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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 employee relations issues on a case-by-case basis and ensure consistency across the organization.

It's time to create some human resources policies to help guide employees and leaders around expected behaviors and help promote a happy and healthy workplace.

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

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?

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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.

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 differs between the employment contract and the 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:

  • How will this policy empower and protect employees?
  • How will it create a strong and high-performing workplace culture?
  • Are the organizational values and principles supported?
  • How does this policy 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!

Which Human Resource Policies Should Be In Your Employee Handbook?

As mentioned, you’ll need to create written policies directly related to the employment contract or required by employment law.

When in doubt, use labor laws, other applicable laws (local laws, provincial / state laws, federal laws), and common labor relations practices as a starting point 

For example, employment legislation like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act in the United States, and the Employment Standards Act of BC in Canada, set out the minimum requirements of employers with respect to many of these policies.

The following six policies can positively impact full-time and part-time employees, and the organizations that implement them.

Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion Policy

The push toward workplace equality, whether it’s race or gender equality, has never been greater. Given recent worldwide protests against systemic racism and movements like Black Lives Matter, it should also be at the top of your mind.

Most research, such as this study from Glassdoor, shows that job-seekers want to know that prospective employers care about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And according to PwC, 87% of global businesses say diversity and inclusion is an organizational priority. 

graph from zip recruiter showing the increase in postings for diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners
Job postings requesting practitioners in diversity, equity, and inclusion have become more prevalent in recent years.

Job site companies Glassdoor and ZipRecruiter recognize this, with Glassdoor launching new products designed to help create more equitable workplaces. They recognize that creating a comprehensive policy and program, and making it public, can make the difference when hiring top talent.

Salesforce has a Chief Equality Officer, which demonstrates their commitment to equality and their support at the most senior levels of leadership, and their “Equality for All” policy is available on their website, describing their values and beliefs in equal rights, equal pay, equal education, and equal opportunity.

Harassment Policy

Like diversity, equity, and inclusion, policies against harassment have never been more important.

The purpose of a harassment policy, like this one from Google, is to outline your company’s position in regards to appropriate and respectful conduct in the workplace, and to reinforce the responsibilities of all parties in achieving and maintaining a positive work environment.

According to the Canada Labour Code, harassment and violence is defined as: 

"Any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee, including any prescribed action, conduct or comment."

Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of harassment. The #MeToo movement has brought to light many serious issues and the significant harm that harassment and violence can have on people. As a result, consider having a separate company policy, or section within a more general policy, to address sexual harassment. 

A good harassment policy will also cover other types of harassment, including racial slurs, physical threats, and derogatory jokes.

Remote Work / Telecommuting Policy

The COVID-19 coronavirus has caused a crisis of global proportions, impacting individuals, businesses, and world economies. As a result, many businesses have chosen to adopt work from home (WFH) and remote work policies to help manage through this crisis. 

It’s expected that this trend will continue beyond the current pandemic. A March 2020 survey of CFOs by Gartner, Inc. revealed that 74% of respondents will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19. 

Big companies like Shopify, Microsoft, and Facebook are permanently shifting more employees to work from home. Canada-based Shopify has even posted many of their remote work systems strategies on their website.

A remote work HR policy, like this example provided by, should include:

  • Company history of remote work
  • Who is eligible for remote work
  • How often / long a team member can work remotely
  • How to request a remote work arrangement
  • Communication protocols and standards with team members
  • Tools, equipment, and resources needed to support remote work.

Social Media Policy

Social media is an important component of any digital marketing strategy. How your business is represented online, by you and your team members, can mean the difference between brand success and failure.

Setting some rules for team members around how they use social media, both personally and professionally, minimizes risks to your business, your brand, and the motivation and engagement of your team members. No one wants to be embarrassed about the organization they work for because of the social media activities of a co-worker.

Most HR policies are “living policies”; they need to be regularly updated and kept relevant. That said, social media HR policies generally need to be updated more often than most, due to the constantly changing social media landscape.

Vancouver-based Hootsuite, a social media management platform, offers some excellent guidelines for developing your own social media policy, as well as a helpful social media policy template.

