of employment or working conditions. For example, HR need not be involved in a purchasing policy, but should be involved in a dress code policy.

Tammi has 8+ years of progressive HR experience in a variety of industries and settings, including nonprofit and higher education. She believes that doing HR well means being a true partner and collaborator with every part of an organization, and by saying “yes” to creative problem solving wherever and whenever possible (and legal). Her favorite work includes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); the how and why of hiring and retaining great people; helping to sustain an organizational culture of trust, empathy, and candor; and anything else that prompts employees to say they love where they work. In her free time, you can find her wandering outdoors, studying clinical herbalism, tinkering in the kitchen, dismantling the patriarchy and white supremacy, and hanging out with her cat, Emily Dickinson.

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