Understanding the how and why of HR policies

Sylvia Pennington

When can I take holidays and how much notice do I need to give? And am I allowed to check my Facebook on the company phone during my lunch break? Speaking of, can I take my break now and how long do I get?

Human resources policies might not be very relevant if your small business or startup is a one or two person band, but once you start taking on staff, it’s helpful to have some in place. Hassles down the track are inevitable if you don’t, warns Natasha Hawker, an HR specialist from Employee Matters and author of From Hire To Fire And Everything In Between.

She says documenting policies are on the to-do list for many small business owners, but when there aren’t enough hours in the day, more pressing operational matters inevitably take precedence.

Employees may also feel there is a lack of consistency around how individuals are treated, depending on who their manager is.

“Most small and even many mid-sized businesses don’t have any policies in place and this makes it hard to performance manage employees,” Hawker says.

“If you don’t set standards of behaviour, how is it possible to say that a worker is not meeting them?”

Precedent – letting Steve nip off early to the kids’ sports day, say, but kyboshing a similar request from Sally two weeks later because you’re short staffed or under the pump – can also be an issue if you’re making it up as you go along.

“Employees may also feel there is a lack of consistency around how individuals are treated, depending on who their manager is,” Hawker says.

Some policies, such as dress code or internet usage for private purposes, are simple enough for small business owners to develop themselves.

Others are more complex and are underpinned by legislation – think workplace health and safety, sexual harassment, bullying, parental leave and flexible working. These may require expert input, given ignorance is not a defence for business owners who find themselves accused of putting employees at risk.

For many small concerns, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Suites of policy templates can be sourced online at relatively low cost and modified to suit the needs of an organisation.

Once policies are in place, it’s important that you and your management team follow them and remind staff of their obligation to do likewise.

“We recommend businesses walk their employees through the policies annually and have them sign off that they have ‘read, understood and agree to abide by the policies of Company X,’” Hawker says.

Sylvia Pennington

Sylvia Pennington is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist who writes about small business, information technology and personal finance.