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Learn how to create a set of personnel policies which will establish a good working environment that protects both employees and the organization.


  • What are personnel policies?

  • What are general policies?

  • Why are hiring and employment status procedures important?

  • What are everyday policies and procedures?

Congratulations! If you have gotten this far you have the headache of developing personnel policies; that means you have an organization.

By now you know that the most important asset an organization can have is the people who work or volunteer for it. Personnel policies are of the utmost importance to keep the organization running smoothly and the morale of the workers high.

What are personnel policies?

Personnel policies define the treatment, rights, obligations, and relations of people in an organization. They are the blueprints by which the organization runs--the rules and procedures that protect workers (and the organization) from being abused, put them in control of their jobs, and keep them from making errors that will hurt the organization or one another. It may be hard work to devise a set of policies, but when situations arise that need answers, you'll see how helpful they are.

What do personnel policies include?

Personnel policies may differ significantly from organization to organization, but they must contain instructions and rules for dealing with issues and overcoming obstacles that may present themselves both during normal working days and under extraordinary circumstances. They touch on relationships (staff/staff, staff/administration, etc.), expectations (hours worked, schedules, what defines the work of a position), and ways of doing things (who gets to use what equipment when, how to arrange a sick day) that affect employees' lives and the running of the organization.

What do personnel policies look like?

Personnel policies should be written in clear, understandable language, so that everyone knows exactly what they mean and as little as possible is left open to interpretation. In many organizations, employees are either given their own copy, or are encouraged to read the policies in some easily available form (e.g., online at the organization's website, printed and kept in an easily accessible location). It is extremely important that everyone in the organization be reasonably familiar with these policies, and that they always be readily available to any employee.

Organizations often generate handbooks which include personnel policies that employees are given when they join. These handbooks usually outline the history and mission of the organization, the actual policies and the reasoning behind them, and how the policies will be administered. Supplemental policies may develop as the need arises. For example, many companies have recently added policies regarding Internet usage.

If you're developing policies for a new organization, it makes sense to involve whatever staff members are already on board, so that policies grow out of the ways people would prefer to operate. If your organization has been going for some time and is just getting around to creating a formal structure, it's important to look at the processes that have already been developed. Some may need to be drastically changed, but many may be just fine as they are, and only need to be recorded to become part of a rational and well-conceived personnel policy.

In writing personnel -- or any -- policies, it is important to consider the philosophy and mission of your organization. Personnel policies should be consistent with your beliefs and mission: it only makes sense that the way you treat staff should reflect the way you want participants to be treated. If you think carefully about this issue when developing organizational policy, you're that much more likely to succeed in your mission.

There are essentially three types of personnel policies that you will need to develop for your organization.

  • General Policies have to do with the basic structure, philosophy, and rules of the organization. They deal with issues ranging from equal opportunity in hiring and advancement to conflicts of interest, sexual harassment, alcohol in the workplace, and Internet usage.
  • Hiring and Employment Status Policies involve the worker's employment relationship with the organization -- hiring, firing, and everything in between. Here is where pay scale, title, promotions, and performance reviews are laid out. These policies also cover benefits, employees' rights, and reasons for termination.
  • Everyday Procedural Policies deal with issues that affect the everyday life of the worker (or volunteer), and the day to day operation of the organization. They generally include the hours employees are required to be at work, how workers should dress, when they get paid, and issues of security, as well as guidelines for how things are done in the organization.

What are general policies?

General policies include a general, variety of things that affect the working environment and structure of an organization.

