It’s the New Year — and It’s Time to Create Those Workplace Policies You’ve Been Avoiding

Ok, so maybe avoiding is the wrong word; maybe you have some bullet points that you cover. Maybe you have the outline of a manual. Maybe you wrote one years ago but haven’t cracked the spine since. Maybe you think this is enough or that policies and procedures manuals are outdated and unnecessary. This is not the best approach.

It’s the new year — and it’s the perfect time to make sure your policies and procedures are up to date and reflect everything you’ve learned. If you are just starting out, it’s the perfect time to make sure you are getting off on the right foot.

Why Do I Need Them?

The first question I often hear is “why” — why do you need a policies and procedures manual in the first place?

Because the manual is a tangible item you can point to for information about training, guiding how you handle various situations, supporting human resources, preferred vendors, frequently asked questions, and commonly needed forms and checklists. The manual makes your life easier. It’s purpose is to streamline your processes. When you don’t have time to answer questions or train staff sufficiently to get them moving and functional, the manual is there to help you. It does not have to be huge, but it should include all of your basics, and it is a key to improving your efficiency. The manual is also something to which your staff can add input. Having such a manual may even help your insurance risk profile.

Arguments against having such manuals center around how quickly they become outdated. This is a fair accusation, that said, the detractors also say that such manuals are still needed, but in a more dynamic form. They recommend a format that represents the ideal structure for your business, stored electronically in a format that any staff member can access and add to as they improve efficiency and develop effective practices, including any forms, templates, checklists, etc.

Aren’t they really the same thing?

No, and your manual should have separate sections; one part should be about your business’ policies, the other about the procedures for employees and staff to follow. Your policies are your roadmap, your plan of action, to create your practice. Procedures are the steps it takes to implement those policies.

Your policies are your plan, your procedures tell you how to achieve it.

What Should Be Included in Your Policies Section

Start with what your staff should expect from the practice. What policies represent your business ideals, you practice culture, and your philosophy on running your practice? Include benefits and vacation policies. Next include policies surrounding what the practice expects from its staff — including the boss. This is where you put your code of conduct and confidentiality policies, and given the changing nature of remote work, you will want to include policies on this here as well.

Always insure your policies are compliant with relevant county, state and federal regulations, including the rules of the Bar. There are seven policies everyone should include in their manuals: organizational structure, leave and time off benefits, anti-harassment/discrimination, workplace safety, misconduct, attendance and punctuality, and use of technology.

Some of these may seem irrelevant to a solo or small practice, but think about the bigger picture and you see how important they are to your overall workplace culture and values. You may not see a need to have an anti-harassment/discrimination policy, but your staff will certainly value it — especially if they may encounter a problematic client, opposing counsel, even a judge; they want to know that your practice values and cares for them and that they have recourse.

Remember, these are the “rules” of your practice. The section should be clear and concise, and should include a specific contact person for questions, even if that contact is at an external organization such as a Lawyer’s Assistance Program. They are a roadmap to accountability for yourself and for your staff and describe the reasons behind what you do. They should also describe exceptions because consistent application is key.

What Should Be Included in Your Procedures Section

Your procedures must clearly set forth the steps to achieve your policies. Be explicit and make sure the procedure tangibly demonstrates its relevance to achieving that policy. These should not add workload; they should reduce workload, create ownership, and they should not be so rigid as to restrict creative thinking.

For example, your practice has a policy supporting remote work because it improves efficiency, reduces costs, and increases staff mental and physical well being. The procedures should include steps needed to work remotely including technology requests and allowances for office equipment, steps to address day to day functioning remotely, and guidance regarding hours.

In terms of structure, repeat the structure of your Policies section and consider including hyperlinks to the procedures and checklists in the policies section. Be cautious to maintain those links.

A good policies and procedures manual is concise, easily searched, well organized, and uncluttered. You may want to include call outs or icons for such things as tips, exceptions, cautions, and resources, which improves the document’s usability and highlights critical information. Define your terms, do not assume everyone is on the same page and make it easy to navigate. Taking the time to assemble this great resource will make you more efficient and more accountable. If you provide yourself and your staff with a great plan, they will provide you with great work. Now is the perfect time.

Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier administrative and legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.