Work­place Poli­cies — What are they good for?

In Brief

Employ­ers inter­est­ed in keep­ing the costs of their busi­ness down often view work­place poli­cies as an unnec­es­sary expense. How­ev­er, when things go wrong in a work­place the catch­cry is too often if only we had a pol­i­cy!” There are def­i­nite ben­e­fits to work­places poli­cies, the most impor­tant is that work­place poli­cies are a sound risk man­age­ment strat­e­gy for employers.

What is a work­place policy?

A work­place pol­i­cy is a con­cise for­mal state­ment of prin­ci­ples which indi­cate how an employ­er and its employ­ees will act in a par­tic­u­lar area of its oper­a­tion. Poli­cies pro­vide employ­ees with the approved way of behav­ing in cer­tain cir­cum­stances and out­line the stan­dards and process an employ­er will apply in cer­tain circumstances.

Why would you have policies?

Poli­cies pro­vide clear guide­lines on behav­iour and help cre­ate desir­able work­place cultures
Poli­cies pro­vide staff with clear guide­lines as to appro­pri­ate behav­iour at work. Poli­cies can address behav­iours such as swear­ing, respect for col­leagues and con­duct with cus­tomers and help build a desir­able work­place cul­ture.

Work­place poli­cies are easy to change and update as the law or busi­ness changes
Includ­ing guid­ance on employ­ee behav­iour in employ­ee con­tracts and agree­ments is fraught with prob­lems. An employ­ee con­tract or agree­ment stands still frozen in time for the entire peri­od of employ­ment and chang­ing them is an expen­sive process. A work­place pol­i­cy, on the oth­er hand, is draft­ed by an employ­er. It can be changed eas­i­ly and updat­ed to address devel­op­ments in leg­isla­tive oblig­a­tions or in the nature of the business.

What are the risks of not hav­ing policies?

It is more dif­fi­cult to deal with bad behaviour 
Poli­cies offer pro­tec­tion to employ­ers by ensur­ing that when employ­ee behav­iour cross the line of accept­abil­i­ty the employ­er has a pol­i­cy doc­u­ment bind­ing the employ­ee and mak­ing it clear that the par­tic­u­lar behav­iour is not accept­able. Through draw­ing a clear line of accept­able behav­iour, poli­cies enable employ­ers to con­sis­tent­ly and fair­ly main­tain work­place standards.

Poli­cies also put employ­ees on notice that the par­tic­u­lar behav­iour may result in dis­ci­pli­nary action, thus pro­vid­ing employ­ers with a stronger posi­tion from which to act when an employ­ee’s behav­iour con­tra­venes a policy.

An exam­ple of this is with employ­ee mis­use of work equip­ment. A pol­i­cy which out­lines that employ­ees must not use the employ­er’s equip­ment such as com­put­ers, mobile phones, tablets, to view inap­pro­pri­ate mate­r­i­al (for exam­ple sex­u­al­ly explic­it mate­r­i­al) can help pro­tect employers.

A pol­i­cy in this sit­u­a­tion can help pro­tect employ­ers from lia­bil­i­ty for any sex­u­al harass­ment which involves the use of sex­u­al­ly explic­it­ly mate­r­i­al on such equip­ment. In addi­tion, such a pol­i­cy also makes it eas­i­er to dis­ci­pline an employ­ee for the inap­pro­pri­ate use of equip­ment, as an employ­ee can­not claim – well I was nev­er told not to do this.”

The process employ­er’s use in address­ing bad behav­iour may come under neg­a­tive scrutiny 
A griev­ance pol­i­cy or a dis­ci­pli­nary pol­i­cy cod­i­fies the stages of inves­ti­ga­tion of alle­ga­tions of bad behav­iour and the con­se­quences. Poli­cies are of great assis­tance when deal­ing with exam­ples of mis­con­duct and imple­ment­ing dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ce­dures. They also save time in that the pol­i­cy pro­vides the required path for­ward and less time is spent con­sid­er­ing what steps should be taken.

With­out such poli­cies employ­ers run the risk of being seen to fail to apply pro­ce­dur­al fair­ness and apply process­es con­sis­tent­ly. Courts and Tri­bunals will exam­ine whether or not prin­ci­ples of pro­ce­dur­al fair­ness have been applied in inves­tiga­tive and dis­ci­pli­nary process­es.

