Written by Stephen Bell, iHR Australia CEO
Mistakes and misconceptions
Having human resource policies and procedures alone is not enough. If the intent and meaning of these documents are not or cannot be clearly communicated across the wider population of the organisation, then they are likely to lose their legal and ‘culture building’ effectiveness. Some common errors in HR policy writing and communication include documents that are:
- Written in highly legalistic terms without concern for the capacity of the intended audience;
- Don’t comply with or conflict with employment contracts, enterprise agreements, awards and legislation;
- Don’t have effective procedures;
- Off-the-shelf documents often written with the intent to meet quality standards that become entrenched in a quality system at the expense being ultimately an effective and useable HR document;
- Cut and pasted from another organisation that make no sense in the context of an organisations focus and values;
- Are presented to and ‘coercively’ signed off by staff in a 10 minute segment of an induction or briefing process that is unlikely to be regarded as ‘fair and reasonable’ communication process by a court;
- Introduced or reinforced to staff via email without proper briefings or training sessions to support them.
Why it is important to take time to communicate HR policies & procedures properly?
First of all we must understand that HR policies & procedures can be viewed by courts as part of the contract of employment as long as the language of the policy is not regarded simply as ‘aspirational’ (Nikolich v GoldmanSachs JBWere Service Pty Limited (2006) FCA 784). That means a well written policy is likely to be legally binding on both employees and the organisation itself as long as it is reasonable and complies with relevant laws. If the organisation fails to communicate its policies then it may be seen as failing in its duty to inform employees of their legal obligations. This failure may expose the organisation to actions via vicarious liability.
Statements from the Australian Human Rights Commission help understand the fact that clear communication of policy is important. Their guidelines on human rights based policy for the workplace include:
“It is recommended that employers take the following ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment and reduce their vicarious liability”:
- Develop, in consultation with staff or their union, a written policy which prohibits discrimination and harassment;
- Regularly distribute and promote the policy at all levels of the organisation;
- Translate the policy into relevant community languages where required so it is accessible to employees from culturally and linguistically diverse communities;
- Ensure that managers and supervisors discuss and reinforce the policy at staff meetings (verbal communication of the policy is particularly important in workplaces where the English language ability of staff is an issue);
- Provide the policy and other relevant information on discrimination and harassment to new staff as a standard part of induction;
- Periodically review the policy to ensure it is operating effectively and contains up to date information;
- Conduct awareness raising sessions for all staff on discrimination and harassment issues.
Australian Human Rights Commission 2010
While this statement was directed towards workplace human rights policy, it reinforces the concept ‘reasonable steps’ includes quality communication of policies.
Considering your workplace culture is also important; not only in relation to the content of the policy but also its dissemination. HR policies and procedures help people understand exactly what the expectations of the organisation are in relation to their conduct and work conditions. It is not just about legal requirements but also points to effective leadership. Good leaders set clear expectations. That means an organisation committed to effective leadership gets on the front foot to explain and clarify what is acceptable, not acceptable and possible in the workplace.
Eight hints to effective communication of HR Policy
- Make sure the written version of the policy can be understood by the total population of the workforce;
- Have a sign-off process that provides reasonable time for employees to read the document;
- Ensure managers a properly trained to understand and use the policies
- Ensure staff are briefed on the content of the policy;
- Ensure the policy is accessible to all members of your workforce;
- Ensure employees, their representatives and other stakeholders are consulted on the content of policies at the time of development and updates;
- Ensure that managers and staff are trained properly in relation to ‘behaviour’ related policies (i.e Anti-bullying/Discrimination);
- Ensure there is an ongoing program of communication on HR Policies