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Workplace policies and procedures 

NSW Industrial Relations runs interactive workshops that provide employers/managers with the practical knowledge and skills to more confidently manage their employees. 

What is a workplace policy? 

A policy is a statement which underpins how human resource management issues will be dealt with in an organisation. It communicates an organisation’s values and the organisation’s expectations of employee behaviours and performance.

Workplace policies often reinforce and clarify standard operating procedure in a workplace. Well written policies help employers manage staff more effectively by clearly defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, and set out the implications of not complying with those policies.

A workplace policy consists of a statement of purpose and one or more broad guidelines on action to be taken to achieve that purpose. The statement of purpose should be written in simple terms, free of jargon. The length of the policy may vary depending on the issue it addresses.

A policy may allow discretion in its implementation and the basis of that discretion should be stated as part of the policy. A policy may also be required where there is a diversity of interests and preferences, which could result in vague and conflicting objectives among those who are directly involved.

Not all workplace issues require a policy. Many routine matters can be dealt with through simple workplace procedures and processes being put in place.

Benefits of having workplace policies 

Well-written workplace policies:

  • are consistent with the values of the organisation
  • comply with employment and other associated legislation
  • demonstrate that the organisation is being operated in an efficient and businesslike manner
  • ensure uniformity and consistency in decision-making and operational procedures
  • add strength to the position of staff when possible legal actions arise
  • save time when a new problem can be handled quickly and effectively through an existing policy
  • foster stability and continuity
  • maintain the direction of the organisation even during periods of change
  • provide the framework for business planning
  • assist in assessing performance and establishing accountability
  • clarify functions and responsibilities.

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Developing and introducing workplace policies 

Step 1 – Management Support

It is crucial to have senior management support for the implementation or modification of a policy, especially where policies relate to employee behaviour. The endorsement and modelling of the behaviour by senior managers and supervisors will encourage staff to take the policies seriously. While management support for a policy is an important first step before actively seeking employee feedback on a proposed policy, the idea for the policy and some of its details may in fact come from staff.

Step 2 - Consult with staff

Involve staff in developing and implementing workplace policies to promote stronger awareness, understanding and ownership of the outcome. Staff involvement also helps to determine how and when the policies might apply, and can assist in identifying possible unintentional outcomes of the policy.

Step 3 - Define the terms of the policy

Be explicit. Define key terms used in the policy at the beginning so that employees understand what is meant. The policy should explain what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. You may wish to include specific examples to illustrate problem areas or unacceptable types of behaviours. For example:

An individual shall be deemed to be under the influence of alcohol if he/she exceeds a blood alcohol level of 0.05% (0.02% for heavy vehicle drivers).

Be clear about who the policy applies to. For example, does it only apply to employees of the company or to contractors and sub-contractors engaged to perform work on business premises? This is particularly important, for example, with occupational health and safety which covers everyone in the workplace.

The policy may also need to contain information about what to do if it is not possible to follow the policy. For example, if you have a policy relating to punctuality, you may need to include a procedure outlining what to do if the employee is going to be late.

The policy should also contain procedures to support the policy in its operation, such as the implications for not complying with the policy.

Example 1: Occupational health and safety
No employee is to commence work, or return to work while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A breach of this policy is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

Example 2: Email policy
Using the organisation's computer resources to seek out, access or send any material of an offensive, obscene or defamatory nature is prohibited and may result in disciplinary action.

Step 4 - Put the policies in writing and publicise them

To be effective, policies need to be publicised and provided to all existing and new employees. This includes casual, part-time and full-time employees and those on maternity leave or career breaks.

Policies should be written in plain English and easily understood by all employees. Consider translating the policies into the appropriate languages for employees whose first language is not English.

Ensure all staff understand what the policies mean. Explain how to comply with the policies and the implications of not complying.

Step 5 - Training and regular referral

The policies may be explained to staff through information and/or training sessions, at staff meetings and during induction sessions for new staff. They should also be reiterated and discussed with staff regularly at staff meetings to ensure they remain relevant.

Copies of policies should be easily accessible. Copies may be kept in folders in a central location or staff areas, in staff manuals and available on the organisation's intranet system.

Step 6 – Implementation

It is important that policies are applied consistently throughout the organisation. A breach of a policy should be dealt with promptly and according to the procedures set out in the policy. The consequence of the breach should also suit the severity of the breach – whether it be a warning, disciplinary action or dismissal.

Case study
An organisation which dismissed an employee for sexual harassment was subsequently ordered to re-employ the sacked staff member as they had failed to follow their own policy. The company had a policy of zero tolerance to sexual harassment but failed to exercise the provision when the policy was breached. The Commission hearing revealed that the company had breached its own policy when it issued the employee numerous unofficial warnings instead.