These may address:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity is a policy designed to protect the worker from unfair employment discrimination based on his or her human condition (gender, race, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc.). It usually declares that workers are not to be discriminated against (i.e. denied a position, a promotion, or a raise; unfairly criticized or given an unfair negative evaluation; paid less than another worker in similar circumstances and with similar background, experience, and seniority; etc.) under any circumstances, often specifying as many as possible of the conditions which are covered under this declaration. It also outlines the recourse a worker has if he feels he has been a victim of discrimination.
  • Anti-Harassment Policy protects the worker from being exposed to a hostile working environment. This policy generally outlines what the organization considers to be appropriate and inappropriate behavior and what it considers sexual or other (racial, personal, etc.) harassment. It should explain the procedures for reporting harassment, the courses of action to be taken by both accuser and accused, and the way the organization will deal with the problem. The policy should also cover appeals and other recourse if one of the parties feels unfairly treated in the resolution process.
  • Alcohol and Drugs in the Workplace may seem to imply obvious policy, but, in fact, an organization should state specifically what substance use, if any, it will tolerate during working hours or on its property. Clarity from the outset about organizational rules and the consequences of breaking them can save a lot of trouble later. Some organizations may even have rules about what employees can do outside of work. A drug treatment program, for instance, may require employees to be completely drug free: violations -- under any circumstances -- might lead to immediate dismissal.
  • The Use of Computers and Other Electronic Equipment has become a major issue in many workplaces. Organizations now find it necessary to develop policy determining what can be stored on an employee's computer (Games? Access codes? E-mail?), time and destination guidelines for Internet usage, etc.. Lack of these guidelines can lead not only to wasted work time (there are some very addictive games out there), but to intolerable working conditions or even sexual or other harassment charges sparked by an employee's downloading and distributing of pornographic or extremist material.
  • Contracts and Agreements Policy covers the protocol for entering into contracts and agreements using the organization's name. There should be a procedure employees must follow to be authorized to act legally for the organization, and there should be policies governing who can get that authorization, and under what circumstances. This policy should also cover less formal agreements -- joint events with other agencies, donations of goods or services, etc..

Related to this policy are rules about what employees can do or say when they're seen as representing the organization. An organization's funding or reputation may depend on its remaining politically neutral, or on not taking sides in a local controversy. Organizations, therefore, may ask their employees not to speak out about such issues in newspaper interviews about their jobs, or not to take action at public events which they attend as part of their work.

  • Confidentiality is often vital in health and human service work. It is absolutely necessary that the employee know what she can and cannot divulge about the organization and its participants or beneficiaries. Confidentiality policies may cover password access and usage, access to particular computer and paper files, what information about participants is confidential, and which employees -- and who else (participants themselves, other agencies, etc.) -- can have access to which information and how they get it. In many cases, such as in publicly-funded research projects, agencies or organizations are required to file state and federal documents outlining their confidentiality policies.

In some circumstances, confidentiality becomes especially sticky, because certain people -- health care professionals, psychologists and psychotherapists, law enforcement agents, teachers and child care workers, and others -- can be "mandated reporters." They may be legally obligated to report particular situations (evidence of child abuse, for instance, or murder confessions) even though their relationships with clients are usually considered privileged, or confidential. In cases where an organization's employees fall into this category, it is especially important that confidentiality policy be carefully written, so that everyone, including the people those employees serve, knows exactly what the ethical and legal boundaries are.

  • Conflicts of Interest arise when someone finds himself representing both sides of an issue, or when his position makes it possible for him to advance his own interests. A board member of an organization who is paid for services by that organization may be in conflict of interest, for instance. A staff member who serves on an oversight committee that certifies her employer might likewise be in conflict. Organizational policy should clearly spell out what constitutes conflict of interest and how to avoid it.

If someone finds herself in a conflict of interest situation, it doesn't necessarily mean that she has done, or intends to do, anything wrong or illegal. It is the possibility -- the appearance of self-benefit -- that matters here. Conflict of interest is why judges withdraw from casesthat involve people they know or have a business connection with. The withdrawal doesn't necessarily mean that the judge can't be neutral in this case; it means he can't look neutral.

