Policy vs. Handbook. Does it Matter?
As many of our readers will know, one of the fundamental services we provide at Jouta is development of culturally aligned employee handbooks for the organizations we work with. While we typically call them employee handbooks, depending on the culture and nature of the organization, they may also be referred to as team member guides, playbooks, handbook to our practices & ways, reference guides, etc. Furthermore, although we often re-write or re-work what was typically referred to as a policy manual or HR policy, we rarely support continuing to call them that. We strive to help our clients understand this, and thought we’d take the time to clarify why we shy away from the overarching “policy” terminology.
Let’s start by reflecting on what comes to mind when you hear the terms “HR Policy”, “Policy Manual” or simply “Policy”. Does it feel welcoming and aligned with your culture as an organization, industry, and/or community? Does it give you a sense that it will be informative and helpful to all employees, be they leaders, managers, professionals, or hourly, on-call employees? Or does it feel more like a set of rules, or an authoritative “do this, don’t do that” document? We should qualify that there’s no right or wrong answer here. Rather, it’s about what aligns best with and makes the most sense for your organization, now and in the future.
Now let’s take a look at the formal definition of a policy, as stated by the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
- 1a: prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs
- 1b: management or procedure based primarily on material interest
- 2a: a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions
- 2b: a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body
Merriam-Webster also indicates that the noun ‘policy’ comes from the Middle English term “policie, pollecye” meaning: “art or practice of government, system of government, commonwealth, organization or conduct of affairs, practical skill, prudence.” This was borrowed from Anglo-French policie, pollecie “governance, system of government” (Middle French also, “a political organization, the state, conduct, behavior”), which was borrowed from Late Latin polītīa “citizenship, political organization, government”. It then further refers to more information at “Police Entry.”
While some components of the present-day definitions may certainly be relevant and accurate for your organization, overall, the term policy is derived from and speaks to a system of government and politics, policing, and a definite course of action.
For clarity, we’re not suggesting that policies are a bad thing, and that organizations shouldn’t have them. Compliance and protection are fundamental components of HR, and we most certainly agree that it’s important to have a clear set of expectations and guidelines that everyone in your organization is held accountable to. What doesn’t resonate with us is collectively calling what is, ideally, an aligned and easy to read/understand mutual agreement and overall outline of two-way expectations a “Policy.”
There may of course be policies within your employee handbook, but even those don’t need to be specifically called policy or written in a traditional, governmental, legal, and colonial structure in order to be legally binding. In fact, we would argue that if your expectations are written in such a way that your employees either won’t read or can’t understand them, they’re likely to be much less compliant.
So what do we recommend?
Regardless of what you call the document/guide/information you provide to employees, we encourage you to take a step back and consider what your intention is for having it, and who your audience is. As is the case for many organizations, do you have a policy manual because you’re supposed to have one, but don’t take steps to ensure employees read it and understand it? Or do you have/want an information source that sets clear expectations for employees, helps them understand what they can expect, and both guides and empowers their actions, performance, and productivity? If the latter, additional guidelines to having an effective employee handbook include:
- Write it in simple, clear language that’s free of legal-speak, and in a tone that makes sense for who you are as an organization. If you have a casual, approachable culture, a third-person, formal document will, at its best, feel at odds with that culture, and, at its worst, alienate employees from those guidelines.
- Minimize grey areas (which occur regardless of whether you have a formal policy or not), while also keeping in mind that, by their nature, people and their circumstances are fraught with grey area. While we typically discourage discretionary practices, there are some situations that simply don’t have a defined course of action.
- Ensure that whatever you put in place sets accountability mechanisms at all levels (i.e. leaders, managers, and employees). You can have the most legally compliant policy on paper, but if you don’t hold your people accountable to it, it’s meaningless.
- Don’t just set expectations for employees, but also indicate what they can expect from you as an employer, as well as from their managers.
- While your policies, guidelines and/or expectations should be clear on your stance as an organization and include procedures to follow, contrary to traditional practice, you don’t need to define one as policy and the other as procedure.
- Ensure that procedures are relevant to all employees. While it’s important, in some cases, to help employees understand what to expect, they don’t need to know every detail that managers follow. Rather, those details may make more sense in a manager’s handbook.
The bottom line is that, yes, a policy (so long as it sets clear expectations and steps for the right audience) by any other name can still be a ‘policy’, in terms of compliance. Ultimately, whatever you call the document that’s intended to guide and support employee conduct and the mutual employment relationship, be sure it actually achieves that. Otherwise, there’s little point in having one.