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What Are HR Policies? + 7 Main Types To Have In Place

Your startup or small business is expanding, and the human resource management challenges you’re facing are becoming more complex. 

More and more people are joining your organization, and you’re finding it harder and harder to manage issues on a case-by-case basis. You also understand how important an effective onboarding process is to the long-term success of your new team member AND your business. 

You already have a new hire checklist in place, and a basic orientation program for new employees as part of your onboarding process. Now, you’re looking to create an employee handbook that can be used as a helpful tool to support these onboarding activities, and you want to include some workplace rules.

You’ve decided to create some human resources policies, but you want to understand more about what they are and how to get started.

This article is intended to provide you with an introduction and high-level overview of human resource policies, and answer your top-of-mind questions, including:

This article is part of a series on HR policies. Find the other articles in the series here:

What Are Human Resource (HR) Policies?

Human resource (HR) policies are rules and processes that govern the employment relationship between you and your team members. HR policies describe the rights, responsibilities, and expected behaviours of both you and your employees when it comes to working together.

An organization’s human resources team (or whoever is responsible for HR activities) is often responsible for creating and maintaining HR policies. Most HR policies apply to all permanent, temporary, part-time, and full-time employees within an organization. 

What Are Some Typical Types Of HR Policies?

There are many categories and types of HR policies and procedures that a business may implement over time, such as:

HR Policies example
Some examples of the types of HR policies that people and culture managers need to have in place.

Here are some more detailed examples of HR Policies:

Recruitment and SelectionDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Hiring Practices
Promotions and Transfers
Leave and Time OffVacation
Statutory Holidays
Family Leave
Parental Leave
Bereavement Leave
Medical / Sick Leave
Personal Leave of Absence
Jury Duty
Health, Safety, and SecurityHealth and Safety
Workplace Violence
Drugs and Alcohol
COVID-19 Protocols
Employee ConductHarassment
Sexual Harassment
Conflict of Interest
Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure
Time and Attendance
Working hours
Remote working
Dress Code
Performance ManagementPerformance Management
Professional Development
At-Will Employment
Disciplinary Action
Use of TechnologyComputer Usage and Security
Personal Devices at Work
Work Related and Personal Use of Social Media
Work TravelTravel Authorization
Expense Reimbursement
Hotel and Rental Car
Meals and Per Diems
Remote Work

Is An HR Policy The Same As A Corporate Policy Or Guideline?

The terms “HR policy”, “corporate policy”, “company policy”, and “workplace policy” are often used interchangeably and refer to the same thing. 

However, some corporate policies may apply to more general operations of the organization, and may be created and maintained by a department other than HR (e.g. facility access, computer security, disaster preparation, etc.).

Policies are a set of rules, not guidelines. 

According to Tim Reitsma, General Manager of People Managing People, “When I hear the word policy, it can be read as a restrictive word. But if we replace “policy” with “guideline”, unfortunately, it doesn’t hold the weight that needs to be there.” 

Where Are HR Policies Usually Found?

A key part of a new hire checklist and orientation program is to review, together with the employee, the specific policies that could impact them on their first day or in their first week.

HR policies may exist as written policies, as digital and/or printable policies, and in locations that are easily accessible by employees (e.g. company intranets or shared drives). They are often found in employment contracts, employee handbooks, and company policy manuals. However, the level of detail in each of these will vary.

Related Read: Thinking About An Employee Intranet? Read This First

Why Aren’t All HR Policies Included In The Employment Contract?

Your company’s employment contract might define how much vacation a team member is entitled to, while a separate vacation policy would describe how an employee can request vacation, how it’s approved, what happens if it’s not all used, etc. 

The separation ensures that the employment contract isn’t overly long and complex. It also enables you to customize certain aspects of an individual’s employment, such as how much vacation leave they’ll receive (employment contract), and keep this separate from the general leave policy (employee handbook). 

Documenting policies outside the employment contract also allows policies to be updated over time, without updating each individual’s agreement.

When Should You Develop Human Resource Policies?

Some HR policies might be determined by organization needs, or when certain aspects of the employment relationship become too difficult to handle on a case-by-case basis. 

Other policies should be developed proactively to help guide, empower, or protect employees; bring clarity to organizational issues; or protect the broader interests of the organization.

When Should You Develop Human Resource Policies?

Here are some general guidelines on when you should create HR policies:

Create Policies Directly Related To The Employment Contract

A good place to start is by creating policies that are directly related to employee benefits and the rights and responsibilities of both the employee and the employer, as outlined in the employment contract.

For example, many employment contracts will specify vacation eligibility, various types of leave benefits, and how the employment relationship can be terminated (e.g. at-will employment). Related HR policies would go into deeper detail on the procedures related to these things.

Refer to the section below for some examples to help you understand how policy implementation is different between the employment contract and an employee handbook.

Create Policies Required By Employment Laws

When in doubt, use the applicable laws (provincial / state laws, federal laws) and common labour relations practices as another starting point to creating the policy. 

There are many pieces of employment legislation in both Canada and the USA that set out the minimum requirements of employers with respect to many of these policies, such as:

Employment Legislation
Canada and the United States have different labour laws that people and culture managers need to be aware of, depending on where their company operates.

Create Policies That Will Positively Impact Employees And The Organization

Joerg Clement, a senior leader in the machine vision industry, summarizes it best: 

Implementing processes and policies is the foundation of an organization’s commitment to continual improvement. Customer and employee requirements and expectations evolve over time. It is important to be able to respond to changes in markets quickly, and that comes from aligning your processes and policies to achieve successful outcomes.

Focus on those HR policies that have the greatest positive impact on employees and the organization. When considering a new policy, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this policy empower and protect employees?
  • Will it create a strong and high-performing workplace culture?
  • Are the organizational values and principles supported?
  • How does this policty help us create a successful and cohesive team?
  • Will this policy minimize risks to the business?
  • Will this policy satisfy applicable legal requirements?

If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, it's likely a policy worth creating!

And… Remember The Importance Of Clarity, Language, And Tone

Keep in mind that policies, no matter how positive their intent, can still be perceived as authoritarian and bureaucratic. 

How your policies are written and presented can therefore have a big impact on how they’re received by the people in your organization, and on the organizational culture you’re trying to develop.

Carla Nordean, Director of People and Culture at Squirrel Systems, notes: “The overall tone of the handbook has a huge impact on the culture. If your handbook is worded with oppressive language ("employees must / must not..."), new hires may question whether they've joined the right organization.

Tim Reitsma adds: “The language we use in our organizations matters when we write policies. There are some that are 'you must”, but we can soften the language to be something like, “you are responsible for”.”

What Do You Think?

Have you developed HR policies and, if so, which ones did you develop first? Do you go through policies with your team members one on one? Are they included in an employee handbook that’s easy for people to access? What HR or company policies do you think are essential for people, culture, and HR professionals to have in place for today's organizations? 

Discuss your ideas in the People Managing People community forum (join the waitlist here!) or share your thoughts in the comments below.

You can also subscribe to the People Managing People newsletter to stay up to date with the latest thinking in HR from leadership and management experts around the world.

Some further resources:

By Mike Gibbons

Mike has held various senior leadership positions in the technology industry, most recently as the General Manager of FLIR Integrated Imaging Solutions. His responsibilities included coaching and leading a team of over 300 people; managing P&L for a US$100M business; and defining and executing business strategy. Mike is guided by his deeply-held beliefs in connection, curiosity, humour, empathy, and honesty. After much soul-searching he decided to leave the corporate world in 2018. Since then he has invested in and helped several early stage companies mature, grow responsibly, and live true to their values.

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