  • Political Activities at Work may be forbidden in an organization (see Contracts and Agreements Policy above), may lead to conflict of interest, or may simply be part of what people in your organization do. This policy should specify what sort of political activity -- lobbying, campaigning, advocacy, expressing opinions, etc. -- will be tolerated in the workplace and as part of the job. (Trying to convince participants, through the activities of a program, to vote a certain way, for instance, might be totally inconsistent with the goals of one organization and fine in another.)
  • Safety is obviously an important concern in any workplace, for reasons ranging from human concern for employees to the costs of lost work time and liability suits. Safety policies should aim at maintaining a safe workplace for everyone. They may include such varied issues as the use of machinery, how late an employee can stay in the building alone, and behavior with program participants (A female therapist working with male sex offenders may want to make sure that she's not alone in the building with them, for instance). Policies should include back-up systems, contingency plans, and protocols for dealing with occasions when the system breaks down, or when mishaps occur in spite of it.
  • Smoking, although it fits within safety and drugs in the workplace, generally needs its own policy because people feel so strongly about it. Are you going to declare your working environment a smoking or a smoke-free zone? Of course, if you choose to make it smoke-free you should also address if, when, and where employees can smoke on breaks. Policy here might also address incentives for quitting, which could lower organizational and individual health costs.
  • Grievance Procedures are important for nearly all personnel policies. These are the procedures by which employees can make complaints if they think they have been subject to discrimination, harassment, unfair labor practices, or other problems in the workplace. Your organization might want to have a general form of grievance procedures for all circumstances, with specifics built into the appropriate sections of the personnel policy. An employee might have to do something a little different to file a grievance about a safety violation than about a harassment problem, but the same person (assuming she's not named or involved -- there needs to be a backup in case that happens) might be designated to handle all grievances and start the appropriate process to resolve the situation.
  • How Employees are Expected to Relate to the Target Population and the Community is another reflection of the mission and philosophy of the organization. If an organization sees itself as "empowering" or "collaborative" or "democratic," it may want to be sure that staff members treat everyone with a high level of respect, and may encourage -- or at least not discourage -- friendships between staff members and participants. If an organization sees itself as "professional" or enforces particular laws and regulations, it may discourage familiarity between staff and participants, and may foster treatment that is distant and "objective." For many organizations on both sides of this philosophical and service divide, the character of these relationships is extremely important. If your organization has a strong philosophical bias about how employees should relate to others outside the organization -- including other organizations -- it should be written into your personnel policy.

What are hiring and employment status policies, and why are they important?

These policies govern the relationship between the employee and the organization, and outline how each must treat the other. Ideally, they protect both employees and organizations from abuse and from damage to their reputations. They also make clear exactly what the expectations of the organization are and serve in many ways to define how the organization views itself and its attitude toward work and the workplace.

Here is where it's perhaps most important that policy mirror the philosophy, goals, and mission of the organization. The way organizations treat employees -- indeed, whether employees see themselves as working for an organization, or see themselves as participating in or owning it -- has everything to do with how well they are likely to accomplish their ends. Many grassroots and community-based organizations define themselves as open, democratic, or collaborative; they blur the lines between those who run and those who benefit from programs, between employers and workers. Large differentials in pay among staff members, or between line staff and administrators, make it hard to sustain a democratic or collaborative ideal; large differentials in power and status make it even harder.

If empowerment or some variant is the stated purpose of the organization, that empowerment should extend to employees as well as to the target population, if the organization expects to achieve its goals. It is in its hiring and employment policies that an organization supports or gives the lie to its egalitarian values.

Some of the most common and important hiring and employment status policies cover:

  • Hiring procedures and orientation
  • Title and pay
  • Benefits, deductions, and travel
  • Personnel files
  • Performance reviews
  • Promotions
  • Work-related problems
  • Reasons for termination

Hiring Procedures & Orientation

First impressions are extremely important in how an employee will view her job, and in how she is likely to approach it in the long run. Both hiring procedures -- how a successful applicant is contacted, offered the job, welcomed, etc. -- and orientation -- what's covered, how much time a new employee is given to adjust, who's involved -- are tremendously influential in forming that first impression. If the person feels that she's being treated well, that the organization is glad to have her, and that it and the people in it are concerned that she have the information and background to do a good job, it's likely that she'll respond by trying hard to live up to expectations and to treat others as well as they treat her.

