Workplace policies – an important starting point in creating a positive workplace culture

It is well established that written workplace policies are important – they communicate standard procedures to all employees and are a reference point in ensuring compliance with legal obligations. Additionally, workplace policies are a recognised way to communicate organisational values. In this series of blog posts, we consider the value of workplace policies starting with an exploration of how workplace policies communicate organisational values and become a measure against which employees judge organisational leaders.

As the NSW Government notes, there are multiple benefits in having workplace polices, including:

  • compliance with employment and other associated legislation,

  • demonstrate that the organisation is being operated in an efficient and businesslike manner,

  • 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, and

  • clarify functions and responsibilities.

For these reasons, having clear and well communicated policies can help minimise businesses’ exposure to risk, by ensuring that businesses are operating in a manner compliant with legal obligations and that responses to issues are appropriate and consistent.

Importantly, workplace policies provide a guide to understanding what to expect for both employer and employee. For this reason, workplace policies can alleviate concerns among staff, by ensuring that there is clarity around expectations in relation to mundane issues such as applying for leave, and set employer expectations around workplace behaviours, consistent with legal obligations on matters such as handling of discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace. Issues such as social media use, guides for customer service and appropriate uses of company resources are also examples of important areas benefiting from clear and consistent expectations that formal policies can provide. Indeed, there is no shortage of writing in the corporate “blogosphere” that seeks to provide insight to potential employees about whether or not a workplace is a good fit based on policies that they have in place.

While it is not our suggestion that workplace policies are the sum of a workplace culture, in our research we frequently observe workplace policies as fundamental to the way employees make judgements about organisational leadership. Employees notice whether workplace policies are followed, and whether there is uniformity and consistency in response to incidents. It is not uncommon that when an incident occurs even those not directly affected by it will develop views on whether relevant policies were adhered to. If they are judged not to have been, this can have a damaging effect on employee morale. Because policies are intended to express the values of an organisation, not abiding by them can be interpreted as a failure to live up to values. More than that though, if workplace policies are an implicit contract around what to expect, breaking that contract can break trust. This point is sometimes not recognised by organisational leadership – that even though an incident might only directly impact a few staff, the organisational response to that incident can have a much more wide-ranging impact.

While workplace policies are therefore only a first step in creating confidence, trust and integrity, they are vital to demonstrating that there are standard operating procedures in an organisation and in giving employees confidence that they can expect consistency from organisational leaders. In other words, workplace policies are a way to let employees know what they have signed up to by joining your organisation. They are a way of setting the standard for what to expect and, by extension, the standard against which you are inviting them to judge your organisational leadership. To the cynical, all of this might sound like a very good reason to not have formal workplace policies – with no policies in place there is no implied contract to break. That might seem like sound reasoning, but what we have found is that employees will form judgements about the behaviour of their leaders with or without policies. Having policies in place gives employers a chance to shape those judgements, by setting out the expectations they would like their staff to have of them.

Getting the content of your policies right matters therefore, not just from a compliance perspective – though it goes without saying that compliance with the law is a fundamental of policy writing – but it also matters in shaping the kind of organisation that you are looking to grow, the values you expect of your leaders, and the expectations you invite among your staff. In an era where it is increasingly recognised that employers are competing for qualified staff, setting the right tone in workplace policies matters more than ever.

Dr Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant with Rapid Context. She has expertise in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

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