Step 7 - Evaluate and review

Review policies regularly to ensure they are current and in line with any changes within the organisation. Where policies are significantly changed they should be re-issued to all staff and the changes explained to them to ensure they understand the organisation's new directions. These changes should also be widely publicised.

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Policy checklist 

A workplace policy should:

  • set out the aim of the policy
  • explain why the policy was developed
  • list who the policy applies to
  • set out what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour
  • set out the consequences of not complying with the policy
  • provide a date when the policy was developed or updated.

Policies also need to be reviewed on a regular basis and updated where necessary. For example, if there is a change in equipment or workplace procedures you may need to amend your current policy or develop a new one.

Employment law changes, changes to your award or agreement may also require a review of your policies and procedures. Stay up to date with relevant changes by regularly checking Fair Work Online [Fair Work Ombudsman]

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Types of workplace policies 

Here are some examples of common workplace policies that could assist your workplace:

  • code of conduct
  • recruitment policy
  • internet and email policy
  • mobile phone policy
  • non-smoking policy
  • drug and alcohol policy
  • health and safety policy
  • anti-discrimination and harassment policy
  • grievance handling policy
  • discipline and termination policy
  • using social media.

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Sample workplace policies  

Policies on leave

While legislation and awards and agreements cover employee entitlements to various types of leave, it is helpful to have a policy that sets out how leave is managed in the workplace. For example, a policy on annual close downs will ensure staff understand what happens during this period.

Sample policy – annual close down

The company closes for two weeks over the Christmas period each year. All staff will be given at least four weeks notice of specific dates of the close down. Any leave due at the time must be taken. If an employee's entitlement does not cover the period required, the remainder must be taken as leave without pay.

All employees will receive paid leave for gazetted public holidays during the period.
Annual leave loading will be paid in accordance with the award. 

An employer may wish to develop a policy for taking other forms of leave. Such a policy would need to identify:

  • types of leave available
  • procedure for applying for leave
  • administrative forms to be completed
  • who has the authority to approve the request
  • whether the leave is paid or unpaid

Code of conduct

A code of conduct sets standards of behaviour or appearance in the workplace. These standards will vary depending on the industry, the role of the employee and work undertaken by staff. A code of conduct may include dress standards at work or email and internet use.

Dress standard

A policy on dress standard will depend on a number of issues, including:

  • if the industrial award covering staff requires their employer to provide them with uniforms
  • if the employer wants staff to be in uniform
  • whether the employer will provide the uniform or subsidise the cost of the uniform
  • if a uniform is not required, what is appropriate dress for the workplace.

'Business dress' or 'smart casual' are terms that are often used in workplaces. However, the employer should specify what these terms mean. For example, the business may wish to exclude particular items of clothing such as midriff tops, hipster pants, singlets, short and open shoes if safety is an issue.

Remember, the policy cannot discriminate between men and women. If men are not allowed to wear jeans or earrings, neither can women.

If introducing a uniform or dress standard in the workplace, it is important to include employees in the decision making. Some employees have very strong views about being asked to wear a uniform and these need to be considered before taking any action.

Job applicants may dress more formally to an interview than they will on a day-to-day basis and may not be aware of the business's dress standards. Ensure the business's dress requirements are outlined to every new employees before they start. This information should also be included in their appointment letter.

Internet and email usage

Determining what is or is not acceptable usage of the internet during working hours is of concern to many employers. Companies have valid reasons for wanting to manage the use of personal email, internative gaming and social media sites.

In developing a policy on the use of the internet and email at work it is important to ensure that all terms such as 'offensive' and 'inappropriate' are clearly explained and understood by all staff. The policy should outline that the company will not tolerate any form of offensive or inappropriate material being accessed, transmitted or stored on the business system. Ideally the policy should meet the needs of the business as well as complying with any legal requirements.

Unlike personal property kept in a desk drawer or locker, electronic messages sent or received at work are not legally considered to be personal property. As the owner of the server or personal computer on which staff email is stored, many employers reserve the right the check emails as a precaution against fraud, workplace harassment or breaches of confidence by employees.

However, employees also have legitimate expectations of privacy in relation to their email communications. A failure to acknowledge these expectations can affect the usefulness of providing email facilities. Try and balance staff privacy with the legitimate interests of the business. Restrictive or intrusive policies or practice could have a negative impact on morale and productivity.

Any email and Internet policy should cover:

  • requirements for storing email where it relates to the core business of the organisation
  • whether back-up copies are stored on the server and who has access to them
  • whether the company monitors logs of Internet usage which may reveal information such as which servers (including websites) have been accessed by the employee and email addresses used
  • level of privacy employees can generally expect for their email
  • circumstances in which management reserves a right to read and take action on employee email
  • confirmation that email can be subject to production in litigation or other investigations
  • that it is unacceptable to use email to abuse or harass other employees.

The policy should also define what the business considers is acceptable and unacceptable use.