It may make sense to have a probationary period at the beginning of an employee's tenure. For the first one or three or six months, the employee -- as well as the organization -- is on probation. If the person and the job don't fit, or if it just doesn't seem to be working, the employee can leave or be asked to leave without any legal or other implications. Many organizations build in such a probationary period; if you decide to, it should be part of your personnel policy.

Title and Pay

Title and pay are generally very important issues. Recognition and earning money are the two main reasons most people work, after all. While titles are often arbitrary -- they don't always reflect the nature or the amount of work a person does -- they may correspond to pay scales or affect future employment, and thus take on more importance. Sometimes an organization with limited funds may give a prestigious title to make up for an inability to pay a high salary. In any case, both should be clear from the outset. The title should correspond as closely as possible to the actual work of the position, and to the amount of status in the organization or in the community that the employee needs to do his job (See Chapter 10, Section 2: Preparing Job Descriptions and Selection Criteria). If the organization operates that way, each title should have a pay range that makes sense in relation to the pay of all employees. There should be some rational method of determining where a particular employee should start on that pay scale, based on such criteria as his past experience, credentials, and reputation. And there should be guidelines for title changes and pay increases.


It should be clear what benefits an employee is entitled to: they should be spelled out for each position in the organization.

  • Medical and dental: If the organization provides a plan for either or both medical and dental coverage, it may not necessarily pay all of the costs. How much an employee pays and how much the organization pays for any plans offered, exactly what is covered, and what the employee gets or doesn't if she doesn't participate in the plan, should be specified. (Most plans have their own information packets for each employee, so that policy needn't describe the plan itself.)
  • Long- and short-term disability: These benefits often go along with medical/dental, and the same guidelines apply: spell out who pays how much, what do benefits cover and for how long, etc..
  • Travel reimbursement: An organization may choose to reimburse employees for all or part of their work-related travel. This usually does not include travel from home to work, but does include travel between workplace sites, travel to meetings and conferences, etc.. Travel reimbursement can be either a direct refund of money spent (the price of an airline ticket to a conference, based on the presentation of a receipt, for instance) or a standard per-mile cost for driving (the state of Massachusetts, for example, currently reimburses for driving at $0.31 a mile). It may include all expenses (conference fees, hotel and food costs, and mileage reimbursement ) or only some of them. Sometimes there are different rules for in-state and out-of-state travel. If you reimburse people for travel, be consistent, and treat everybody in the organization equally.
  • Vacation: How much do people get? Does it increase with time in the job? Can it be taken at any time, or are there restrictions? How soon after beginning work can vacation time be taken? What must employees do to arrange vacation time?
  • Family and personal leave: How much do people get? Is it paid or unpaid? Under what circumstances can it be taken?
  • Retirement plans (e.g., 401K)
  • Life Insurance


Payment on some benefits may be pre-tax, which affects the amount of money a person is effectively being taxed on. For example an organization may take the money for health insurance or a train pass out of an employee's gross salary, at the same time providing a benefit and reducing the amount of the employee's taxable income.

Personnel Files

These are the records that most organizations, for both legal and internal reasons, keep of everyone who works for them. A personnel file may begin with a potential employee's resume and cover letter and continue on through a twenty-year career. It might include reports of regular performance reviews, citations of particularly good work, news articles, records of instances of poor judgment or failure to do a job properly -- anything, in other words, that relates to the employee's work life. Personnel files are often used for determining promotions and pay raises, for documenting inadequate or inappropriate performance so an employee can be terminated if necessary, or for building a record of good performance that the employee can bring with her to her next job. Personnel files also provide tax, personal, and emergency contact information.

Your personnel policy should state what goes into an employee's personnel file, who (including the employee himself) has access to each file, and how it will be used.

Performance Reviews

The reasons for reviewing an employee's performance may seem obvious; however, the reasons for and the frequency of reviews should be part of your personnel policy. Policies regarding reviews might make clear:

  • Who does the reviewing.
  • The standards or criteria used for reviewing the employee's performance (His job description? Some other objective standard? The work of others in similar jobs? Evaluations by participants or colleagues or supervisors? All or some of the above? Whether reviews are oral or written.)
  • The actual form that reviews will take. (Many organizations ask employees to write a self-evaluation to begin the process, for instance, and then focus on her own sense of her strengths and weaknesses. Others may involve observations by supervisors or other methods.)
  • How often reviews occur.
  • The consequences of a positive or negative performance review on an employee's job and advancement opportunities.

