Rules for workers may be legally required, but various optional workplace rules should be considered as well. Carefully selected workplace rules can protect your business and help you maintain an orderly, positive work environment.
Managing the employees in your workplace effectively necessitates that even the smallest of businesses set up work rules. Work rules protect your business and your workers, and if correctly implemented and executed, they create and maintain a better work environment for all.
For small businesses, most work rules will be optional.
However, federal and state laws may require your business to have and to post policies regarding certain workplace issues such as smoking, drugs and alcohol, and sexual harassment. In the areas that are regulated by law, you have no choice but to comply by instituting workplace rules.
So, why should you have work rules that aren't required? It's tempting to feel that, if work rules aren't required by law, there's no reason to bother with them. But, while you may save yourself some time initially by not worrying about work rules, chances are that not having them will cause you some problems in the future, particularly if you have at least a handful of employees.
Having formal work rules in your business, even if they're not required, are a good idea because they can help you protect your business from potential liability and maintain a high quality of work life for your employees. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your employees understand what is expected of them, not only in the work that they do, but in their behavior and in other areas of your employment relationship. If the rules are carefully selected, clearly related to the business, and fairly enforced, they can help you to better manage your workplace and your workers.
Optional work rules to think about
Apart from the required rules and policies, you have the option to choose additional rules to help you manage your employees. Once you've taken care of the policies that are required, you can focus on choosing from the many other rules that are optional but that are, in many cases, a good idea to have.
While the rules that govern your employees’ conduct should reflect the kind of work your business does and the conditions under which it is performed, there are some basic rules that you'll see over and over again if you ask businesses about their work rules and policies.
Employers can choose to have a simple set of work rules made up of a list of generally accepted and prohibited conduct, or they may decide to have very detailed work rules and policies addressing specific behavior.
Some employers prefer to keep the rules as general as possible. The advantage of this approach is that it gives the employer flexibility in enforcing the rules. You can create a simple one- or two-page handout that you give to each person as you hire them, covering such things as
- Safety rules that must be observed
- Absence and tardiness policy (how to report the number of allowable sick days and personal days off)
- How to record time worked (for example, using a time clock or time sheet)
- Lunch period and break rules
- Overtime policy
- Dress code or personal appearance rules
- Rules covering use or damage to employer's property
- Rules about keeping employer's and customers' sensitive information confidential
- Rules concerning employees’ use of the Internet and cell phones
Some small business owners may find it appropriate to include more detail regarding other common workplace issues such as solicitation or selling at work, and employees' political and off-duty activities, including moonlighting. Some more recent issues some small business owners may want to address include policies regarding who can work remotely and what employees can share on social media.
It can also be a good idea for your list of rules to contain a reminder that this list is not exclusive. You might include a statement like the following:
"It would be impractical to set forth a list of all activities that are considered to be illegal or contrary to good business practices and good employee-employer relations. This is intended only as a guideline."
Rules that are reasonable and clearly related to the safe and efficient operation of the business are typically the best. In general, it's not necessary to say that things like stealing or insubordination are prohibited as employees are expected to know these things. But you’re the best judge of what works in your workplace. So you can create a written rule addressing such issues if you wish.
You may also decide to explain why you have chosen specific rules for inclusion and explain the consequences and discipline an employee may expect for breaking the rules. If you want some flexibility, you can include a general statement such as that "any employee found engaging in these behaviors will be subject to disciplinary actions including reprimand, warning, layoff, or dismissal".
Keep in mind that in some cases, you may be required to post or distribute a written policy to employees. But in the absence of these requirements, you can choose to communicate your work rules to employees in the manner you think is best — whether it be in writing, verbally, by electronic communication, or otherwise.
You may also want to include a disclaimer saying that the list of work rules is not intended to be an employment contract.
Work rules can help protect your business when terminating or disciplining employees
One of the most persuasive reasons for having a set of solid work rules is that they can protect your business. Many employers have rules because having them may help protect them from liability — both legal and financial — and give them more freedom in managing and disciplining employees. Evidence of the work rules and policies that were in place are often introduced by employers in cases where employees make employment-related claims such as wrongful discharge or discrimination claims.
Some employers with a very small number of employees choose to have only those work rules required by law. Why? Because having no work rules about a given activity will give you more freedom to handle each situation on the basis of its own particular circumstances. Only you can be the judge of which way to go on this issue.
How having clear workplace rules can help protect a business
When you terminate an employee you want your reasoning and your actions to be sound and defensible. It is helpful if you had clearly stated work rules that have been communicated to your employees. Then, an employee who breaks a work rule does so with the knowledge that the conduct is unacceptable and that such behavior might result in termination.
An employee who is aware of the existence and purpose of a reasonable work rule, but who chooses to disregard it, will probably have a harder time challenging any disciplinary action you may take than if you did not communicate the existence of the rule to your employees. If you want to have a progressive discipline policy in place, you may want to explain to employees how it works and which offenses merit which warnings and punishments.
