Creating and maintaining HR policies: Four key considerations

Author: Paula Flores

Do you need to draft a new policy or amend an existing one? Based on the findings of a major new survey, we explore the main issues faced by HR departments and explain what you need to do to tackle them.

In April 2023, XpertHR conducted a survey of 408 organisations that explored how employers use and update their HR policies and employee handbooks.

Ensuring that HR policies align with an organisation's culture and values ranked among the top three challenges faced by many HR professionals. Interestingly, we found that 40% of organisations make all, or at least some, of their HR policies publicly available; of those, 36.2% actively publicise their policies on social media or by other means. According to our survey, the most common reason that organisations do this is to communicate their culture (89.8%) and to promote diversity and inclusion (74.6%).

Unsurprisingly, another top challenge experienced by many HR professionals is the need to keep on top of a myriad of legislative changes to ensure that policies are legally compliant.

Below we examine some key themes from our survey and offer practical advice to help you keep your policies up to date.

1. Mind your language

Language matters and its misuse can cause offence and distress. When drafting and updating policies, ensuring that they are gender neutral is important. However, there are challenges associated with maintaining gender neutrality in HR policies as language continues to evolve and develop. Some terms that were previously in common use are now outdated and should be avoided as they can be offensive and exclusionary.

As one respondent in our survey put it: "language and understanding in media and the real world is fast paced and creating policy that keeps up and leverages newer knowledge to keep colleagues safe and included is tough."

Although various working environments may have different demands, organisations should devise a strategy for making the workplace more inclusive. For those drafting or updating HR policies, here's a good place to start:

  • where possible, use gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" or "their";
  • avoid using the masculine pronoun "he" as standard as this can imply that male employees are the norm and encourage a perception that women are the minority;
  • be mindful of gender identity and that a person's gender identity may not correspond with the sex that they were assigned at birth; and
  • ensure any images used in policies reflect a gender balance and avoid stereotypical associations with particular roles.

2. Provide training on HR policies for line managers

In our survey, 41% of organisations said they did not provide any training for staff on their HR policies. Yet, at the same time, HR professionals ranked training managers (so they can enforce the organisation's policies) as one of their top three concerns.

One respondent commented: "managers bend the rules, causing unfair precedent-setting." Another respondent highlighted that managers often struggle with policies where there is "ambiguity and choice around how to manage a situation".

Managers play a fundamental part in implementing policies and they can help shape an organisation's culture through their behaviour. Creating a strategy for providing ongoing training and support to line managers should help bridge any gap between policy and practice.

Ultimately, line managers should:

  • know enough to be able to implement HR policies in a fair and consistent way;
  • be given specific information about changes or updates to HR policies in a clear and timely manner; and
  • be able to consult or seek support from HR to help navigate any challenges.

Line managers do not need to be specialists in employment law. However, a basic understanding of employment law and training in how to implement HR policies practically will help line managers thrive in their role.

3. Keep up with legislative changes

Unsurprisingly, keeping HR policies up to date with legislation was one of the top three challenges identified by respondents.

Survey respondents mentioned that one key challenge arises from the fact that HR departments are often understaffed and/or consist of a team of generalists, so it is difficult for them to keep up to date with legislative changes.

Complex HR policy areas identified by respondents

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policy

Shared parental leave policy (birth)

Shared parental leave policy (adoption)

Short-term sickness absence policy

Long-term sickness absence policy

Disciplinary procedure

Grievance procedure

Hybrid working policy

Some practical ways that you can use XpertHR to help with this include:

  • checking our Legal timetable and setting up email alerts for employment-related legislation that is currently in the pipeline;
  • signing up for our Topic alerts to keep up to date with the latest additions to XpertHR content;
  • following the new and updated section of our Employment law guide for guidance from expert authors on current and future developments; and
  • looking at our Coming soon page for details of new content (including template documents) due to be published on XpertHR in line with legislative developments.

According to Zeba Sayed, senior legal editor at XpertHR: "Ideally, every organisation should have a person or a team of people with responsibility for its policies and procedures. They should be tasked with setting aside time each week to check what's happening in employment law. This will help to ensure that any legal changes are flagged, and steps can be taken to make sure that policies and procedures are updated and remain compliant. Of course, this may be an unrealistic expectation for some organisations. At XpertHR, we can help with this. We have a huge library of customisable policies to ensure that subscribers are legally compliant, following best practice and limiting their exposure to unnecessary risk."

Stephen Simpson, principal HR strategy and practice editor, reiterates the importance of planning, especially given the long lead time that most major employment law changes normally have: "Except in exceptional circumstances, such as emergency legislation during the pandemic, UK employers are normally in the fortunate position of having an extended period between legislation coming into existence and actually becoming law - for example, the introduction of a new right, such as carer's leave or neonatal leave, is likely to take around 18 months from the Act of Parliament being passed until its introduction. Employers can use this time to keep track of the legislation and any guidance and prepare their new or amended HR policies."

4. Define the necessary level of detail

Our survey found that another challenge for HR professionals involved in creating and updating HR policies is how detailed they should be. One respondent mentioned: "It can be difficult to get the balance of providing sufficient detail while being user friendly/accessible and understandable for all."

The level of detail in a HR policy will vary depending on the size and nature of the organisation. As a minimum, a HR policy should:

  • have enough information in it to provide clear guidelines and expectations for both the organisation and its employees;
  • be legally compliant;
  • clearly define the scope by stating exactly who it applies to;
  • be written in a tone that is appropriate to the context;
  • be understandable to everyone it is aimed at;
  • state whether it forms part of the employees' employment contract;
  • be integrated with other related policies; and
  • where possible, be benchmarked to see how it stacks up against other organisations.

Additional resources

XpertHR has many templates and policies to help you tackle challenging issues, so make sure to check our Policies and procedures templates.

Also look at our Training guides to find an array of resources to help you support managers.

Overall, HR professionals can tackle issues confidently if they have the right resources, support and stakeholder engagement. HR policies play an integral part in implementing an organisation's HR strategy. However, a policy should not be thought the be-all and end-all of an organisation's approach. It is also vital that organisations put policy into practice - that they foster an inclusive culture; recruit, progress and retain a diverse workforce; encourage effective performance; and minimise the potential for discrimination. As one respondent said: "The challenge is gaining cultural alignment and engagement so that they enable and support the right behaviours - rather than police the wrong ones."