Why do you have Employment Policies?

Employment policies come in all forms and sizes – from a few loose pages in a manager’s office to expensively bound and indexed manuals, often generic, comprehensively covering every imaginable workplace situation that might (or might not) arise. But what does your business really need?

labour-guideBy Judith Griessel, Griessel Consulting

It comes down to what you want to achieve with the policies. There is no prescribed list of compulsory policies, or a prescribed format, although there are some useful policy writing courses around. Nevertheless, standardised and consistently applied policies are beneficial to employee relations and if the content is relevant and accessible, an employment manual has an important role to play in any business.

Which staff policies do you need?

In short – those that serve a purpose in your particular business. These goals could include:

  • Guiding employees on acceptable workplace conduct (e.g. code of conduct; disciplinary code; grievance procedure, (sexual) harassment policy).
  • Providing a framework for consistent treatment of employees. The bigger and more decentralised the business, the greater the need for policies to ensure consistent and equitable treatment for all employees and avoid arbitrary decisions by individual managers (e.g. corporate vehicle or travel policies, secondments / expats, allowances, bonus schemes, transfers, recruitment, accommodation, medical, retirement, retrenchment, termination, etc.).
  • Setting out employee- and employer expectations clearly and to the point, to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary challenges (e.g. policies dealing with leave, internet /social media, smoking, dress code, safety, security, intellectual property, use of company equipment or facilities, etc.).
  • Helping you to defend employment- and legal challenges.

What should employment policies look like?

Less is more. Presumably you want your staff to actually read and understand the contents, and not just have a policy for the sake of having one. If so, you do not want your staff (including management) to glaze over after reading introductory paragraphs filled with legal-/HR-jargon and clichéd buzz words. Wearing my lawyer-hat, I can probably make lots of arguments to justify such a writing style, but experience in corporate work has taught me that it should be balanced with common sense and practicality.  Keep the user in mind.

  • Get to the point – clearly and concisely. Avoid long-winded paragraphs and use numbering or bullet points where possible. Keep the tone professional – not pedantic or confrontational.
  • Do not quote from, summarise, repeat or interpret legislation in the policy. Rather just refer to the relevant Act or specific section(s). Laws change, as do interpretation by the courts.
  • Cross-reference the contents of your policies with the relevant clauses in your employment contracts, so that there are not any contradictions or ambiguity.
  • Some policies or procedures may be intended as guidelines or management tools. Make sure to indicate this clearly where applicable and avoid using words such as “shall” and “must” which could be viewed by staff as inflexible undertakings or management obligations.
  • Voluminous policies trying to foresee and address every possible workplace scenario, may look nice in your HR-file and for your Employment Equity Plan, but it has its disadvantages, especially if incorporated into the employment contract.
  • Apart from discouraging staff and management to actually read the “book” and make it their own, you could also end up with unintended legal challenges. If the employer grants certain entitlements to employees or assume lots of additional obligations by way of policy documents, this goes beyond the scope of what is fair in terms of labour law and becomes a contractual obligation. Should the employee then decide to institute a claim in civil court for breach of contract in respect of a policy provision, as opposed to using labour law remedies, the usual principles of fairness and reasonableness will not hold much sway if the court is interpreting the letter of the policy using strictly contractual law principles. (See also https://simplebooklet.com/disccode).
  • Some managers have been known to download and use random policies that they found on Google. We have seen policies presented as the work of HR professionals which look wonderful at first glance, but then you find references to “federal law” or statutes which do not exist in South Africa; or use of foreign labour law terms (such as dismissal “at will”) that give the game away and make these policies not worth the paper they are written on when it comes to enforceability.


  • Employment policies must have management buy-in to be effective. It should be more than an ‘approval’ exercise by top management – all managers should be aware of the policies, the contents thereof and understand why it is there and how to utilise it in practice. A lot of time may go into preparing an employment manual, but then very few employees probably read it. All staff should (regularly) be trained in respect of important policies such as sexual harassment, protection of private information, social media, etc.
  • Global companies with new divisions in South Africa should also realise that their existing corporate policy manual cannot simply be implemented as is. Many of the policies, disciplinary processes, etc. will have to be adapted and aligned with South African law in order to have any effect and not violate local labour laws.
  • Regular reviews and updates are important for policies to remain relevant and in accordance with legislative changes.

An employment manual can be a very useful tool, but it must serve a purpose and be used to achieve that purpose – and not just be a tick on the HR checklist.

For more information, please contact Judith at  judith@griesselconsulting.co.za

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