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Work Rules Must Be Communicated To Be Effective

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Communicating work rules so that employees understand what is expected of them is crucial. There are advantages and disadvantages to communicating work policies orally or putting them in writing.

Employers are required to have certain work rules in place and can also implement optional rules for employees. However, having work rules doesn't mean much unless employees know that the rules exist and understand them clearly. In addition, effectively communicating your policies or standards is important not only because it helps employees understand the rules, but documented communication of those rules makes it easier to enforce them, if necessary.

The following are issues you should consider when determining the best way to make sure that employees get the message about standards of conduct in your workplace:

  • When to communicate work rules. You'll need to make sure employees are aware of the rules before they have the chance to break them, and you'll want to give periodic reminders as well.
  • Oral communication of work rules. Communicating orally allows give and take between you and the employees. However, it's hard to document a conversation and be sure that you've come away from it with both parties in agreement. Oral communication is usually best for very small businesses, where the employer and employees need a lot of flexibility in dealing with each other.
  • Written communication of work rules. Giving employees your policies, rules, and expectations in writing has several advantages — it allows you to document that the employee was informed about the rules and, if you've written them correctly, it's clear what you expect. However, remember that if the rule is in writing, it will be very difficult to change.

The Best Time To Communicate Your Work Policies

There are a few times when communicating your standards of behavior or policies is natural:

  • Orientation for a new hire. Giving employees the work rules at the outset is the best way to make sure that they get off to a smooth start in your business. If employees know what the rules are, they may be less likely to break them. The amount of detail that your orientation process has will determine how you communicate your policies and rules.
Example

For example, if you're hiring your first employee, chances are the orientation process will be pretty informal. You may just want to explain to your employee what standards of behavior you expect. If you have a list of general work rules, now would be the time to either run through it orally with the employee or to give the employee a copy of the list.

  • Discipline when an employee breaks a rule. If an employee, new or established, breaks a rule, as a part of any discipline or counseling process you might have, you may want to consider going over your expectations or rules again to ensure that the employee has an understanding of the rules. While the employee may have known that there was a policy against whatever he or she did, it never hurts to reinforce to the employee what your expectations are. Be sure to ask the employee if he or she has any questions about the rule or policy.
Think Ahead

If you choose to document this part of your discipline procedure, you might want to ask the employee to sign a form that states that the employee has been informed of the rules (either orally or in writing) and that the employee understands them. That way, you can use this document to take more severe action if the behavior continues in the future.

  • When an employee asks about rules or procedures. Occasionally employees might be confused about something or not be sure how they should handle a certain situation. Your employees should be aware that they can ask for clarification of rules and procedures when necessary.
  • When you change or add rules or policies. If you change or add certain restrictions to your standards of conduct, it's a good idea to let employees know formally. Either make an announcement, send around a memo or an email, and/or post something on the bulletin board. Make sure that everyone knows what acceptable behavior is at all times.

How to Communicate Your Work Policies

You can communicate your work rules orally or in writing. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages.

Communicating Your Policies Orally

Choosing to communicate your work policies and expectations orally has several advantages:

  • It allows you and the employee to engage in a dialog.
  • It allows employees to ask questions immediately.
  • It is more personal than a written notice.
  • You can be somewhat flexible in allowing exceptions to your rules, if you feel there's a good reason in a given situation.
  • You can change your rules when you feel it's necessary.
  • It is less likely that an employee will try to say you created an employment contract.

However, there is a downside to relying on oral communication of policies. When it comes time to enforce a policy, possibly through termination, it may be difficult to prove that an employee knew about a policy when only an oral discussion took place.

Warning

Some federal and state laws require a written or posted policy for certain workplace rules. Know what your state requires and do not take a chance that orally communicating the policy will fulfill the requirements of the law.

Effective oral communication tips. If you decide that you want to communicate your policies and work expectations orally, use these tips to make your discussion the most effective:

  • Make sure that you have allotted plenty of time to go over the policies with the employee. This generally would occur when the employee is first hired.
  • Make a list of the policies and rules you want to cover with the employee so that you don't forget any of them.
  • Explain to the employee why you are taking the time to explain your standards and expectations.
Tip

If it's a new employee, explain that you want the employee to have a clear picture of what kind of behavior is acceptable so the employee can get off on the right foot. Many times, employees are too scared or overwhelmed in their first few days to ask questions about work rules, so the information can be helpful.

If the employee is being disciplined for infractions of rules or for non-compliance with your standards, explain to the employee that you want to be sure that the employee is aware of the policy or rule in question. Also be sure that the employee understands the requirements of the policy.

  • Treat the matter seriously — if you treat your policies as a joke, so will your employees.
  • Whenever possible, explain to employees the reason for your policies and standards.
  • Allow the employee to ask questions and provide clear, consistent answers. If employees don't have questions at the time of the discussion, make it clear that they can ask you questions about the rules and policies anytime.

Communicating Policies in Writing

Some people don't like having things in writing because they think it binds them to an agreement to which they don't want to be held. And, in fact, in many cases they are right. On the other hand, putting your rules and standards of conduct in writing does have several advantages:

  • They are formalized and you can ensure that all employees are getting the same information.
  • You can refer to the rules when an employee commits an infraction. (If you don't have any written policies, you'd have to rely on your memory of a discussion you had about your policies.)
  • You can document that all employees know the work rules because you can make sure they sign a receipt after getting a copy of the rules.
Tip

As a compromise, you can prepare a written list of simple, general work rules for your employees. If you phrase them carefully, you can preserve some flexibility for yourself while ensuring that employees know the basics about what you expect from them. In addition, you'll be able to prove you complied with the federal and state laws that may require you to have anti-harassment rules, no-smoking policies, or drug-free workplace rules.

Employers may choose to document when employees receive the rules to make sure that there can be no question in the event that the rules have to be enforced one day.

Example

The following are some samples of acknowledgment language that you can put on a piece of paper and ask employees to sign at the time they receive a copy of your standards of conduct or work policies.

Ask employees to read the statement and sign and date the paper:

"I have received a copy of ABC Company's Work Policies/Standards of Conduct."

This next example places more responsibility on the employee by making him or her not only acknowledge receipt of the policies, but also commit to reading it:

"I have my copy of the policies of ABC Company which outlines my privileges and obligations as an employee. I will familiarize myself with the information and understand that it constitutes the policies of ABC Company and that I am governed by it."

Using handbooks to communicate your policies. Employee handbooks are a way of ensuring that all employees are aware of your rules, but they can cause major legal problems.

Warning

If you communicate your policies in any kind of written form, make certain that you do not create an employment contract in the process!

A handbook is a publication designed to communicate your work policies to your employees. If you have very few employees and/or only a few policies or a simple list of general work rules, a handbook is probably not necessary. However, if you have complicated policies and procedures, you may want to create a formal handbook to ensure your employees understand what is expected of them.

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