Interim HR Director & Talent Leader for high growth businesses. Co-founder of Open Square Ltd. Open Square Limited
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HR for small business: how to write HR policies for SMEs

If running a small business is like a rollercoaster, it needs HR professionals to provide the tracks for it to run on – the policies – but don’t get de-railed into thinking that’s the whole job.

2nd Oct 2019
Interim HR Director & Talent Leader for high growth businesses. Co-founder of Open Square Ltd. Open Square Limited
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Businesswoman giving presentation on future plans to colleagues
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Generally speaking, SMEs are an exhilarating whirlwind of start-up or scale-up businesses providing so much learning, excitement, pace, change – everything you can relish. It’s like every sort of fairground ride - waltzers, dodgems, log flumes – you name it.

The temptation is to see your job as bringing order to the wild ride, to introduce policies and procedures that keep everyone safe, codify how things are to be done and answer everyone’s questions before they even have them.

From the dress code, to policies about lateness, policies about language in the office – there are policies for every conceivable eventuality.

Whether you’re joining an organisation that has no policies, outdated ones, or ones that simply you don’t understand, however, don’t be inclined to grasp the challenge of policy writing and distribution too soon.

Balancing the challenges, the opportunities of the business, you need to be able to translate these to people requirements.

Don’t get me wrong: fair and transparent policies are essential. When you join a small business with little, wrong or no policies, it’s quick to see what you need.

Your first instinct though may be to panic about employment law, the questions being asked, and the auditors. It’s natural, and I understand that.

Do you really want to spend weeks behind a screen writing a ton of policies, processes and procedures, though? Is that what you thought HR was about? Unlikely.

I thought I had always disliked writing policies but that’s not true. It’s not the policy writing I dislike, it’s the assumption that a policy will fix and form the backbone for everything.

Whilst there are some policies required by law, what really matters for the business is the culture, values and behaviours (the principles), what part you will play and how you craft your career.

Before you start writing, here are three steps to take.

Step 1: audit and ask why

Do a quick audit. Identify the policies that are essential. There are some policies that an organisation must have by law – employment contract, disciplinary, grievance, etc.

It’s pretty easy to see what policies are in place and by looking at one, you’ll have a really good idea as to whether it is fair, legal and appropriate.

Policies should form part of the organisation, and act as guidance rather than dictates.

Ask yourself if it’s still relevant and is it going to add real value? Do teams need educating and training, rather than another policy?  Does it suit your organisation’s culture?

As a generalist in a stand-alone role – for a while at least – small businesses also need someone who can flex strategically, tactically and operationally.

Balancing the challenges, the opportunities of the business, you need to be able to translate these to people requirements.

Do we need policies? Yes of course but not for the sake of it.

It is also valuable to understand why someone keeps asking you to write another policy. Policies are often born out of one of three things:

  • Something that has gone wrong.
  • Managers being unsure of something.
  • A tick box exercise because someone said it was a good idea.

It can be easy to fall in the policy trap. Remember that volume content is not king.

Simple, straightforward and ‘human’ documents are best. You can take the stance that we are all grown-ups.

Step 2: start with the essentials

When considering writing or updating a policy, make sure you liaise with the business.  

Ask yourself if it’s still relevant and is it going to add real value? Do teams need educating and training, rather than another policy?  Does it suit your organisation’s culture?

There are guidance policies available on ACAS, CIPD (HR-Inform or similar) and the UK government website. Download them.

Make sure they are applicable to the culture of your organisation (as in the language used). Don’t add to the words, but instead refine the words.

Before publishing, go back to the business to ensure it makes sense. Always do a good sanity check.

Step 3: communicate

Don’t leave your policies, practices or teams in the dark, enthusiastically saying, it’s on the intranet or Slack, or whichever tool you use.

When they are ready, communicate then publish. There is nothing worse than post and pray. You won’t be thanked for publishing a policy they don’t understand.

Talk to teams in their regular meetings, run ‘lunch and learn’ or Q&A sessions, make them interesting and explain why you have written them.

Never underestimate the value of an explanation.

Enjoy the ride

If any of this resonates with you, or you are about to start a role in an SME, try not to get swept away in the excitement of life in a small business – it pays to take some time to pause and follow the steps above.

Remember that working with an SME will give you more commercial credibility, more exposure, and build your reputation – you can really get stuck in and make a difference.

As author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell once said:
“Policies are many, principles are few, policies will change, principles never do”.

Interested in this topic? Read Ten reasons to love doing HR for a small business.

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