Know what to write — and what to avoid
Creating personnel policies and procedures probably doesn't sound as exciting as fundraising or new program development. Even so, policies and procedures are vital documents that define how your organization operates in the nonprofit world.
More specifically, personnel policies and procedures:
- Ensure compliance with employment laws and regulations
- Promote fair and consistent treatment of your staff
- Set staff expectations, which helps to maintain morale
- Offer a measure of legal protection should an employee ever sue for wrongful termination, discrimination or harassment
- Resolve confusion about how tasks get done
Understand how policies and procedures differ
A policy is a principle to guide staff members when they have a specific decision to make. The key word here is "guide." Good policies promote decisions that align with your organization's values while giving you some flexibility in how to act.
A procedure is a set of instructions for carrying out a policy. Procedures are dynamic, changing often in response to factors such as new programs, legislation, technology and staffing.
In short, policies are about what to do — and procedures are about how to do it. Both are typically included in an employee handbook.
Decide who creates your policies and procedures
Begin with your board of directors or trustees. Ask them to define their role in policy and procedure development. Some boards want to be actively involved, while others delegate responsibility for development and implementation to the executive director or chief executive and ask only to review written drafts.
Although templates and samples can be helpful, avoid the temptation to simply copy another organization's personnel policies and procedures when creating yours. Your policies and procedures should be tailored to the size and nature of your organization and any relevant laws. They should clearly reflect your organization's culture and values.
Identify which topics to cover
In general, personnel policies and procedures address the following topics:
General employment information
- Employment eligibility and affirmative action
- Job classifications/roles
- Employee records
- Compensation and overtime
- Work hours and schedules, including attendance expectations and guidelines for working remotely
- Performance reviews and salary increases
- Promotions and transfers
- Progressive discipline and disciplinary action
- Termination (voluntary and involuntary)
- Complaints, grievance and conflict resolution
- Health insurance and COBRA benefits
- Disability and life insurance
- Accrual and use of paid and unpaid leave, including leave for illness, disability, military service, maternity and holidays
- Employee assistance
- Tuition reimbursement
Standards of conduct
Provide guidelines for how employees should behave in the workplace, including zero tolerance for victimization, harassment and discrimination. If your nonprofit is in a regulated industry, include information about employee legal obligations — which may include policies regarding alcohol and drug use.
If applicable, have employees sign nondisclosure and/or conflict of interest statements to help protect proprietary information. Note that conflict of interest considerations may vary depending on your location. Consider conflict of interest issues specific to the U.S. and the U.K.
Safety and security
Policies for creating a safe and secure workplace should address:
- Applicable laws (such as OSHA regulations)
- Emergency procedures
- Potential safety hazards
- Working in inclement weather
- Workplace violence
Technology and social media
Misuse of electronic communications may have serious ramifications for your nonprofit. Make sure that employees understand how to safeguard electronic information — both that of your organization and your clients — and to promptly report theft of any devices used for work. Consider specific data protection policies required in the U.K. (and considered best practice worldwide).
Also provide policies regarding appropriate use of:
- Online applications (including email, software, social media and blogs)
- Company equipment (including company-issued computers, hardware, cellphones and other devices)
Remind employees that they have no right to privacy if they access social media while at work or while using company equipment. Similarly, technology policies should prohibit employees from:
- Disclosing proprietary information
- Downloading apps on devices that contain employer or client information
- Clicking links from unsolicited emails
- Leaving devices used for work unattended
You'll want personnel policies to reflect accommodation of issues such as disabilities and requests for flexible working. If you're unsure of the laws and policies that apply to your nonprofit, ask an HR specialist or legal adviser for guidance.
In some cases, personnel policies and procedures are dictated or shaped by employment laws and regulations.
In the U.S., examples include:
- Fair Labor Standards Act. This act guarantees a minimum wage and overtime pay for many workers in the United States. The Equal Pay Act was amended to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1963 to prohibit wage discrimination based on sex.
