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Company Policies: A Source Of Structure & Stability

A 9-1-1 call from an independent living facility sparked controversy earlier this year when the nurse placing the call refused to perform CPR on an 86-year-old woman who had collapsed in the dining room. According to the nurse, it was against company policy for her to render emergency medical aid to elderly residents at the facility. A helpless elderly woman, a pleading 9-1-1 operator and a seemingly uncaring nurse make this incident particularly disturbing. At the same time, however, it raises interesting questions about company policies and the purpose they serve.

Corporate policies exist to protect companies, their employees and consumers, and despite an occasional opposite outcome, that is typically what they do. A company’s policies provide a basic set of guidelines for their employees to follow. They can include general dos and don’ts or more specific safety procedures, work process flows, communication guidelines or dress codes. By establishing what is and isn’t acceptable workplace behavior, a company helps mitigate the risks posed by employees who, if left unchecked, might behave badly or make foolhardy decisions.

While company policies are not a surefire guarantee that things won’t go wrong, they are a first line of defense if things do. Policies can help an employer defend itself against claims of wrongful termination, accusations of unfair treatment and frivolous lawsuits or liability claims. When implemented and enforced effectively, corporate policies can demonstrate that a company is operating professionally and proactively for the benefit of its stakeholders, its employees and the communities it serves. As a result, policies help foster a sense of structure and stability among employees and the public.

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For employees, company policies provide a blueprint that outlines the boundaries of acceptable behavior. By clearly defining expectations for employee conduct, policies can offer the fallback an employee might need if a customer, counterparty or co-worker pressures them to push the envelope. Not many could argue with Steve, the straight arrow in sales, when he says, “I’d really like to do that for you Mr. Jones, but if I go against the company’s policy I could lose my job.”

Consumers benefit from a company’s policies as well. Policies suggest that a company follows a self-imposed code of ethics. When publicly posted, consumers can recognize and raise a red flag if an employee is operating out of bounds.

Retail return policies are a familiar example. Return policies are often posted in stores or on register receipts. In fact, it’s not uncommon for customers to have to sign the receipt to acknowledge that they are aware of the policy. If a customer attempts to return an item that was purchased more than 30 days earlier, for instance, a store employee can refer to the policy and refuse to complete the return. On the other hand, customers can feel assured that store employees will honor their company’s policy and accept a return if the stated conditions are met.

Company policies often set the standard for everything from the use of company cellphones to performance expectations, so getting it right is essential. A well-constructed policy should:

  • identify to whom the policy applies;
  • establish the objective of the policy;
  • explain why the policy is necessary;
  • outline examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior under the policy; and
  • warn of the consequences if an employee fails to comply with the policy.
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To be effective, policies should be communicated openly and often. Training sessions can help clarify policies while providing an opportunity to ask questions. Posting policies in common areas also helps. However, having policies written out and signed by employees provides what some consider the most vital layer of communication. A signed acknowledgement can serve as evidentiary support if a future issue arises. Companies can include policies in their employee handbooks or create separate, standalone documents when necessary.

Finally, it is important that policies are applied fairly and consistently across all levels of the organization. If policies are applied inconsistently, there is a greater chance that an employee dismissed for breaching a policy could successfully claim he or she was unfairly terminated.

At times, the dos and don’ts surrounding company policies can seem arbitrary, excessive and maybe even a bit oppressive, but companies and their employees thrive with structure, and well-defined policies provide that structure.

When policies take into account the interests of employees, partners and external stakeholders, and not merely the company’s self-preservation, they can be an excellent source of stability and strength.

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