For example, employees may use the Internet access provided by the company for:

  • any work-related purposes
  • accessing the web for personal purposes, provided that personal use is moderate in time, does not incur significant cost to the company and does not interfere with the duties of the employee or his or her colleagues
  • sending and receiving personal emails, provided that if emails are sent with a company address, a disclaimer is attached stating that the views of the sender may not represent those of the company.

Employees may not use the Internet access provided by the company to:

  • create or exchange messages that are offensive, harassing, obscene or threatening
  • visit web sites containing objectionable (including pornographic) or criminal material
  • exchange proprietary information, trade secrets, or any other confidential or sensitive information about the company (unless in the authorised course of their duties)
  • create, store or exchange information in violation of copyright laws (including the uploading or downloading of commercial software, games, music videos or movies)
  • use Internet enabled activities such as gambling, excessive gaming, conducting a business or conducting illegal activities
  • create or exchange advertisements, solicitations, chain letters and other unsolicited or bulk email.

Sample disclaimer

This email (and any file transmitted with it) is intended for the addressee only and may contain confidential information. If you have received this email in error, please delete it and notify the originator of the message. Any views expressed in this message are those of the individual sender except where the sender (with authority) states them to be the views of the company.

Smoking in the workplace

As an employer, there are legislative requirements for the employer to provide a healthy and safe workplace for employees. The employer has the right to designate the workplace as smoke free and can indicate that in job advertisements.

There is no legal requirement for an employer to provide smoke breaks. While an employer may be prepared to recognise the needs of a smoker, they also need to avoid the problem caused by an employee disappearing on a regular basis for a 'smoke break'.

Setting guidelines (morning, afternoon tea and lunch breaks) makes it clear to staff about what is acceptable and also overcomes the antagonism that may come from non-smoking employees when a smoker takes excessive breaks.

Points to be considered when drafting a non-smoking policy

The following information will assist when introducing a smoking policy in the workplace:

  • identify the aim of the policy, which is to achieve a workplace free of environmental tobacco smoke when the smoking ban comes into place
  • list the specific areas affected
  • indicate if professional advice about coping without cigarettes and quitting smoking is available and where to get help
  • ensure that new employees are told when applying for a job that the workplace has a non-smoking policy
  • be clear that staff cannot be disciplined when they smoke away from the workplace or during their own time
  • be clear that staff who fail to consider the safety of others at work by not complying with the non-smoking policy may be personally liable to a fine of up to $3,300 under Section 20 the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000
  • emphasise that smokers are not entitled to smoke in the workplace even if staff in a particular area all want to smoke
  • be clear that even those who work in isolation are prohibited from smoking as they are likely to affect others who come into the area or through the air conditioning system
  • specify that designated smoking areas must be outdoors with no possibility of contamination of indoor areas
  • set out the times during which smokers are able to use the designated smoking areas.

Drug and alcohol policy

Drug and alcohol use in the workplace is covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 which requires that employers:

  • ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees and any other person in their place of work
  • take all practical measures to protect workers in relation to health, safety and welfare
  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons at their place of work who may be affected by their acts.

Drug and alcohol use in the workplace creates a range of problems. Employees with drug and alcohol problems can cause injury to themselves and others and damage their physical and mental health.

Workmates of a drug or alcohol user are faced with a risk of accidents, covering poor work performance, disputes and the need to 'dob in a mate' for their own good. Other problems include lateness and absenteeism, lost time and production from accidents and inefficiency and damage to plant, equipment and other property.

What should be contained in an alcohol and drug policy?

A policy to manage alcohol and drugs in the workplace should include information and procedures on:

  • measures to reduce alcohol- and drug-related problems in the workplace through consultation between you and your employees
  • measures to prohibit or restrict the availability of alcohol and drugs in the workplace
  • preventative measures such as education and training sessions and awareness programs
  • measures outlining the availability of treatment and rehabilitation for employees
  • rules governing conduct in the workplace relating to alcohol and drugs including the disciplinary procedures up to and including dismissal.

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Social media 

The use of social media has increased dramatically over the last few years and it is essential that employers introduce appropriate policy to deal with the use of social media. Many organisations use social media to enhance and promote their business while employers must also ensure that employees who use social media outside of the workplace do not post damaging or inappropriate comments or photos on social media sites.

It is a must that employers attempt to proactively manage social media risks. To manage these risks employers must provide employees with a policy on the use of social media. Advising employees that they are not:

  • to defame the employer on any social media site
  • share information that may be considered confidential information or intellectual property
  • to bring the employer into disrepute
  • to bully or harass other employees within the organisation

Employees must be made aware of this policy and its practical implications. The policy itself or subsequent training should provide clarification on what is considered acceptable and unacceptable use of social media eg. what may be considered ‘defamation’ and ‘confidential information’

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