Workplace Health And Safety Policy

An occupational health and safety policy, such as this one from Lyft, will often outline procedures, workplace conditions, emergency contact information, and other special requirements (e.g. COVID-19 safety protocols) needed to protect employees.

Organizations such as the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also require certain minimum standards be in place to protect the well-being of employees.

Workplace violence is directly related to employee health, safety, and security, but typically has its own separate policy. For example, Disney’s employee policy manual has an entire section dedicated to health, safety, and security, and includes a workplace violence policy.

Leave And Time Off Work Policy

The reality is that people occasionally need time away from work to deal with health issues or family emergencies, or just to go on vacation somewhere tropical!

Having clear and comprehensive leave policies can help your team members by removing the stress of knowing how you will support them through difficult times, such as those we’ve all faced with the COVID-19 coronavirus. These human resources policies outline employees’ eligibility for leave and the processes by which they take it. 

Here are some of the different types of leave policies you should consider creating, in rough order of priority. (Note that all of these types of leave have associated employment laws that set out minimum requirements).

Graphics of HR Policies
There are several types of leave an employee may need to take.

Types of Leave Policies

  1. Statutory Holidays: government-recognized holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas
  2. Vacation: scheduled time away from work to rest and relax
  3. Medical / Sick Leave: time away from work due to illness or hospitalization
  4. Family Leave: related to the care, health, or education of a family member
  5. Parental Leave: time for a birth parent to care for a newborn
  6. Bereavement Leave: related to the death of a family member
  7. Leave of Absence: extended, unpaid time away from work for personal reasons. 

Leave policies can also be somewhat controversial, depending on how they’re implemented. The next section on “policies to avoid” will talk about what to avoid when creating leave policies.

Related read: Best Leave Management Software for Tracking PTO

Which Policies Should You Be Aware Of, Or Avoid Including, In Your Employee Handbook?

In addition to those policies that are important and necessary to include in your employee handbook, it’s also important to know which ones could negatively impact your company culture, demotivate employees, or dissuade potential employees from joining.

You should avoid creating policies that are too bureaucratic and rigid, don’t demonstrate trust in your team members, or are simply outdated and no longer relevant in modern, people-focused, and progressive organizations. 

Following are some HR policies that you should leave out entirely, or approach with caution when it comes time to define them.

Strict Dress Code Policies

Graphics of Strict Dress Code Policies
The strictness of dress codes can vary from organization to organization.

Ooooh, what to wear, what not to wear? There are some situations where dress guidelines are still appropriate e.g. at customer meetings or trade shows, but in general, the days are gone when it was OK for a company to dictate the color of a person’s trousers, or whether they could wear jeans or not. 

Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, reduced the automaker’s 10-page dress code to just two words that apply to most organizations: “dress appropriately”.

Inflexible Time Off Policies

Provide your salaried employees with flexibility when they need to take a bit of time here and there to attend a doctor’s appointment, or go to a parent-teacher interview. Unlike hourly employees, you don’t need to make them track every hour that they work and don’t work, like credit and debit entries on a bank account. 

Mistrustful Bereavement Leave Policies

“Hmm, so did your grandma really die?” That’s the last thing any of us would want to hear after a devastating personal loss, but that’s exactly what you’re asking if you implement a bereavement leave policy that requires proof of death, like a death certificate.

Many progressive organizations also offer their employees paid bereavement leave, so that they don’t need to take precious vacation time (which should be spent resting and relaxing) or sick time to deal with a family crisis.

Personal Cell Phone And Internet Usage

Human resource policies that prohibit employees from using personal mobile phones at work, or using work computers to access the internet for personal use, are rapidly becoming outdated. 

Psychology research has shown that taking breaks at work is necessary to maintain energy, motivation, and focus. While taking a walk, doing some stretching, or meditating are all great ways to take a mental break, surfing the internet, cruising social media, or chatting with a friend outside of work are also good alternatives. 

Of course, doing too much of these things isn’t ok, but these cases are usually rare, and can be dealt with one on one with your team member.

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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