- Americans with Disabilities Act. This act prohibits discrimination against people who have disabilities and ensures equal opportunity in employment, government services, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications.
- Family and Medical Leave Act. This act provides unpaid, protected job leave with health benefits under certain circumstances.
- Affordable Care Act. This act requires Americans to have health insurance with minimum essential coverage (or pay a fee for each month without it). In return for complying with the mandate, the act ensures no exclusions for pre-existing conditions and no copayments for preventive health services, among various other protections.
- Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. This act protects service members who want to return to their civilian employment after completing active duty.
In the U.K., examples include:
- The Equality Act 2010. This act updates and brings together various anti-discrimination laws and regulations passed since the 1970s into a single piece of legislation, defining nine personal characteristics that are protected by law: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.
- The Data Protection Act 1998. This act defines the law on the processing of data on identifiable living people and is the main piece of legislation that governs data protection.
Remember, too, that your organization's mission, programs and services are unique. You might need to create policies and procedures for which there are no precedents.
What to write — and what to avoid
Remember that personnel policies and procedures are meant for people. Write in plain English. Address readers as "you" and "we." Use active verbs and easy-to-scan lists. Eliminate jargon and excess wording.
Also remember that poorly written or outdated policies and procedures may do more harm than good. For example, some courts have held that employee handbooks can be implied contracts if the policies in the handbook create the impression that employees can be dismissed only for cause or that the employer is legally obliged to follow specific disciplinary procedures described in the handbook.
To minimize the likelihood of these issues:
- Use general language — such as "we may" rather than "we will" — to avoid being locked into a specific course of action
- Include a prominent disclaimer in your employee handbook indicating that the policies and procedures don't create contractual rights and that the employment relationship is at will (except for Montana, which isn't an at-will state)
- Clearly state that your organization has the right to modify personnel policies and procedures and that a revised employee handbook supersedes any previous handbooks
Review, revise and approve
Ask board members and key staff to review written drafts of your personnel policies and procedures. Encourage reviewers not to focus on grammar and spelling. Instead, remind them of the bigger questions to answer:
- Is the policy or procedure needed?
- Does the policy or procedure reflect our values?
- Is the policy or procedure clear?
- Is the policy or procedure fair?
- Can we actually implement the policy or procedure?
- Will the policy or procedure affect our funding?
- Will the policy or procedure affect our ability to hire and retain qualified workers?
Revise your policies and procedures in response to reviewer comments. Then run final drafts by a legal adviser. Finally, submit policies and procedures to your board and document their approval in meeting minutes.
Secure employee signatures
Upon approval, assemble your personnel policies and procedures in an employee handbook. Provide all employees with a digital or printed copy of the handbook and then ask employees to sign a form indicating that they've read, understood and accept the contents of the handbook. Make sure employees are aware of any policy or procedure changes. Managers, too, must understand the importance of consistently following all policies and procedures outlined in the handbook — providing training as needed.
Keep it current
Personnel policies are typically reviewed by the board annually, while procedures may be reviewed within three years if nothing has changed. Once approved or revised, devote time at staff meetings to review personnel policies and procedures. Your efforts will pay off as employees modify their day-to-day behavior to meet any new expectations.
This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination, and YourPeople, a U.K.-based firm that provides outsourced human resources services across all sectors.
The Balance: Need to know what goes in an employee handbook? by Susan M. Heathfield (2016)
Charities Review Council: Sample policies and documents (2016)
HR Council: Developing HR policies
Free Management Library: Personnel policies by Carter McNamara
Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Frequently asked questions: Employment practices
Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Creating an effective employee handbook for your nonprofit
Free Management Library: Personnel policy manuals (employee handbooks) by Carter McNamara
Inc.: How to assemble an employee handbook (2008)
Inc.: Tools for creating an employee handbook by Tiffany Black (2010)