illustration of an employee next to a clipboard with a list of HR policies

List Of Essential HR Policies & Procedures (+ 4 To Avoid)

You’ve decided to put some workplace rules in place for your startup or small business. 

Unfortunately, the word “policy” usually conjures up thoughts of grim-faced bureaucrats drafting rigid rules and restrictive regulations to discipline and control employees. This is why you’ve probably never heard someone say, “I really wish our business had more policies!”.

However, human resource policies are a necessary part of organizational development.

When HR policies are implemented effectively, they can have a very positive impact on all aspects of the employee experience, including new hire orientation, employee onboarding, performance management, and professional development.

There are many types of human resource policies.

However, you probably don’t have time to create dozens of them all at once, and you don’t want to overwhelm your people with a tidal wave of rules. You also don’t want to include ones that are outdated and no longer relevant in modern, people-focused, and progressive organizations.

This article will focus on those human resources policies you should develop proactively for your new employee handbook, as well as those you should avoid.

What are the criteria for an essential HR policy? 

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

Focus on those company 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 this policy create a strong and high-performing workplace culture?
  • Will this policy support organizational values and principles?
  • Will 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 human resource policy worth creating, and our must-have policies described in this article land squarely in that category.

Which human resource policies should be in your employee handbook?

You’ll need to create written policies that are directly related to the employment contract or required by employment law. When in doubt, use the applicable laws (provincial / state laws, federal labour laws) and common labor relations practices as a starting point to creating the policy. 

For example, employment legislation like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 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. 

ZipRecruiter graph showing increase in job postings for diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners from 2015 to 2019

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 Remote.co, 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 on-line, 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)

Calendar showing different types of leaves, including stat holidays, vacations, medical leave, family leave, parental leave, bereavement leave, and leave of absence
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.

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

dress code policies illustration showing a more casual dress code on one side and a more formal dress code on the other
The strictness of dress codes can vary from organization to organization.

Ooooh, what to wear, what 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.

What do you think?

Do you have HR policies documented in an employee handbook? What other policies belong on the list of essential, must-have policies for your employee handbook? Which ones should you avoid? 

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 from around the world.

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