With a bit of research, everyone can benefit from clear policies.

By Emma Watt

Well-constructed workplace policies can assist your business by:

  • Ensuring that your expectations about workplace behaviour are clearly communicated in a consistent manner;
  • Providing a set of ‘ground rules’ that can help supervisors manage their teams;
  • Setting out what will happen if a policy is breached.

Do employees have to comply with policies?

Employees are required to follow all lawful and reasonable instructions of their employer. Workplace policies are often cited as examples of such instructions, although it is necessary for the employer to be certain that their policies are both lawful and reasonable.

What workplace policies should a business have?

It’s really up to you. Where do you see the frustrations in your business? What issues stress your supervisors? Where’s the greatest areas of risk in your business?

Some topics to consider include:

  • Leave policies
  • How different types of leave can be taken
  • How far in advance annual leave can be requested
  • Use of mobile devices, for example, a prohibition on using a mobile phone during working hours, or listening to a mobile device while working
  • Code of conduct, which sets your standards – dress, behaviour, smoking, punctuality, etc.
  • Workplace health & safety; including
  • Bullying & harassment
  • Drugs & alcohol

What to consider when developing a policy

You need to make sure that what you’re proposing is lawful, so consider getting some advice about the basics. For example, it would be a very bad idea to have a workplace policy prohibiting employees from accessing paid personal/carer’s leave for the first three months of their employment, as this breaches the National Employment Standards.

When you are considering new workplace policies, ask yourself whether the information should be accessible to all employees (workplace policy) or only supervisors and managers (guidance material that may not be relied upon by employees to assert rights).

Drafting policies Make sure policies can be easily understood. Take into consideration the level of education and literacy of the employees to whom the policy will apply. Regardless of the audience, policies should be in plain English, as simply worded as possible, and clear about what is required.

Policies need to be accessible Employees need to have easy access to workplace policies they are expected to follow. Providing a copy of workplace policies in the tea room is one way of doing this, or any other common area where employees gather. Make sure that you don’t create contractual rights for employees about compliance with policies, for example in contracts of employment or appointment letters. Bear in mind, though, that compliance with policies should be characterised as following lawful and reasonable directions.

What should be included in a policy Policies must contain clear instructions for employees about what they are required to do in the workplace.

Directions about who is required to comply with the policy, and who is authorised to deal with breaches of the policy are important. Also critical is an indication of the consequences of breach of any policy.

If there could be an argument about the meaning of key terms, include definitions.

If you want to have a policy about a particular topic, but you’re not sure what you’re allowed to specify, or what would be reasonable, please get advice on current obligations.

You will need to think about the types of situations that might come up to which the policy could apply. For example, if you are developing your policy on employees taking personal/carer’s leave, you will need to answer these questions:

  • How do I want employees to notify me that they will not be at work?
  • By phone, by text, by email?
  • Who should they notify?
  • Do you need a notification for each day of a multi-day absence?
  • When do I require evidence to support an absence?
  • The National Employment Standards allow employers to require evidence that ‘would satisfy a reasonable person’ to support an absence.
  • It may not be reasonable to require a medical certificate to support each absence.
  • Many employers allow a number of single day absences without evidence each year – how many is up to the employer.
  • Would you allow a statutory declaration to support an absence?
  • What are the consequences of failing to notify or provide evidence in accordance with the policy?
  • Make sure the consequences are reasonable.
  • What evidence would you require to support absence on carer’s leave?

Should you consult employees about the content of a policy?

Usually, you are not required to consult employees about a policy, depending on the topic. But it can be useful, especially if you consult widely, explain the rationale for the policy, and take employee views into consideration. Employees who have been consulted about policies are potentially more likely to comply.

Consultation with employees is not the same as requiring their agreement for anything to change. When you consult, you are asking for feedback that you will take into consideration when you, as the business owner or manager, make a decision. The decision is still yours to make, but your employees may offer an important, and different, perspective.

Emma Watt is an independent industrial relations consultant who has, for more than 20 years, provided advice and assistance to employers in the timber industry. She has also worked as an unfair dismissal conciliator with the Fair Work Commission. Emma is very keen to ensure that employers know their rights and obligations, so they can sleep well at night!