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I was recently asked a question as to whether or not a human resources policy manual should be revised to include some of the new policies created during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently, the HR manager asking this question was having difficulty convincing her executive team that the HR policy manual needed to be updated.
In my view, there’s good reason for updating the HR policy manual as well as any other operational manuals used in the workplace. Let’s face it, how many business owners as well as not-for-profit leaders were truly ready for this type of COVID-19 chaos let alone any other natural disasters? How many can really say they are prepared for a forest fire, a building fire, flooded basements and/or larger community flooding where a community’s population, including staff, need to be removed and businesses suddenly closed up? Not many.
It’s now becoming well known that society may be confronted with more frequent natural disasters which means everyone should be as prepared as possible. We need to look more closely at issues such as working at home, employee travel, safety at work and supply chain issues. After all, we can’t run out of toilet paper. Seriously, we must be prepared to deal with any type of business disruption.
So, where do you start? Based on my experience, one of the biggest areas of neglect with respect to any organizational chaos such as COVID-19 was the number of organizations that had not implemented workplace health and safety policies and procedures to the extent required by legislation.
They either didn’t have a committee in place and/or people had moved on with their careers and had not been replaced. If new members were now on board, they have not been trained on the basics, let alone any kind of investigative responsibilities. Also, there was no emergency management committee and/or process. This left many organizations scrambling to deal with their chaos issues.
In addition, there are several COVID-19 related policies that could be generalized and included in an HR policy manual that would provide value under any crisis situation. These include the following:
● Essential service policy – This policy outlines which employee roles are considered essential services and which are required to sustain everyday operations. It should define what will be required of these roles during an emergency and which role is responsible for leadership. This should also include roles that might be needed for backup, how employees will be notified, and whether or not "hazard" or "hero" pay would be applied and in what circumstances. Finally, meetings should be held with this group and workplace health and safety committee members if this is not already a subcommittee so basic emergency plans can be prepared.
● Communicable disease policy – As with most common illnesses, our workplace is susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases because of the proximity between workers, and the frequency of contact with shared surfaces and objects. It is important for management to be prepared to deal with these issues and to minimize the risk of spreading illness in the workplace. The policy also needs to state that employers will be following public health directives in order to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. Rules and expectations of employees need to be clear.
● Work-at-home policy – With COVID-19 demonstrating that working at home is more viable than first envisioned, most HR policy manuals should contain a set of policies that outline requirements for selecting a work-at-home employee. Procedures related to the set-up of technology to support this transition, guidelines regarding expectations for both employees and supervisors, and agreements between the employee and employer especially around the right to end a work-at-home contract must also be included. As well, the policy should spell out employee expectations and guidelines for supervision.
● Compensation management policy – This policy is related to typical compensation issues that may arise. It may reference the need for short-term emergency salary increases typically known as hazard or hero pay, and a policy related to use of vacation days and other leave provisions that may be restricted during an emergency.
● Work refusal policy – While this is referred to in workplace health and safety legislation, policies need to be more specific with respect to managing this type of situation. There should be clarification regarding investigation, and also focus on accommodation. With respect to COVID-19 there has been much concern about personal safety and while we may not all have the same fears and anxiety, employee concerns must be taken seriously. Be sure to include a form for employees to complete that will help managers to understand the employee point of view, how they see safety procedures and what other suggestions they might provide.
● Workplace sanitation policy – This potential policy is rarely seen in an organization other than to ensure nightly or weekly custodial services. But in a time of chaos, there are basic sanitation and safety standards that should be met. Indicate what these include and note that additions will be added dependent on the situation. Include a list of sanitation recommendations from the public health agency.
● Personal protection policy – This policy needs to identify the roles and responsibilities of both the employer and employee with respect to personal protection. Typically, this refers to equipment provided by the employer but also identifies the expectations of employees in terms of personal health and safety behaviours such as wearing a mask.
● Return to work – Policies need to be developed and implemented that demonstrate the responsibilities of both management and employees. While not all return-to-work policies and protections will be as stringent as those during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some generalizations that can be put in place for future use. Once again, consideration needs to be in place for vulnerable persons.
● Mandatory employee training – Since all employees are at risk of exposure to a communicable disease, the employer should provide mandatory training and refresher training that for all employees. It should also be mandatory for all new employees as part of their orientation. The policy should outline the general nature of the training as well as the frequency.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected, it has taught us many lessons, most notably the importance of being prepared for another communicable disease outbreak. Whereas it is important for employers to safeguard the health and well-being of their employees, being prepared with policies that can be quickly implemented for any infectious disease may well be a blessing.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CCP, M.Ed., of the consulting firm Legacy Bowes, is the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and workshop leader. She is also chairwoman of the Manitoba Status of Women. She can be reached at email@example.com
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