Honestly, it’s the best policy: essential workplace policies for small businesses

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

policiesSmall business is a big player when it comes to employment in Australia; 95% of businesses in this country are classified as ‘small’ and some 4.8 million workers are employed by such an establishment. This all adds up to a lot of responsibility.

Between workplace health and safety, bullying, technology usage and data security there is a lot to keep track of and it can be difficult to know where to begin. I mentor my business coaching clients to write down their ‘position on things’. This will help you to form the basis of a set of policies – a great place to start when addressing the ways you intend to handle the various ‘goings on’ that may occur within your business.

Culture and compliance
Writing a whole new set of policies can seem like a daunting task, but they are essential to the smooth and effective operation of your business. They can help you to get everyone on the same page about the big stuff by communicating the standards and values that underpin your company culture and help you achieve compliance with legislated workplace responsibilities.

They send a message about your company
A further benefit comes in the form of customer perception; potential clients and customers are increasingly concerned with purchasing from socially and environmentally aware businesses and brands. This is particularly relevant in business-to-business selling where policies can form part of your tender documents.

What is a policy?
A policy is a short, punchy document on a specific issue that:

  1. Defines the issue at hand – eg bullying
  2. States the position that your business takes on the issue – eg bullying will not be tolerated in our workplace
  3. Outlines the process for how to handle a breach of the policy – eg if you experience bullying in our workplace, this is what you can do, who you should tell etc
  4. Outlines the consequences for breaching the policy – eg if you are found to have breached our bullying policy, you will receive a formal warning etc

Basically, it lets everyone in your business know what is and isn’t acceptable and what actions your business will take if expected standards are not upheld.

Tips for policy creation

  • Start with the big stuff – prioritise putting policies in place for compliance areas such as Workplace Health and Safety
  • Keep them brief – use dot-points and be sure to ‘step out’ any processes (NB: a policy isn’t a place to get down to the nitty-gritty – that’s what procedures are for).
  • Get staff input – sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Your team could be a great resource, helping to raise issues that require attention in your business
  • Policies should be ‘living documents’ – ensure they are visible and accessible and kept up to date



Which policies are essential?

Workplace Health and Safety
In Australia, businesses have the primary duty of care when it comes to workplace health and safety. The best way to ensure that you are compliant and have clearly communicated your safety obligations, as well as those of your employees, is to have a good policy document in place.

Some states have provided online resources for information and templates on how to cover-off you’re your WHS requirements. Visit business.gov.au for more details.


Drugs and Alcohol
This is another policy which relates to safety. Your employees’ abilities to perform their work tasks safely will likely be negatively impacted if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These effects can be present whether their use of these substances was during or outside working hours (eg having too much to drink on a Sunday night and having to operate heavy machinery the next morning with a hangover is a definite no-no!). Similarly needing to take leave due to being affected by drugs or alcohol leads to lost productivity. It is in your interests to make it clear that you expect your employees to show up to their job healthy, alert and ready to work.

You can find information and templates that will help you develop your own Drug and Alcohol Policy by visiting your state’s health and safety regulator’s website.


Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination
Employers who fail to address acts of bullying, discrimination or harassment in their workplace can find themselves open to legal action; as a small business owner you are responsible under the law to provide a safe workplace. It is impossible to mitigate the risks without first making it clear to all employees what is considered bullying, harassment or discrimination. A good policy will give definition to each of these key areas, as well as a procedure for how complaints should be handled.

An online template is available here from the Australian Human Rights Commission.


Code of Conduct
This is your main document around company culture – how do you wish your employees to represent your business both internally and in public? Your code of conduct should address:

  • Compliance with all legal responsibilities
  • Showing respect in the workplace
  • Use and protection of company property
  • Professionalism
  • Personal appearance
  • Corruption
  • Job duties and authority
  • Expected working hours
  • Conflict of interest
  • Customer service expectations
  • Benefits
  • Disciplinary actions that may be taken

The inclusion of all these elements will likely make this policy your longest and most detailed one – it is a very important document to get right. You should keep it updated regularly as new situations arise and ensure that staff are trained in how to apply it while carrying out their work duties.


There will be no one-size-fits all approach to your business’ leave policy. Some small businesses experience seasonal busy and quiet times. Larger businesses may be in a position to offer paid parental leave, while others may not be. These are the sorts of matters that a clear Leave Policy can communicate to your team to manage expectations around when and how much leave they can take. You can include ‘blackout periods’ where taking leave would require longer notice periods and unessential leave is less likely to be approved, let staff know about any forced leave periods (eg over the holiday season) and outline circumstances where you would expect them to provide medical certificates for sick leave.


Sooner or later you will likely experience an employee dispute within your business. It is important that your team knows what steps they can take if they feel the need to make a complaint about another employee’s conduct. Your Grievance Policy should clearly communicate the steps that employees can take when trying to resolve disputes and how to escalate them if they are not satisfied with the outcome (eg how to contact the Fair Work Ombudsman). Click here for more information about effective dispute resolution.

Internet and Email
Technology often raises more questions than it answers when it comes to deciding what is considered appropriate workplace usage. Social media has blurred the lines between private and public life and this ‘blurriness’ can spill over into the professional space. An employee who lists their place of work on their Facebook profile has become an ambassador of your brand. If they then express opinions or ideas that are offensive or go against your business’ culture, it may negatively affect your reputation. Therefore, having a policy around appropriate Internet and Email use is vital. FairWork advises that your policy should:

  • explain clearly what is appropriate use of email and internet at work
  • outline what personal use of email (both within the business and externally) is appropriate
  • outline types of use that are prohibited
  • refer to any relevant legislation regarding use and access
  • outline what information is logged and who in the organisation has rights to access the logs and content of staff email and browsing activities
  • clearly set out how the business intends to monitor or audit employee compliance with its rules relating to acceptable usage of email and web browsing
  • outline potential consequences for misuse of email or web browsing.


Employers often have access to personal information about their employees: private phone numbers, addresses, email, bank account numbers, health records, tax file numbers and super information etc. It is important that your staff feel that their personal information is gathered, used and stored thoughtfully and safely. The details of this should be outlined in your Privacy Policy. It can also contain messaging around what information about your business can be made public and what needs to remain within the safety of your business’ walls.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has put together a comprehensive guide to developing a Privacy Policy, which you can access here.


It’s all there in black and white
Creating a clear, accessible suite of essential policies will help you to treat your employees fairly and protect your business. They could be what stands between you and a whole lot of headaches. Policies make it clear to your employees how you want your business to operate and what behaviour is expected of them. This ensures that if the worst happens (and legal disputes arise) you can prove that your staff have been made aware of their responsibilities. As a leader within your business, you must ensure that you are setting the best example by living by your own code. As Albert Einstein once said, ‘Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.’


Image credit:
Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images