Making things clear
Policies are a set of documents that describe an organisation’s guidelines for operation and the procedures necessary to fulfil these policies. Policies are often initiated in conjunction with the Business Development department or because of some external requirement, such as business regulations and possibly new legislation.
The Communications Policy will deliver HR policy information and benefits in a consistent and effective manner. These policies are maintained, reviewed and updated by Human Resources in consultation, where applicable, with Trade Unions.
Policy manuals exemplify downward communication intended to help employees perform their jobs. The aim of the policy is to improve policy compliance and have all the answers that an employee might ask in black and white. This will effectively reduce or possibly eliminate calls to the HR department.
Fair and consistent treatment
HR policies and procedures can help organizations to develop fair and consistent approaches to managing and developing people and can protect against legal claims. They can provide all employees with guidance about their own and the organization’s responsibilities. In its introduction, the HR Communications Policy may establish the principles upon which open, effective and productive communication should take place.
Policies need to be tailored to suit the culture, circumstances and size of an organization. For example, the policy may cover: publications, employee surveys, suggestion scheme, board of directors’ meeting, staff meetings, trade union membership, the media, responsibility and media publicity.
As an organisation grows, or the environment in which it operates changes, its need for HR policies and procedures will change. New policies will need to be developed and formalized, or existing policies reviewed, to ensure a consistent and fair approach – and to avoid wasting time by having crises dealt with in an ad hoc way. Introducing an HR policy doesn’t mean that the organization previously had no provisions in place. It reflects a desire to formalize arrangements in certain areas of people management and development for the reasons suggested.
Use of Communications Systems
Having a Communications Policy is crucial today because communication systems are not only an essential tool for doing business, but also an integral part of the daily work of many employees. Since these systems affect virtually every organizational function, from customer service to production, employers should adopt a communication systems policy that identifies the proper use of communication systems and encourages employees to explore new information resources.
This type of policy should provide information regarding monitoring employee communications including telephone conversations, voice mail and e-mail, improper use of employer equipment, opening mail in the office, and expectations of employee privacy.
Human Resources Solutions
Employers are becoming increasingly frustrated at the amount of time employees spend on the internet or on personal emails. Naturally, they turn to monitoring. But is keeping tabs on your staff justified or legal?
A Communications Policy can help with compliance to the law, but employers also have a number of considerations, legal and practical, in arriving at a policy. Should they ban all personal email and internet use? This solves the problem of having to distinguish between personal communications and business communications (intercepting the content of personal communications is not authorized by the Regulations) but may not be very popular with employees who often see email and internet as a perk of the job. An alternative is to offer employees use of a personal template so that it is always clear when an email is personal and the employer can ensure that it does not monitor the content of these.
Employees may have human rights concerns if all personal telephone use is banned, so employers must consider what is reasonable and admissible, e.g. allow reasonable use or provide pay phones.
One of the key principles of The Data Protection Act is telling people what is happening with their information, and this is where a Communications Policy is a useful tool. One key advice to employers is therefore to establish a policy and communicate it.
The policy must be uniformly enforced through employee education, ongoing monitoring and appropriate discipline. Obtaining prior consent also serves to diminish an employee’s expectation of privacy and will generally protect employers from liability. One of the key goals for an employer’s Communications Policy is to eliminate any employee expectations that business communications are confidential.
Once an employer is satisfied that he has lawful authority to intercept employees’ communications, he must make reasonable efforts to inform people about interception. This is where communications policies again come in, telling employees what may happen. Employers may also have to consider how they make reasonable efforts to inform third parties. Can they include this in their terms of business, on their email disclaimer notices, on their web sites? As a basic checklist employers should develop a clear policy, communicate it to employees, create audit trails, enforce the policy and consider alternative technical means.
Consistency in enforcement of a policy is particularly important. An employment tribunal, for example, may not take kindly to evidence that an employee has been singled out for action when a blind eye has long been turned to particular activities. If there have been previous policies that haven’t been enforced, then employers should start again.
Where to begin?
A policy manual that can be anything up to a hundred pages long can present a challenge for busy HR professionals. But take heart: the hard work has already been done for you in the form of free download or purchasable software. An excellent example of a Communications Policy (governing authorized use of internet and email facilities assuming that limited personal use is permitted) is available for free download from outlaw.com which can be adapted to your company’s needs.
It contains the following sections: Introduction; general principles; use of electronic mail business use, personal use; use of internet and intranet; system security; working remotely; personal blogs and websites; monitoring of communications by the company; data protection; compliance with the policy.
The following is a checklist to be used in developing a policy on employees’ use of the employer’s electronic communications and computer information systems:
- Define what systems are covered by the policy, e.g., voice mail, e-mail, Internet, and computer systems and files.
- Make clear that use of employer’s computer systems is to be used for business purposes only, and all files and messages are company property.
- If personal use is permitted, prohibit personal use that interferes with employee’s work or that of others (e.g., prohibiting non-work related websites such as chat rooms, games, travel, shopping, stock trading, hate/discrimination, pornography, etc.).
- Prohibit inappropriate use including transmitting or downloading of material that is discriminatory, defamatory, harassing, insulting, offensive, pornographic or obscene.
- Prohibit copying and sending any confidential or proprietary information, or software that is protected by copyright and other laws protecting intellectual property.
- Prohibit unauthorized access by employees of other employees’ electronic communications.
- Notify employees that any misuse will be subject to discipline, up to and including termination.
- Inform employees that employer may access, search and monitor voice mail, e-mail or company files of any employee that are created, stored or deleted from company computer systems.
- Advise employees they should not expect their communications or use of employer’s computer information systems to be confidential or private.
- Have employees sign company policy or notice on acceptable usage of employer’s computer information systems.
- Consider installing an on-screen warning that appears every time employees log onto their computers.
Introducing the policy
The culture of the organisation and the complexity of the policies will influence how a policy is introduced. For example, when it comes to communication, hard copies could be given to employees or put on notice boards, or ‘soft’ copies circulated by email or placed on an intranet.
It is important for policies to be linked to business strategy, with a definite purpose for their creation. The communication process should be tailored to the organization.
Communications Policies are flexible documents, able to adapt to changes in strategy and direction. They are open and transparent, suited in tone to the culture of the organization and developed through the involvement of employees and interested stakeholders. They need to be easily understood, written in plain English and/or Maltese containing no jargon and be communicated to all employees. The policy should be in a format employees will use, be practical and enforceable, and with logical implementation. The support of managers, including support from senior managers, is crucial.
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