Absent a previously communicated policy or rule, an employee may believe the employer was being arbitrary or even discriminatory in terminating him or her.
Example: Your employee, Rachel, uses her business computer for some personal business. You don't have a formal policy on employee use of office equipment for personal business, but you fire Rachel for it because you feel it's cause for dismissal. There is no way that you can prove that Rachel knew that what she did would cause her to be fired.
Having a clear policy against personal use of business equipment would strengthen your position about why you fired Rachel, should she ever try to contest it.
Another benefit of having clear work rules is that it helps ensure that your employees understand what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. A clear definition of what is required and the consequences of failing to comply make it easier for you to respond consistently to work rule violations. An ambiguous rule or uneven enforcement of any rule opens your actions to challenge as arbitrary or discriminatory.
Example: Jack and Roger get into a fight on company time. You break up the fight and find out that Jack threw the first punch. You suspend Jack because he started the fight. You don't suspend Roger because he didn't start the fight and it doesn't seem fair to punish him.
If you have a policy against fighting that simply says employees who fight on the job will be suspended, you've got a problem because you only suspended one of the employees involved, Jack. But, if your policy clearly states that fighting is not acceptable on work time, and that an employee who throws a punch or starts a fight will be suspended, you are in a much better position to defend your actions.
In making rules, be sensitive to the needs and circumstances of your employees. In enforcing your rules, always be consistent and fair. That way, when disciplining employees is necessary, your actions will be defensible.
What to consider when selecting your work rules
Work rules can help you create and maintain an orderly atmosphere that is pleasant to work in where employees can work effectively. Creating such an atmosphere is to your benefit as an employer because employees tend to be more creative and productive when they are content.
Work rules can help improve quality of work life by:
- Creating an atmosphere where employees are treated with dignity and respect
- Helping to ensure that employees conduct themselves in a professional and safe manner
- Encouraging open communication between you and your employees
- Ensuring that all employees are treated fairly and that they follow the same rules
However, because the relationship between work rules and quality of work life is an important one, if work rules are unreasonable, inappropriate, or unenforced, the rules can actually damage employee morale.
Selecting appropriate and reasonable work rules
While every employee's conduct should be governed by some basic work rules, the specific work rules you choose should be appropriate and reasonable for the work your employees do and the working conditions to which they are subject.
Example: Businesses where employees regularly meet with customers may have more of a need for a restrictive dress code than businesses where employees do physical labor outside in cold weather.
Similarly, a business whose success depends upon its trade secrets and sensitive information has more of a need for a noncompete or nondisclosure policy than a business whose success does not depend on trade secrets and sensitive information.
When you're considering the creation of a specific rule or policy, you can determine if it's right for your business by asking yourself some questions. Among those questions are the following:
- Will this policy disproportionately impact one employee (or group of employees) over another, even if it is applied evenly to all employees?
- Is this policy really necessary considering the work that my employees do?
- Is this policy unduly restrictive in light of working conditions?
- Is there a sound business justification for this policy?
- In what situations would this policy be used?
- Have there been situations in the past where this policy would have been applicable and useful?
- Am I willing to enforce this policy?
- What documentation will be necessary to administer and enforce this policy?
- Will the time and effort necessary to administer and enforce this policy outweigh the benefit of having it?
- What would the consequences be for someone who broke this rule or disobeyed this policy?
- Do other businesses or colleagues have similar policies? What do they think of them? Are they useful or burdensome?
Avoid overly restrictive work rules
Overly restrictive work rules can be trouble. Not only can they create unnecessary hardship for employees, they can also make you seem unreasonable and unconcerned about the feelings and needs of your employees, even if that’s not the case. If you have a rule, you should be able to give any employee who asks a good, business-related reason for having it. The reasons should be clearly related to the employee's job, and you should not impose personal opinions or beliefs on your employees in the form of work rules.
Example: When Roger interviewed for a job and was subsequently hired, he was clean-shaven. When he reported for his first day at work, Roger was wearing a beard. The employer had a policy against employees having facial hair.
The employer asked Roger to shave off the beard, but Roger refused because he felt it was an infringement on his personal freedom, and, more importantly, no one ever gave him a good reason why this rule existed. As a result, the employer fired Roger.
There are no winners here. The employer lost a good employee, and the employee lost a good job. The employer will now have to spend more time and money to replace the employee.
In the example above a better approach may have been for the employer, upon noticing the employee's reluctance to shave the beard, to explain why it had the policy against beards. It might have been enough to make the employee change his mind. If the employer could not come up with a good reason, then perhaps the employer should rethink having this policy.
Making sure rules aren't perceived negatively
There are a number of things that can be done that will go a long way to help make sure that work rules aren't perceived to be unduly restrictive, including
- Getting input from your employees in creating work rules: if they are involved in the process, employees are more likely to accept and abide by the work rules.
- Again, having rules that have a sound business justification will not only make them seem more appropriate, but it may help you avoid creating rules that can have unintended consequences.