Death by 1000 Policies

Death by 1000 Policies


CCER’s Director of Operations, Desiree Blackett, outlines why you don’t need to write a policy for every little thing.

I once received an email from an HR consultancy group reminding me of the essential role policies play in an organisation. I couldn’t agree more, so I took a look at what they had on offer. I clicked on the link and almost choked on my coffee. Staring me in the face were at least 30 policies just relating to HR. I’ll never understand why my colleagues in this field feel the need to write a set of rules for practically everything. In my experience, it stifles innovation and exposes employers to a minefield of possible transgressions.

History may be partly to blame for such a plethora of policies. In the past, organisations have found themselves in trouble and liable for the actions of their employees because they had no policies to inform staff of the behaviour expected in the workplace. So we in HR rightly did our best to protect them by creating policies on important matters such as the code of conduct, discrimination, bullying and harassment.

But somehow the pendulum has swung too far and I fear we’ve been hoodwinked into thinking we need comprehensive instructions for every possible scenario, with the larger and more incomprehensible the policy the better.

I recently saw a 63 page document just on flexible work practices. Putting aside the fact that much of this is already covered by legislation, I’m amazed its creator thinks people actually have time to read through such a lengthy policy. They need to take flexible leave just to read the document outlining their flexible leave!

Don’t get me wrong, policies are important. But they are often overused due to a lack of understanding as to why we have them at all. So let’s break it down.

The primary aim of a policy is to give people instruction on how to conduct themselves at work in ways not already covered by existing laws, modern awards, enterprise agreements or employment contracts. It’s also the best way for organisations to outline their expectations of staff and the consequences should they not be met. Policies can then be drawn upon if disputes arise, to show that employees were informed and therefore aware of their responsibilities.

Some legislation, such as anti-discrimination laws, requires an employer to put policies in place to demonstrate ‘all reasonable steps’ have been taken by the organisation to create a healthy workplace. They also protect the employers against claims of vicarious liability, such as sexual harassment lawsuits and the like.

These are all good, practical reasons as to why all workplaces should have some policies in place. But there’s no need to go overboard, indeed doing so can hurt more then help. The more policies we have – and the longer they are – the less likely staff will actually read, understand and remember them. And the more rules we have, the less agile and responsive our organisations are. You soon realise you’ve bound yourself more than your employees.

Having too many policies can increase your risk of breaching your own rules, and being taken to task for it. In 2012 a former employee of the Commonwealth Bank claimed the CBA had breached its own policies by not attempting to rehire him elsewhere when his existing job was made redundant. Eventually, the High Court determined the Bank had not breached it’s own policies, nor had it broken an implied term of “mutual trust and confidence”, but only after multiple appeals (see more here). Two lower courts had previously ruled in the former employee’s favour. There’s no guarantee similar claims won’t be successful with future High Court judges on other grounds, or find sympathy with decision makers in other courts or tribunals. It’s simply best not to take the risk.

So next time you’re presented with a policy to release, or you’re tasked to write one yourself, ask these five questions:

Do we really need this?

Is this absolutely necessary? Check the details aren’t already covered by existing legislation, contracts, modern awards or enterprise agreements. Consider whether a set of guidelines will suffice, especially if you just want to outline procedural steps.

Is it in plain English?

Is it drafted in a way that is easy to understand? Be certain to cut out any bureaucratic or legalistic language. Keep it straightforward and simple, with clear headings and examples. The harder your policies are to read, the less likely they are to be understood and followed.

Have I ensured Less is More?

Think quality over quantity. People don’t have the time (or desire) to read a 63 page policy document. Remove motherhood statements. Ensure there are no areas of duplication. Make sure you haven’t just cut and pasted large parts of text already provided elsewhere, like your modern award.

Am I binding my organisation, not my employees?

Are you sure there are no restrictive provisions tying the organisation to tight timeframes or onerous processes that will likely be breached? Don’t create rules that even you (management) can’t stick to.

How can I keep this current?

Have you created a review mechanism to ensure the policy doesn’t become outdated? Most policies should be reviewed every two to four years.

So there you have it. The five little rules you need to resist the desire to create hundreds of little rules you don’t need. Some policies are crucial for instructing employees on workplace behaviour, entitlements and procedures. But it’s important not to bombard staff with information they don’t need or can get elsewhere. Don’t leave your employees choking on their coffees when they click on the link to your organisation’s policies. Give them the essentials and then let them get on with the job you hired them to do.


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