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HR by the Book

Human resources policy basics for brokerage owners

The process of writing a human resources policy manual can appear somewhat daunting if you’re just starting with a blank page. But with a little thought and planning you can develop a manual that will work well for your organization.

Some small brokerage owners believe that having a policy manual is too restrictive for their company and may go against the more entrepreneurial culture of the organization. This doesn’t have to be the case. Even for small businesses, it’s helpful to have policies. Policies provide company guidelines and practices, set expectations and can help in the performance management process. In addition, having policies in place is particularly important as companies grow. When working with just a few employees, often the employer can be fairly flexible in the application of policies. However, as companies grow and more employees join the workplace, “being flexible” may be perceived as favouritism if employment practices are not applied consistently.

Many policy manuals grow from humble beginnings with policies often being created out of necessity when something has gone awry. Although this is often a typical approach, it is better to take a more proactive stance.

Need to Haves

Documenting your current employment practices is a good start, but it is also important to ensure you have the basics covered. There are some “must have” policies, often driven by legislative requirements. A respectful workplace policy, which includes harassment, discrimination and bullying, and a health and safety policy are absolutely required. For further legislative compliance requirements, research your provincial employment or labour standards online (see sidebar).

A technology policy is key as many management and performance issues are often related to employees who abuse technology and social media. Setting the expectations up front so employees know what is permissible and what is not can deter many performance issues and protect your company from serious technology situations.

Employees should have a good understanding of your performance management and discipline processes through a written policy. It is very important to have a discipline policy in place. Even though you may think that you won’t ever need this, it’s important to have one in case you ever do.

Nice to Haves

The “nice-to-have” policies often include topics that set standards and practices and are important things for your team to know. These may include subjects such as vacation, absences (including illness, leaves of absence and other time away from the office), hours of work, overtime or statutory holidays.

You may also wish to have a “conduct policy” that governs how brokerage staff deal with customers and clients and other members of the industry. The conduct policy should also focus on dos and don’ts within the office and may include items such as the use of business tools, office attire or personal phone calls.

A policy manual, however, doesn’t have to be limited to just employment practices. Include a section on your company history and a welcome from senior management. That can set the tone of the company’s culture and can assist in employee engagement. Focus also on the positive things your company has to offer. Employee programs such as educational assistance, computer loans or professional memberships are beneficial items to include as well as social events or other perquisites and programs that are applicable to all staff.

To complement the policy manual, it’s helpful to have a document that new employees sign to signify that they have received, read and understand the policies. Also make sure that your policies align with any wording that you have in your written employment contracts. For example, confidentiality, conflict of interest, intellectual property, etc.

Company Context

Before you begin writing your policy manual, it’s important to first take a look at your organization’s culture. The culture says a lot about how the policy manual should be written. A rigid and formal policy manual with unwavering procedures may not work well in a more creative and entrepreneurial environment. In this situation, a policy manual written as “guidelines” may be better received and followed in your organization.

Another important factor to consider is your workforce. What types of positions do you have? What are the typical issues that arise? For example, in companies with a large percentage of hourly workers, policies pertaining to hours of work, breaks and overtime would be important to have in place. Consider also the composition of your workforce. This can play an important role in determining how rigid your policies need to be and how much detail needs to be included. With some policies there may be differences in eligibility between full-time and part-time or hourly and salaried staff. Make sure you indicate these distinctions.

The final factor to consider before starting to develop your policies is determining how the policies will be carried out. If managers are acting autonomously, without the benefit of a central resource to discuss interpretation or provide guidance, then detailed procedures may be warranted.

A policy manual should be an ongoing work in progress. As legislation changes, you may need to make amendments. Keeping policies one per page makes it easier to update in a hard-copy format. Many companies are also moving their policies to an online format. An electronic version is fine as long as all employees have easy access to the online version and are advised appropriately of changes or amendments to the manual.

So, where do you start? Using the Internet is a good place to get some ideas of policy styles, format and wording, but use caution in just adopting them for your organization. Many of these sources are US-based and may not always be alignment with provincial or federal legislation. They may also use language that is particular to the US and will not be recognized from a legal standpoint here in Canada.

Many provincial ministries that deal with labour or employment standards have guidelines or fact sheets that interpret the legislation in plain language. Ministry representatives can also answer your questions via phone or email to help you with situations specific to your company.

There are a number of “ready-made” manuals available on-line. Before you purchase, make sure that it will fit within your organization. Some require you to fill in the blanks in order to complete the manual, which can be time consuming. Others provide a very comprehensive manual, but in smaller organizations you may not need or want all of the policies that are included. Some feature a paid subscription service that will provide you with regular updates. This can be a good feature, but can also be expensive.

There are a number of organizations that can produce a custom policy manual for you. This may be a good option if you are just starting or want to ensure your current manual is legislatively compliant.

Having a good understanding of your organization and ensuring the basics are in place will go far in helping you to develop a manual that will work well for your organization.

Lynn Brown, CHRP, CMC is managing director of Brown Consulting Group. She can be reached at


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Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.