Employee Rights/Workplace Conditions

Laws in many states, as well as some federal laws, describe certain rights accorded to employees in at least some organizations. These may include the right to a hearing before being fired; the right to appeal an administrative decision; the right not to be fired for their political or other views; etc.. If employees belong to a union, their contracts may also address these types of issues. Many states and the federal government also have laws about what physical or psychological conditions people can be subjected to in the workplace -- unhealthy environments of many kinds may be illegal. Whether the rights and conditions your organization supports are governed by the legal system or simply by the organization's good will, they should be spelled out in your personnel policy, along with the procedures to complain about their not being maintained.


If your organization has room for advancement, it's important to think about and set down exactly what the process for advancement is.

  • Is there a ladder (i.e., a logical progression of advancement through the organization)?
  • How does one advance? (Is it a matter of time? Performance? Experience?)
  • How will it affect the employee's pay rate? Title?

Work-Related Problems

These are probably some of the most eagerly read pages in any personnel policy manual. Work-related problems can run the gamut from the interpersonal (two employees who are unable to get along, for instance) to the personal (deep depression that affects job performance) to the logistical (the loss of important files). What are the organization's responses to these issues? The interpersonal could be handled through in-house mediation, perhaps, but it's important that workers know whom to approach about the problem (and who the backup is if the designated mediator is the problem). For personal problems, is there an employee assistance program, or at least some support for getting help? For the logistical, how will you develop systems to avoid the situation and/or provide organizational help for the employee so he doesn't continue to have the problem? All of these types of questions -- and any others you can envision: use your imagination, because nothing you dream up will be more outlandish than things that actually happen in workplaces every day -- need to be dealt with, at least in a general way.

Reasons for Termination

It is unfortunate, but occasionally you hire the wrong person, or hire the right person at the wrong time in her life. Firing someone is very difficult and traumatic for both parties involved. It is only fair that employees know if the organization is dissatisfied with their work, and have both help and time to try to improve. It is also only fair, after a certain point, when the employee's efforts have been unsuccessful or haven't been made at all, that the organization be able to terminate that employee and hire someone who will be able to do the job.

Your personnel policy should spell out the reasons for which employees can be terminated, the steps that will be taken before termination becomes a reality, the necessary time span, the required documentation (sometimes this is specified by law), and the people who will be involved. Policy should also cover what happens when an employee is terminated: Is there a severance package? Is there an appeal procedure? What if the employee wants to sue? Anticipating these issues will go a long way toward making a painful process as reasonable as possible.

Some circumstances -- a felony conviction, or stealing from the organization, for example -- might be grounds for immediate dismissal. In most other cases, the steps to be taken might include warning conferences with the employee over a specific period of time, or stating the problem and attempting to set up support and other systems to correct it. If, after a set number of warnings, efforts to help on the part of the organization, and the passing of a set amount of time, the situation has not improved significantly, the employee would then be terminated.

What are everyday policies and procedures?

These are the policies that structure day-to-day life -- how things are done in your particular organization. They control work schedules, dress codes, how and when people get paid -- many of the things that can actually make or break the work experience. None of them alone may seem like a big deal, but, taken together, they can make the difference between a pleasant, productive work environment, and a depressing, unproductive one. For that reason, all of these policies need to be thought through carefully.

Work hours and flexibility of schedule

Some organizations set a very strict work schedule or require certain numbers of hours; others simply ask that employees do their jobs and leave the rest up to them. Whatever your organizational environment, it should be plainly described, so there are no misunderstandings about what's expected.

