What Good Policies are Good For

by | October 3, 2017

We know that hiring, mentoring and growing employees can be one of the best parts of owning a business. These folks become like family and it feels great to be able to help them achieve and grow.  However, we also know that having employees is one of the most challenging and risky parts of running a business. For years, we have heard from clients, “I don’t want to have employees. There are too many ways to get in trouble.” And this sentiment has become louder and more strained by the restrictive climate employers are seeing in recent years at both the federal and state levels. Employers struggle more and more with compliance, especially where local, state, and federal regulations differ. We have mandated sick and safe leave, varied minimum wage, ban-the-box, and, most recently, safe scheduling. In addition, we have operations that are more and more complex with flexible hours, virtual offices, and new technology. How do you, as an employer, keep up with the changes? The short answer is “policies”; but with all the changes, it seems that policy maintenance could be a full time job in itself!

Two years is probably the longest you should go without a review of whether your policies are still compliant; an annual review is better to stay ahead of the game. Legal compliance is typically the impetus for a review and amendment because the regulatory changes are “must haves” for a business. Even if the regulation seems minor and you’re pretty sure you’re already doing what’s required, it’s important to check and have it reviewed. Many regulations, such as Seattle Sick and Safe Leave, have nuanced language that is required for compliance with the law. Also, if you are operating in multiple jurisdictions – whether that’s Bellevue and Seattle or Portland and Seattle – you must recognize that each has different regulations that may sound the same. When you see that a municipality has adopted a “safe leave” policy, you can’t assume you’re in compliance just because you have already incorporated Seattle’s regulation. Usually they are different enough to require review and sometimes significant revision. In multiple jurisdictions, you also must determine if you should consider separate policies per jurisdiction or try to cobble together something that covers everyone with the most restrictive policy in place. The latter seems logical except there will always be a new policy somewhere, requiring more frequent modifications across the board, affecting all employees. Adopting a company-wide, general set of employee policies and guidelines not subject to regulation, and then jurisdiction-based policies to address the specific compliance issues of a jurisdiction is often the best long-term approach. Every situation is different, though. What we do know is that the constantly changing and more restrictive landscape makes the regular review of your employment policies essential to stay out of trouble.

A secondary but equally important reason for updating your policies is changes in operations. We recently reviewed our handbook for the first time in 5 years and found a few areas for improvement. Interestingly, though, little of it was regulatory. The changes we did uncover related to our operations (and, to be honest, really should have been implemented some time ago). Policies such as bring your own device policy, work from home policy, a new PTO policy. All these were a “given” in our workplace operations, but not specifically incorporated in our documents. I note these policies are in progress as we speak.

The “Ah Ha” here is that your policies are a mix of compliance and operations. Failing to keep them updated creates liability. Regulatory compliance often drives the impetus for policy updates. It’s essential that you know what’s required and follow the law consistently. But there’s more to employee handbooks and policies than regulation. Your policies set expectations. If you say you’re going to do something a certain way and then you don’t (or you don’t consistently), you create confusion and possibly liability. Companies get in as much trouble for inconsistency as they do for non-compliance. Think about the last time you updated your employment policies comprehensively — what’s changed in your business since then and what risks arise by not having these policies written down and in place?