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Ethical Policies and Procedures – More than just window-dressing

Background

The past few years have seen an increase in the number of employers who have chosen to expand the scope of their corporate policies and procedures, to include areas that have not, historically, been addressed, but which can nevertheless have a significant impact on employees’ working lives. We refer to some of these newer policies, particularly where they are intended to provide employees with greater support and assistance than the law may require, as “ethical policies”.

Realistically, policies and procedures are rarely the most interesting things about any workplace, and keeping them up to date and relevant can sometimes be a chore for employers. However, not only are some policies absolutely essential (and failing to have them can cause employers serious problems) but many can also provide tangible benefits to businesses.

There are very few legal requirements on employers in Great Britain to have written policies and procedures, although there is a minimum level of information that must, by law, be given to employees in writing. Much of this information has to be given in a single written statement of terms under section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which is often, but not necessarily, a written contract of employment; others are normally given in a staff handbook, which may be referred to in the written statement.

At the most basic, employers are obliged to have, and to provide their employees with access to, disciplinary procedures and rules, grievance procedures, sickness policies and information about pensions. Employers with five or more employee must also have health and safety policies, and some employers may also be obliged to have whistleblowing policies.

There are other areas where a written policy is not required by law, but can still provide significant legal protection for employers, such as to meet other legal obligations or provide a defence to criminal or civil liability in the event of a dispute or other problem. Such policies include those against bribery or facilitation of tax evasion, data protection and privacy, and equal opportunities.

It is often helpful for employers to have their policies and procedures collected in a staff handbook in one place, but it doesn’t have to be a big printed document; apart from the environmental cost of a lot of printing a document, parts of which may rarely be read, employment law can change frequently, so it is usually best to have a handbook on an organisation’s intranet or online. Not all employees work with computers, so it is important for employers to be mindful of making information readily accessible to everyone, without them having to jump through too many hoops to get it.

What do we mean when we talk about “ethical” policies?

An “ethical employer” may be defined as one that looks beyond just profit. In their business dealings, they factor in their impact on people, and this includes the way they treat their staff, their local community, and the environment. Ethical policies are a good way of putting this ethos into practice, to make it plain what an organisation stands for, and ideally helps to foster a wider culture in which behaving ethically is the norm.

“Ethical” policies can help to define, support and encourage this wider ethical climate within a workplace, and by implementing them, employers are often recognising the impact that working life has on individuals, and seek to do the right thing for their staff. By going beyond the minimum legal requirements, in the policies that they apply to themselves and their employees, good employers are recognising that their employees are more than just a “human resource.”

This could sound a little idealistic, and some employers may well argue that profit is the be-all and end-all of a business, but an increasing number of organisations have found that embracing an ethical ethos, and demonstrating corporate social responsibility, actually has tangible benefits to their businesses; not just their employees’ wellbeing. At the most basic level, this reflects the truism that a happy employee is a productive employee, but employers who do go that extra mile are finding that there is much more to it than that, and that behaving ethically, and using ethical policies to help shape a wider workplace ethos, can lead to greater employee enthusiasm and commitment, enhanced customer loyalty, and an improved public reputation.

An organisation “looking beyond profit” should not be taken to mean that profit is not important, however, and according to the Institute of Business Ethics, ethical companies actually outperform their peers financially in the long term. One of the theories behind this idea is that being ethically responsible actually helps companies develop in general, because they can actually engage with their employees, and this can bring out creative, and potentially valuable, ideas from their existing employees, that the organisation can actually benefit from.

Employees who feel valued tend to go the extra mile for their employers, and happy workers frequently have fewer sickness absences, and are generally more productive. Introducing and, crucially, actually utilising ethical policies as a way of changing an organisation’s culture for the better can also be cost-effective way of improving staff retention. An organisation’s improved reputation can also be of great assistance when it comes to recruiting the best candidates in a competitive marketplace: after all, few people want to work for, or even do business with, an organisation that is known to be ethically dubious

A frequently-mentioned example of an organisation going the extra mile is Channel 4, which has launched dedicated menopause and pregnancy loss policies, with the stated aim of supporting their employees. These are forward thinking policies, and whilst more companies have followed suit, policies like this are currently still few and far between.

For all employers, having sensible and ethical policies is something that should be considered and dealt with proactively. Policies on menopause and pregnancy loss are a start, but an employer that wants to actively demonstrate its ethical position shouldn’t be limited to these ideas. This is important, not only so they will be able to assist individual employees who may need the support these new policies can provide, which is valuable, but also so they can show that they are decent employers. A survey has suggested, for example, that 78% of Channel 4 staff feel better about Channel 4 as a place to work since the menopause policy was launched in 2019, which means that it is not only the people who may need to rely on the policy that will benefit from it; the organisation as whole will do so too.

Post-pandemic, employee welfare is likely to be an area of particular focus, but it is for each business to think about what kind of workplace culture they want to create, what they stand for as a business, and to make policy accordingly. This could mean implementing policies to support volunteering or charitable giving; it could be policies to make the workplace more sustainable; or the focus may be to offer enhanced employee benefits or more innovative ways of doing things, for example introducing unlimited holiday.

However you want to shape your business, the employment team at Hodge Jones & Allen is able to help you; from initial discussions, through preparing tailored policies, procedures and other documents, to implementation. If you would like to discuss any of these ideas in more detail, please call 0808 252 5231 or request a call back online.