  • How many sick days, paid holidays, vacation days, and personal leave days do employees get? Do they have to work for a certain length of time before they're eligible?
  • What is the policy for taking time off? Some places are very relaxed and allow people to take their time as they need or want it. In other places, vacation or leave time has to be arranged beforehand. Are people expected to find someone to cover for them while they're gone, or will the organization arrange that? How will taking time affect each person's job?
  • Can an employee work at home at least some of the time?
  • Can workers vary their schedules (e.g., work four ten-hour days as opposed to five eight-hour days, or work any 40 hours in a given week), or are they set?
  • Is there comp time? (Compensatory, or "comp" time is taken as time off to "pay back" hours worked over and above what the employee is paid for or expected to work.) If it is allowed, can it be taken at will, or only under certain circumstances? By when must it be used?


Many people (police officers, for example) work with the expectations of supplementing their income with a lot of overtime pay, and families of some workers wouldn't eat without it.

  • Who is eligible for overtime? Salaried employees? Non-salaried employees? Is it determined weekly (i.e., after 40 hours), or daily (i.e., after eight hours in a day), or by the day of the week (Sundays and holidays)?
  • Are employees required or coerced into working overtime?
  • Is there a limit to how much overtime a worker can work?
  • How does one obtain overtime?


How will people get their checks, and when? Is payday absolutely fixed? (If someone is going on vacation, for instance, can he get his check a day early?) Can checks be sent to employees' homes or other addresses at their request? Is direct deposit at any local banks an option? Do employees have choices about how often they get paid (weekly, biweekly, monthly)? What must be withheld from their checks, and can they manipulate that amount (e.g., by claiming more or fewer dependents)?

Style of Dress

Does the organization have a dress code? Appropriate attire for one organization may be inappropriate for another. A street outreach worker wouldn't have much credibility with homeless teens if he dressed in a suit and tie. By the same token, a Washington lobbyist in jeans and a t-shirt wouldn't be taken very seriously. If staff members are expected to dress -- or not to dress -- in certain ways, that should be spelled out. (Jeans might be okay, but not shorts, for instance.) In general, the more grassroots the organization, the less of a dress code it is likely to have.


The need for security will vary with the organization, but there are certain things that will always need protection: cash, employees' handbags, and other valuables; confidential information (publicly-funded programs are often required to keep certain files in locked and/or fireproof cabinets); door keys and other means of access to the organization's offices, especially if they're located in a high-crime area; and staff members themselves, who may be at risk for such crimes as mugging or sexual assault, especially if they work alone after dark. Recently, technological security has been added to these concerns, in the form of computer access codes, passwords, and the like. The key to policy in this area is to avoid problems before they arise by anticipating what can go wrong and developing systems to prevent it.

  • Devise rules for the organization's and employee's valuables that minimize the chance they'll be stolen (or even seen). These can include having a locked place to put them, storing them out of sight, never leaving them unattended, etc..
  • Policy for confidential and other valuable information of all kinds (see above) should specify where it's stored, how it's protected, and who is allowed access to it.
  • Access to space can also be regulated by the distribution of keys, alarm codes, etc., and by guidelines about who can be allowed in what spaces when.
  • Staff members can be protected by "buddy plans," procedures governing working or leaving alone at certain hours, and -- most important, but often ignored -- by making sure everyone is aware of potential dangers, so they can take their own reasonable precautions.
  • Technology security depends on not storing security information where it can be found by any bright 10-year-old hacker, using care in determining how widely security codes and passwords are distributed, and, again, making employees aware of potential problems so they can think about what they're doing to prevent them.


Last but not least: if anything requires filling out paperwork, make sure it is clear which forms need to be filled out by whom, for what, to be given to whom, and how far in advance.

In Summary

Personnel policies govern the ways in which staff members interact with an organization and with one another. They protect both workers and the organization, and set the tone for what it's like to work in a particular place. How well personnel policies are written can make or break the work experience for everyone involved. The clearer those policies are, the more closely they are tied to the philosophy and mission of the organization, the more carefully they are drawn, and the more directly they address the situations they are meant to govern, the more effective they will be.

Rob Kramer
Phil Rabinowitz

Print Resources

Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (January 1999). Personnel Policies. Boston, MA. Unpublished organizational handbook.

Hubbartt, W. S. (1993). Personnel policy handbook: How to develop a manual that works. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.