Why workplace policies matter

August 28, 2017

My daughter was in a softball tournament recently and, in the third inning of the semi-final game as we were losing, our coach realized our team had an illegal pitcher. The game was forfeited.

It seemed unfair for those players to suffer because the coach made a mistake, but rules exist for a reason, and if not enforced, there are no rules.

In the employment setting, workplace rules that are implemented and consistently enforced are critical to any successful organization.

 Employers should consider the following factors when implementing workplace policies:

• Is this policy required by law or will it support legal compliance? (such as anti-harassment, Family and Medical Leave Act and meals and breaks)

• Is this necessary for the productivity of the workplace?

• Will this policy promote ethical and professional conduct?

• Will this policy protect the company’s confidentiality or computer systems?

• Will this enhance the workplace culture and promote worker satisfaction?

No matter how well-written or crucial policy may be, a workplace policy is essentially non-existent unless two things happen: The rule is communicated to employees and then enforced when violated.

Employers frequently resist implementing policies because they worry that they will be diminishing the work culture by making it too strict.

While some employers over-regulate the workplace (for instance, I’ve seen policies in an employee handbook about how often the coffee pot had to be cleaned out), employers generally should consider implementing the critical ones, which include policies on code of conduct, non-discrimination and anti-harassment, workplace violence prevention, attendance, timekeeping, meals and breaks, appearance standards, employee relationships, conflict of interest, confidential nature of work and proprietary information, performance management and discipline, computer and internet networking and usage, use of personal devices, privacy in the workplace, safety at work and worker’s compensation.

The policies should identify that violations constitute misconduct and can lead to discipline up and including termination if violated.

Most importantly, the rules must be enforced consistently.

I once had a client whose long-term and much-loved employee came to work intoxicated. Her manager had suspected she was an alcoholic. Believing she was helping the employee, the manager drove her home, and they didn’t speak a word about it.

Three months later, the employee came to work intoxicated again. The manager talked to HR who said the policy required that she be terminated.

The manager then addressed the concern with the employee that the worker appeared intoxicated. The employee said she had an alcohol problem and had planned to take FMLA. The company said she could not take FMLA because she was being terminated for violation of the substance use and abuse policy by coming to work intoxicated.

The employee claimed that the employer violated the FMLA. She said the company’s normal practice is to drive home employees who come to work intoxicated, as evidence by what happened to her. She said it wasn’t until she said she was taking FMLA that the employer decided to enforce a rule.

This case demonstrates clearly why consistently enforcing company policies is so critical. No one can be exempt from them, and managers cannot be guilted into letting some people get away with violations while others can’t.

Some employers are in a perpetual state of updating their handbooks, thus leaving in limbo the status of certain expectations.

Policies don’t have to be lengthy or complicated. Having something implemented is better than having nothing at all. Thereafter, communicate and enforce them consistently.