Having an up-to-date employee handbook with comprehensive company policies is one of the most important things that small businesses can do to mitigate risk. A thorough employee handbook filled with well-thought-out policies related to sexual harassment, workplace safety, time and attendance, and employee conduct will keep your business running smoothly and compliantly.
Human resources professionals understand the importance of creating and implementing clear workplace policies, but what do HR teams do when other company leaders don’t abide by such policies? It’s unfortunately a common problem. Even worse, sometimes leaders directly interfere with HR staff members’ ability to enforce company rules. This puts the HR team in an awkward position and opens the company up to liability.
If you’re a human resources professional struggling to get support in enforcing your company’s code of conduct and employee policies, there are several steps that you can take to help sway internal leaders on the matter. Explore the potential risks associated with non-compliance with your own company policies and find out how to handle working for a company that doesn’t stick to policy.
Potential risks associated with not sticking to company policies
Letting things slide here and there may not seem like a big deal, but not sticking to company policies can open your business up to a ton of different liabilities and negative outcomes. Here are some of the biggest concerns to consider.
Legal complaints and fines
Inconsistent application of company policies opens your company up to claims of discrimination. For example, let’s say you don’t consistently enforce your attendance policy and regularly allow employees to come in late without consequences. One day, an employee is 15 minutes late and it causes a minor inconvenience to a customer or another department. As a result, you decide to take disciplinary action against the employee. That employee will feel singled out and as though they have been treated unfairly because other employees come in late all the time and don’t get in trouble.
If they fall into one of the groups recognized under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and feel that that may have influenced the company’s decision to treat them differently in regards to disciplinary action, the employee in the above scenario is well within their rights to report the behavior to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and open a lawsuit. This can result in hefty legal fees and fines for your business.
Workplace accidents and injuries
Most workplaces also have a variety of safety rules in place that are designed to prevent team members from getting hurt on the job. Enforcing these rules and maintaining a safe work environment is incredibly important. However, many employees skirt these rules to take shortcuts that allow them to get tasks done more quickly. Line managers may look the other way or choose not to enforce the safety policies in favor of higher productivity.
This is a huge liability for your company and can have disastrous effects on your employees (after all, a workplace accident can result in life-altering injuries even in industries that may not traditionally be viewed as dangerous). To avoid lost productivity, lowered morale, health care costs, and other negative consequences associated with workplace accidents, every single manager needs to understand and enforce safety policies.
In the age of social media, it’s not hard to destroy your reputation. Employees have plenty of outlets to share their grievances with current or past employers from more traditional avenues like Glassdoor to newer formats like a TikTok storytime. You do not want to be the employer that didn’t give employees their allotted breaks, allowed workplace harassment to go unchecked, or fired an employee over a policy that was rarely enforced. Future prospective employees and customers will research your business and see these unfavorable posts.
News outlets will also pick up on lawsuits or EEOC complaints sometimes, and in these cases, not all press is good press. Plus, things like mishandling sensitive information as a result of failure to enforce set policies or procedures can even require custom notifications and result in a huge loss of trust in your organization. Ultimately, company policies are in place for a reason and that reason is typically to protect the company and its reputation (along with your employees and customers).
While not as ominous as lawsuits or government investigations, it’s also worth noting that inconsistency in applying company policies creates a lot of confusion for employees and further issues for HR and people managers. If you fail to stick to policy too many times, that policy effectively doesn’t exist. Employees won’t understand when or how the policy applies within your organization and more team members will begin to disregard it. This sets the company up for failure because when there is a situation where the policy really needs to be enforced, it will seem completely unfair to your staff.
New employees who join a company and see specific policies not being enforced will be especially confused and likely to disregard the policy as an outdated rule that the company forgot to remove from the handbook. This is exactly the opposite of what companies should be hoping to accomplish in creating clear policies and a handbook.
How to get support from leadership on enforcing policies
Communicate the risks
Start by expressing your concern to leadership about the risks associated with not consistently enforcing company policies. If you have a legal department or corporate counsel, seek legal advice and work with them to communicate with leadership. While human resources professionals typically have a strong understanding of employment law, leaders will likely take the concerns more seriously if they come from an attorney.
Obtain internal support
Is a certain department manager getting fed up with not being able to enforce policies with their team? Does a Sales Manager want the dress code enforced so that the office looks more professional when clients come in? Encourage them to speak up too. There is strength in numbers. Each department will also be impacted differently when policies aren’t enforced, so they can also provide valuable insight to help you make your case.
Offer to work with leaders to rewrite or update policies
As we’ve discussed above, keeping old policies on the books and not consistently enforcing them can be a liability. If leaders don’t want to enforce the written policies that they have right now, you may want to suggest updating them to create new policies that can be enforced more consistently.
It’s normal for policies to gradually fall out of favor with employers and employees as times change, so it’s possible that the reason policies are not being enforced is simply because the policy no longer fits the organization’s desired company culture. For example, many companies have dress codes that are no longer consistently enforced because they reflect old or outdated attitudes about gender roles and work attire.
Ask leaders for input on how you can rewrite the policies in question to better reflect the company’s current culture and desired management style. This can be approached in a collaborative rather than confrontational manner, which is a good approach if you’re an HR Manager working with leaders who do not respond positively to pushback or have not been responsive to prior attempts to raise concern. If you need some policy templates to use as a guide, check out our Book of Company Policies.
Many business leaders like to make decisions based on hard data. If you’re trying to sway their opinion on an issue, dive into your HR analytics to look for ways to demonstrate the cost of not enforcing policies. The exact metrics will vary based on the policy that isn’t being enforced. If it’s the attendance policy, tally up the lost minutes and productivity associated with tardiness over a set period (such as a week, month, or quarter). If it’s a safety policy, look to see if there has been a rise in workplace accidents and injuries.
In some instances, if you don’t have any data to back up your concerns, you can create some. That doesn’t mean that you should make up figures. but you can collect data to support your concerns. One opportunity to do this is when you send out your employee engagement surveys. Employees won’t necessarily care if management is relaxed about company rules, but they will absolutely notice if policies are being applied unevenly. In this circumstance adding a Likert scale statement such as “I feel that company policies are fairly and equitably enforced.” for them to agree or disagree with can help you capture data on how the inconsistencies may be impacting employee morale and show leaders that their behavior is potentially creating the perception of favoritism or discrimination.
Get things in writing
Sometimes leaders are stubborn and you won’t be able to get them to change their ways, but you can protect yourself. If you bring an issue to the attention of senior leaders and they do not allow you to enforce company policy, you will want to have that in writing. This ensures that you aren’t blamed if their non-compliance with their own policies leads to major consequences for the business.
It’s helpful to raise concerns via email rather than verbally to create a paper trail. If the issue is discussed verbally in a meeting that is not being recorded, consider sending a follow-up email summarizing the key points and confirming that they do not want you to enforce the policy in this specific instance. A simple template to follow is:“Hello [Name], I just wanted to follow up on our conversation and confirm that you do not want to take action to enforce [policy] as it relates to [employee name or issue]? The HR department aims to enforce all company policies consistently, but understand that you had concerns regarding [the reason that they gave for not allowing enforcement of the policy]. In the future how would you like issues related to [policy or behavior] handled?”.
Make sure that you hang on to any relevant emails, notes, Slack messages, or meeting recordings in the event that an issue, complaint, or lawsuit arises. You can also use these as evidence if you are able to go above the manager who is shutting you down regarding enforcing policies. Ultimately, the human resources department is there to protect the company as well as the employees. If the company will not let you protect them, at least protect yourself.