Writing Employee Policies and Procedures

Writing employee policies and procedures

Employee policy and procedures manuals are used for many purposes. They come in many shapes and sizes.

Employee policy manuals go by a variety of names. Here are a few:

  • Organizational Policy Manual.
  • Departmental Policy and Procedures Manual.
  • Operating Policy and Procedures Manual.
  • Employee Manual (Handbook).
  • Employment Manual.
  • Human Resources Policy Manual.

Their primary function is employee education and good governance. Unfortunately, they often miss the mark because they’re poorly written, disorganized, or not well maintained. Sometimes they don’t even distinguish between “policy” and “procedure.”

What’s the Difference Between a Policy and a Procedure?

Policies are predetermined prescriptions, rules, standards and practices established to guide employees toward, or enable them to fulfill, the company’s stated objectives and strategies. Policies state who, what, and why. Policies derive from and serve the Company’s missions and objectives. A policy lays out what management wants/expects employees to do and explains why it’s important. Good policies enhance the company’s ability to attain organizational objectives and protect its interests. Bad policies hinder that ability.

As regulatory oversite of business enterprises increases, businesses are faced with drafting and maintaining policies documents that meet sanctioning bodies’ requirements.

What is a Procedure? 

Procedures extend the scope of what policies start. They state how policies and objectives are attained. Procedures describe actions in detail, explaining exactly how­ to carry out or implement a policy—step-by-step.

Writing Employee Policies and Procedures Well Requires Attention to Key Objectives

Regardless of the label, general employee policy and procedures manuals all have one thing in common—a set of objectives. The objectives or purposes of policies and procedures are simple and important:

  1. Give personnel the information they need to perform well.
  2. Set standards.
  3. Enable the organization to manage personnel effectively.
  4. Enable personnel to be equally informed.
  5. Increase/maximize a business’ function, performance, efficiency.
  6. Present the organization’s culture and values.
  7. Foster the company “culture” in areas like performance, service, and innovation.
  8. Reduce and minimize mistakes.
  9. Ensure smooth operations.
  10. Allow new personnel to quickly and fully understand the organization.
  11. Ensure employee accountability.
  12. Clearly define expectations.
  13. Conform to regulatory requirements and protocols.

Given these objectives, writing employee policies and procedures must occur with a focus on organization and clarity. The last thing a company wants is a confusing employee policy and procedures manual. Or one that contradicts, blathers on, or pontificates unnecessarily.

To be useful, compliant, and serve their purpose, policy documents must be user-friendly, easy to read, and commonly understood. A noble goal, to be sure—but one that can be tough to attain.

For many enterprises, policies and procedures are written and compiled haphazardly over years or decades. They emerge, grow and morph (and develop barnacles) as the enterprise grows and changes. And as laws, regulations, and external authorities—even cultural norms—change. Policy manuals are written by different contributing authors, and edited by multiple editors. They don’t speak with the same voice, and feature mixed styles. They’re cobbled, and employees have to fumble through them—often struggling to comprehend.

In such stitched-together policy and procedure documents, poor navigation, inadequate and inconsistent formatting, and readability problems are common—and they reduce P&P utility.

What Elements make Policies and Procedures Effective?

  1. A clear,and easily understood objective and purpose.
  2. Statement of limitations and exceptions.
  3. Clarity and simplicity.
  4. Certainty on who/what the policy applies to, and people bound by the policy and procedures.
  5. Certainty on when the policy/procedure applies, circumstances that trigger it.
  6. Certainty about when a policy ends, expires or doesn’t apply.
  7. Readers can easily understand conduct that’s good, and conduct that’s discouraged/prohibited.
  8. Readers “get” exactly what’s expected of them, what’s not, and why.
  9. Readers “see” why conforming to (following) the policy or procedure is good for them, their peers, the enterprise, and the community (society, culture)—the benefits of adhering to the policy.
  10. Consequences for violating the policy are clear.
  11. Readers find the material logically organized, and the information provided easy to navigate, identify, and follow.
  12. The entire document is very user-friendly.

Writing Employee Policies and Procedures to Control and Empower

Policies are both a means of controlling employee behavior, and a means of empowering employees. Policies can be restrictive in nature (and many need to be to promote good internal control), and they can provide staff with freedoms through defining boundaries. When employees know what the policies and rules are, they’re liberated to work without doubt or fear. Good policies enable staff to perform their duties, and free them to act within the limits set by policy, without constant managerial oversight or second guessing. In that way, policies empower staff to do the right thing without suffocating or wrongheaded supervision.

Comprehensive Employment Policies — A Control Tool to Manage Liability and Noncompliance

Increasingly complex statutory and regulatory requirements affecting employers require that written policies be in place to avoid fines for noncompliance, exposure to liability from lawsuits, and punitive damages. Many state and federal laws require employers to maintain written policies. It’s no longer enough to just distribute “cut-and-paste” policies; to be effective, workplace policies must be precisely tailored and contain specific provisions required by workplace circumstances, the type of business, the number of employees, and many other considerations.

A properly drafted and implemented written policy can be a valuable tool for employers, insulating them from potentially devastating punitive damages, and helping them avoid liability entirely.

Beyond policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment, employers’ written policies should include provisions covering wages and hours, benefits, leave, workplace safety, workplace conduct, and discipline. It’s also wise to consider policies covering Internet and email use, recordkeeping, drug and alcohol use, and immigration law compliance. Many other subjects/issues are appropriately addressed in employee policy and procedures manuals.

Policy creation is like research. Research is an ongoing aspect of keeping polices up-to-date and maintaining a comprehensive policy manual. The policy manual should be dynamic and able to change with changing circumstances. Existing policies need to be expanded, supplemented, and revised as business conditions and regulatory environments change, as business process re-engineering occurs, as an organization expands, and as quality-improvement initiatives are implemented.

Policy and Procedures — Authority / Making Changes / Structural Issues

To instill confidence in the integrity, accuracy, reliability, and authority of a policy and procedures manual, employees should understand how the policy-making process works, how it is controlled, and the parties responsible for managing it. For a policy manual to be recognized as authoritative, it’s also important to address the mechanical issues/subjects below:

  • Why the company has established this set of policies.
  • How policies are proposed, created, adopted, implemented? What’s the process? Who is involved? Who is in charge?
  • How often are policies reviewed? Who reviews them? What does the review process generate (a report, recommendations, draft revisions)?
  • How are policies changed or amended?
  • Who has the authority to make policy? Is policy created through a process or is it dictated by individuals? Who are the individuals with this responsibility?
  • Who has a duty or a right to make policy suggestions? What is the process through which policy suggestions are considered?
  • Who administers policy once it exists? Who do employees go to for answers to questions about policy? Or for interpretations of policy? If a dispute arises about a policy, how is it resolved? Who has the authority to decide?
  • Where are policy documents kept and maintained (how do employees know they are dealing with the right version)? Who has the authority to access these documents?
  • How is the employee policy and procedures manual presented and accessed?
  • What are the security and confidentiality requirements imposed on personnel using/accessing the policy document?

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