Employ­ers are less pro­tect­ed when employ­ees claim unfair dismissal
Where an alle­ga­tion of bad behav­iour (such an inap­pro­pri­ate use of equip­ment) is made, then the inves­ti­ga­tion process fol­lowed and dis­ci­pli­nary action (in this instance dis­missal) tak­en, a strong set of poli­cies can help an employ­er defend any unfair dis­missal claim an employ­ee brings. With­out a pol­i­cy, which the employ­er can demon­strate the employ­ee has breached and anoth­er pol­i­cy which out­lines the inves­tiga­tive and dis­ci­pli­nary process an employ­er used the employ­er can come awry in the event of a claim.

Employ­ers run the risk of being found to have breached leg­isla­tive oblig­a­tions
Anti Dis­crim­i­na­tion Obligations 
Under Fed­er­al anti dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion employ­ers (includ­ing direc­tors) can be vic­ar­i­ous­ly liable for employ­ee dis­crim­i­na­to­ry behav­iour. An employ­er pol­i­cy which clear­ly states con­duct which is dis­crim­i­na­to­ry is not accept­able in the work­place can help pro­tect an employ­er from being found vic­ar­i­ous­ly liable for any dis­crim­i­na­to­ry actions of an employ­ee. For this rea­son, an anti dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­i­cy is an essen­tial tool in the employ­ers risk man­age­ment tool kit.

Health and Safety
In the instance of health and safe­ty oblig­a­tions employ­ers have a duty to pro­vide a safe place and safe sys­tem of work. Strong work­place poli­cies which out­line prop­er health and safe­ty prac­tices can do three things:

  1. Help pre­vent work­place injuries which lead to increas­es in work­ers com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments and loss of an employ­ee for a peri­od of time.
  2. Help dis­charge the employ­er’s duty to pro­vide a safe sys­tem of work.
  3. Help pre­vent employ­er lia­bil­i­ty for employ­ee injuries in a sit­u­a­tion where an employ­ee has not fol­lowed the prop­er health and safe­ty pol­i­cy. That is, the employ­er may be able to argue they have pro­vid­ed a safe work­place and it is the employ­ee’s actions in not com­ply­ing with the rel­e­vant work­place health and safe­ty pol­i­cy which result­ed in the injury. 

Com­mon types of policies

Here are sev­er­al com­mon types of work­place policies:

  • Griev­ance pol­i­cy – out­lines the process for address­ing work­place complaints.
  • Health and Safe­ty pol­i­cy – out­lines safe work practices.
  • Anti Dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­i­cy – states that dis­crim­i­na­tion is not allowed.
  • Bul­ly­ing and Harass­ment pol­i­cy – states bul­ly­ing and harass­ment is not allowed.
  • Social Media pol­i­cy – out­lines accept­able social media use and pro­tects against employ­ee misuse.
  • Work­place Sur­veil­lance pol­i­cy – advis­es employ­ees of work­place sur­veil­lance that is occurring.
  • Dress Code pol­i­cy – can out­line expect­ed type or mode of dress and appear­ance, for instance busi­ness attire for office work.
  • Com­put­er, Inter­net and Email Use pol­i­cy – state what is unac­cept­able use of resources pro­vides to employ­ees includ­ing com­put­ers, inter­net and email use. Such a pol­i­cy can also address use of mobile devices, lap­tops or tablets. 
  • Codes of Con­duct – holis­tic pol­i­cy doc­u­ments which deal with a broad range of work­place behav­iour and entitlements.

The above is by no means an exhaus­tive list; many employ­ers have poli­cies which out­line var­i­ous staff ben­e­fits, the process of expense reim­burse­ment and oth­er issues.


Work­place poli­cies are a vital tool for employ­ers and they have mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits, includ­ing pro­vid­ing clear guide­lines on behav­iour, inves­tiga­tive and dis­ci­pli­nary process in addi­tion to out­lin­ing consequences. 

Employ­ees should be con­ver­sant with work­place poli­cies which affect their employ­ment. Vig­i­lant appli­ca­tion and use of poli­cies by employ­ers and employ­ees can help pre­vent employ­ee com­plaints esca­lat­ing in addi­tion to pro­vid­ing the appro­pri­ate tools to deal with them in the best way.

Employ­ers also need to be aware when using poli­cies and in the employ­ment con­tracts they use that poli­cies may inad­ver­tent­ly be giv­en the strength of con­trac­tu­al terms. For more infor­ma­tion on this read our arti­cle The legal sta­tus of work­place poli­cies.

If you are inter­est­ed in seek­ing advice about exist­ing work­place poli­cies, or are look­ing to imple­ment poli­cies in your work­place please con­tact Lau­ra Sowden.