Why many workplace policies don't work (and how to fix)

Chris Broadbent


Have you ever heard someone say, “we need a policy for that,” and your heart sank?

Do you feel like you are ‘policied out’? This feeling is far too common.

While all organisations are required to have some policies (e.g. Health and Safety), and some organisations are required to have particular policies (e.g. Child Protection, Conflict of Interest), there is a risk in having too many policies, or misunderstanding what a policy does, and what it doesn’t do.

This is especially true with people-related policies. There are many reasons why these policies fail within the workplace:

  • Too many policies - leads to staff feeling overwhelmed

  • Poorly written - policies must be simple to understand and easy to follow

  • Poorly communicated - people don’t know they exist, or where to find them

  • Irrelevant - if people think they are stupid or unnecessary, they won’t follow them

  • Out-of-date - they must be routinely reviewed, updated and communicated to the appropriate people

  • Unenforced - compliance must be monitored, adhered to by everyone (including leadership) and enforced appropriately

  • Unreasonable - policies must be relevant, sensible and comply with law

So do we really need policies? Of course! Policies play an important role in explaining how things are done in the workplace, why they’re important and what you need people to remember about their behaviour when representing the organisation.

However, it is essential that policies are crafted to ensure that they are relevant, easy to understand, follow and enforce.

Policy Best Practices

A good way to ensure that your policies are up to the task, is to set clear principles when implementing a new policy regime. Here are some key principles that we use when helping clients to develop workplace policies:

1) KISS - Keep it Simple, Stupid

  • Unless there are specific policies required by law for your organisation, keep the number of policies you need to a minimum.

  • Think about how you can combine multiple policies under one document.

  • Ensure that the policy language is simple and easy to understand, and that any compliance requirements are easy to follow and doesn’t create unreachable targets or unreasonable expectations on your people.

  • Regularly review your policies and change them if required. Remove policies if they are no longer relevant.

2) Explain the ‘Why’

  • Clearly articulate the reason for the policy at the start of the document. The reader should be able to see in one or two sentences why a policy has been developed.

  • Ensure that the tone and content fits with your organisation’s vision and values.

3) Consult with your People

  • Don’t just tell your people that they must comply with a policy once it has been issued. Involve them throughout the development process. This ensures that the policy will be relevant to your workplace or organisation.

  • If you have a large workforce, select a small team of key, trusted employees to help you with developing policies. These should be people who understand and display the vision and values of your organisation.

  • Once you have the policy in good shape, send it to everyone, and ask for their feedback.

  • Carefully review any feedback, and then plan how you will communicate the final version of the policy. Does it require training? Do you need to use different communication channels to reach everyone?

4) Be Positive

  • Promote and praise the ‘right’ behaviour, rather than just focusing on the ‘wrong’ behaviour.

  • Use positive language to describe what ‘good’ looks like.

  • This doesn’t mean you don’t have a ‘when things go wrong’ section in the policy. This is an important part of a policy. Just don’t lead with it...

The ‘Code of Conduct’

One policy that all organisations should have is a Code of Conduct. A Code of Conduct uses positive language to describe how you expect people to behave and act when they are at work or are representing the organisation in some capacity.

A Code of Conduct can be used to replace a number of other policies, such as ‘Discipline and Dismissal’, ‘Social Media’, ‘Bullying and ‘Harassment’ or ‘Customer Service’ policies. A Code of Conduct will describe the values of the organisation and how workers should behave towards each other and to your customers, clients and other stakeholders. It should also have a section that explains what happens if the Code is breached.

A Code of Conduct can be developed in-house following the principles outlined above. Or, you can get in touch with us to help you through this.

Final Thoughts

Remember, a good policy regime is about quality, not quantity.

By following a few key principles, you can ensure that you have the right number of policies, written in clear, concise language, that everyone understands and knows how to follow.