Developing HR policies and procedures for your startup

A thoughtful strategy for producing HR policies that put employees and culture first helps drive desired behaviour and aligns people with your company’s vision for the future. Having a framework in place ensures everyone knows what’s expected during the employment relationship and creates a strong foundation for more strategic engagement and culture-driven programs.

Because early-stage companies are scrappy, agile workplaces focused on product and customer development, it’s no surprise startups don’t tend to spend much time worrying about employment documentation and HR policies in the early days. But there comes a time in the lifecycle of every company when the importance of a more rigorous HR approach becomes evident—usually when something goes wrong.

And as your company scales, efforts around internal guidelines move from fulfilling legal obligations to a more deliberate focus on employee development, retention and total rewards to drive a broader talent management strategy. Use your HR policies as opportunities to continually reinforce your unique voice as an employer while keeping everyone accountable.

Developing a set of policies and procedures, or even general guidelines, can feel daunting when you’re starting from scratch. Here’s how to tackle it while continuing to focus on building your business. The tips below will help guide your thinking around policies and programs that will support the employee experience and culture you want to build.   

Develop a cross-functional team

In order to foster a sense of shared ownership and accountability across the leadership team, tackling a policy framework for your business should be a team effort. Assigning the work to a single person and treating it as an administrative exercise undervalues the output and often results in ineffective communication and adoption of key practices. 

There are several roles that can feed into the ongoing creation, communication and maintenance of your policy framework. Roles can include:

  • The initiator: Begins the conversation on policy development with the leadership team and other key stakeholders.
  • The writer: Drafts the written guidelines and relevant documentation.
  • The communicator: Gets the message out to the team and provides periodic updates.
  • The owner(s): Is responsible for reviewing legislation and suggesting updates as needed, and accountable for documentation and implementation.

Understand your legal obligations to your employees

Employers have significant obligations to employees under several key pieces of legislation, so it’s important to ensure you operate within these legal parameters. When you draft policies and procedures, the best place to start is your provincial Employment Standards Act (ESA) to ensure you meet the minimum requirements. The ESA covers the basics—wages, hours of work, overtime, vacation and more.

Provincial ministries also oversee health and safety requirements, which can vary based on the size of your startup. Understand employee rights and employer responsibilities around health and safety—don’t assume that having a standard office environment means health and safety is not relevant. It’s important to note that growth milestones will necessitate additional obligations as you scale.

Stay well-informed about the Canadian Human Rights Act, which legislates specific expectations around equal treatment and protection from harassment. Understanding how discrimination can impact the hiring process and the employment lifecycle will help you proactively identify trouble spots that might have gone undetected. Clearly outline expected behaviours and actions that are contrary to the code. 

Employers also need to understand privacy legislation around employee information. Protecting personal information extends to many facets of the employment relationship, and care must be taken to safeguard sensitive knowledge and documentation. Employees have rights to access information related to the employment relationship, so be sure to get up to speed on your obligations. 

Where do I start with developing HR policies?

There are a number of workplace policies considered critical, based on provincial legislation or common law (the law that has been developed in the courts). This is the best place to start. These include:

  • Workplace harassment
  • Pay equity
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Health and safety
  • Personal information protection policy
  • Accessibility

If you don’t have HR policies covering these topics in place, consider having your early efforts reviewed by legal counsel to ensure your policies are in line with legislation and don’t create preventable risk. Partnering with a legal advisor will also help you stay up to date as employment legislation changes. 

If you operate your business in multiple jurisdictions, be sure to review your policies on a provincial basis. This may mean a few of your guidelines will differ based on location.

Go beyond the basics 

Once you’ve covered the basics, we recommend addressing some of the most common pain points that surface in a growing organization.

Create an overall ReadMe

It can be helpful to bring all your HR policies and guidelines together with a ReadMe introduction that sets the tone for your overall approach and provides company culture cues to support. It is easy to assume employees won’t appreciate the introduction of formal policies, yet feedback shows documentation provides helpful context and clarity for everyone.

Seven steps to building your HR policies

  1. Determine the roles and responsibilities for initiating, writing, communicating and owning your HR policy framework.
  2. Understand your legal obligations and cultural priorities to narrow down your initial objectives.
  3. Draft policy documentation that reflects your organizational values and cultural identity.
  4. Review with key stakeholders and legal counsel (as appropriate).  
  5. Communicate to employees and provide access to documentation.
  6. In order for a policy to be legally enforceable, employees have to acknowledge receipt. This can be automated if you have the capability built into your HR tech stack.
  7. Revisit and update your HR policies at regular intervals (an annual review is recommended).  

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