Think your businesses is “too small” to have written policies? Think again.

In Washington State, employers with even a single employee can be subject to a number of labor regulations.  Importantly, employees with as few as eight employees are required by law to engage in fair, non-discriminatory employment practices.  Small business owners are in the business of doing the work of their business, with limited resources.  Because of this, it is no surprise they do not have the time or internal expertise to form a strategic approach to these matters.  Most small businesses treat their employees like family and try to create a flexible environment, thinking that this can help them establish a competitive advantage within the tightening labor market.  However, this flexibility and lack of predictability can create its own problems. For example, it can lead to claims of “favoritism” and sow seeds of discontent as employees are unable to predict how they may be treated from day to day or hear only half the story of why you allowed Suzy time off, but not Johnny.  On the business owner’s side, it creates a lack of structure and predictability as they struggle to accommodate all the unique attributes and needs of their employees. 

For example, one small business owner I spoke with lamented being too accommodating when it came to employees taking leave.  This resulted in him being burned out because he was covering those missed hours.  Another business owner discussed his confusion about whether he would be required to pay holiday pay if an employee took time off during the week of the holiday.  The first question I asked both owners was “do you have a written policy?” In both cases the answer was no.  As a business owner, you still have a lot of flexibility in how you handle things like leave, holiday pay, and absenteeism.  Yet, without a clear communication and understanding of expectations and consequences, it is difficult to hold employees accountable.

Written policies can serve multiple purposes. First, it can clarify how your organization will interact with employees, how they will interact with you, their co-workers, and your clients.  For example, how many absences can you as a business owner tolerate? Second, it can streamline many of your processes, saving you precious time.  For example, establishing a clear process for requesting leave can help you stay organized and not grant too many leave requests leaving you short staffed! Finally, and most importantly, establishing and regularly reviewing your written policies can help you stay in compliance with laws, avoiding costly complaints, law suites, or regulatory penalties.  The last few years have seen some significant changes in the labor and employment laws in Washington state.  This includes Paid Sick Leave, Paid Family Medical Leave, and Ban the Box.  These changes make it an important time to establish some written policies and ensure legal compliance.  If you already have written policies, this is also a good time to review these policies to ensure they are up to date with the current laws.