Does anyone still read the small print?
On our media devices alone we accede to roughly 20 000 words of Terms and Conditions a day – some of them even start in capital letters (Yes, Apple, we are looking at you). Security expert Mikko Hyppönen (1) says: “The biggest lie on the internet is “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions’”. To prove it, he set up a free WiFi spot and included a “Herod clause” in the T’s and C’s whereby the user signed away his firstborn for all eternity – six people signed up anyway. But, as conscientious employers, do we really want the same to be said of the long legalistic policy documents we often have our prospective employees sign or implement in our workplaces in the name of compliance and governance?
In a society where less is more, employers often find themselves with a conundrum when tasked with developing policies for their organisations: “How do we get buy-in from prospective employees and protect the company, without making the process so onerous that we end up doing the opposite?” Our current labour market is filled with labour professionals who stand ready to promote their own business interests and write such policies, but the question remains, “Does ‘Joe Soap’ from the corner store really require the same lengthy policies as the multinational that hires 30 000 employees?”
The need for employment related policies has been around for many years and have been the main bone of contention between line management and HR. Many HR managers have sat across from their board of directors and EXCO members in an attempt to answer the question: “Does a company of our size really need so many ER policies? We only have 50 employees. Shouldn’t it be enough that we are regulated by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act?”
Year after year, HR managers have been hard-pressed to convince battle hardened CEO’s and committee members of the importance of HR policies, but could these business heads be right?
To answer the above question, it is imperative to highlight the fact that there is a significant difference between ‘Joe Soap’ who employs 10 employees in his local spaza shop and “Conglomerate International (Pty) Ltd” who employs 30 000 employees. It has to be said that as long as people are employed in larger companies, and lawyers and judges interpret or adjudicate, policies will always be a necessity. The question remains, “What happens to the proverbial corner store/local spaza shop? “
Small and medium-sized businesses often find themselves stuck between creating policies tailor-made to their companies and not creating policies at all. As a result of this confusion, unscrupulous businesses use their expertise and instill the “fear of being sued” tactic, or non-compliance to advise businesses to purchase heavily legalistic and extremely lengthy policies, charging exorbitant fees to meet their (experts) sales targets.
However, the questions we need to ask ourselves are: “Will prospective employees from either of these entities even read the policies? Will they actually question or familiarize themselves with the policies implemented? How hard are they for management to “police?” In our experience – highly unlikely! In fact, the only time an employee will usually refer back to a policy document is when they have misconducted themselves or when there is a dispute regarding policy-related practices.
What then, is the solution?
Larger entities: Unfortunately, do require, carefully researched policies, however these can often be minimised, streamlined and plain languaged for ease of use;
For smaller businesses, we recommend:
Policies and employment contracts should be short and easy to read;
Place key policies and behaviors directly in the employment contract. People are inclined to read contracts more carefully than policies. Rather create a situation where employees can read 13 pages they are going to acknowledge with a signature, than reading 6 policies of 15 pages each; Some clauses should be tailor-made and relevant to each business, e.g. safety and compliance
Contracts regulate behavior, and new hires are inclined to read their appointment letters carefully, as opposed to reading heavily worded policies. It is far better to create a situation where new employees read a few detailed pages from the outset and sign as opposed to a thick annotated file of documents that they are handed upon the commencement of their employment.
Common unacceptable behavior does not need to be regulated in policies as many of these aspects are implied terms for example don’t steal, don’t fight etc , respect your manager etc.;
The letter of employment should list specifics and include relevant every day misdemeanors;
Labour law practitioners should be held to a standard and focus less on money-making schemes and tailor policies to their clients’ industries and needs;
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act should be used as your ‘blueprint’.
Gaining/developing impetus for the efforts to reduce the length of policy documents will become a pain point. Businesses need to ask whether they are creating a barrier to entry for promising staff, and overcomplicating /encumbering management’s ability to generate profit /disabling the business. Pain points develop when processes are too cumbersome for the size of the enterprise.
At ERX we know that not all business owners have the time, information or knowledge to navigate the minefield of bad advice in the industry. We want to help you ensure you’re properly equipped and able to focus on the right things. Contact us for advice on how to better streamline your employment policies and processes.
Does anyone still read the small print? On our media devices alone we accede to roughly 20 000 words of Terms and Conditions a day – some of them even start in capital letters (Yes, Apple, we are looking at you). But as conscientious employers, do we really want the same to be said of the long(often incomprehensible) policy documents we often have our prospective employees sign? The impetus for the efforts to reduce the length of policy documents will be the pain point. Businesses need to ask whether they are creating a barrier to entry for promising staff. If so, then we haven’t done our job well at all.