How to write HR policies

If you need to update your HR policies because of the new Equality Act 2010, now could be a golden opportunity to make them a lot better.

The Equality Act brings together legislation regarding discrimination and harassment into a single Act. Since it came into force on 1 October, many HR departments have been busy updating some of their policies.

A well-written policy document will leave both employee and employer clear on where they stand, and – ideally – knowing that where they stand is somewhere that is fair, organised, consistent and protected by law.

But whenever legalities are involved in writing, it can be all too easy to slip into legalese – typically overlong, complicated sentences.

Naturally, it’s important to be legally compliant. But if no-one can understand a word, the document might as well go in the shredder. Maybe it’s time to reach for the red pen.

Reader-centred policies

Follow these tips and you’ll be sure to have well-written policies.

Shorten sentences

When you’re trying to abide by legislation, it can be easy to get carried away and try to fit far too much information into a sentence, which will keep building, and building (much like this one), interrupted only by commas, and most probably gasps for breath.

This can be very unforgiving on the reader, as they try to hold on to the train of thought even as it speeds away from them (quite possibly under attack from cowboys and Native Americans). For example:

Indirect discrimination, where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put a substantially higher proportion of the members of one sex, or persons having a racial or ethnic origin, or a particular religion or belief, or a particular disability or a particular sexual orientation, or age group at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.

When writing, if possible, stick to the principle: one sentence, one idea. Bullet points can also be useful for breaking up list-like points, though don’t overuse them.

In this example, it would be better to list the ‘protected characteristics’ (sex, race, age, etc) separately, then go on to define indirect discrimination.

Indirect discrimination: when a rule, condition or practice that applies to everyone disadvantages someone with a particular protected characteristic. But this won’t be classed as discrimination if the aim and means behind the rule, condition or practice can be objectively justified as legitimate and necessary.

Verbs over nouns

Using verbs makes language dynamic, which will move things along at a good pace and keep the reader interested. Particularly heavy-going reading arises with the overuse of nominalisations. This is a noun that has been created from a verb, like recommendation (verb = recommend). It may be a rather hypocritical word for us to use here (it is, itself, a nominalisation), and a practice to avoid. It tends to attract unnecessary words and makes your writing pretty dull. Compare:

Undertaking the implementation of the policy is the duty of all


Implementing the policy is everyone’s duty.

Keep it active

Writing tends to be more interesting in the active voice. Your equality policy probably still won’t win the Booker Prize, but at least it is more likely to be read.

The active voice is when the ‘doer’ in the sentence is put before the action they are carrying out. It is generally better than the passive voice (where the ‘doer’ can be left out altogether). This is because it sounds more human, forces you to be more specific, and leaves no doubt about who will do what. It also usually results in shorter sentences. For example:

Passive: A risk assessment will be undertaken before any disabled person begins work and, where doubts exist over a disabled person’s ability to perform the full duties of the job concerned, a trial period may be offered after consultation with the HR department.

Active: We will carry out a risk assessment before any disabled person begins work. We may offer a trial period if we have any doubts over the person’s ability to perform the full duties of the job concerned.

And finally, easy on the legalese

Legalese is often found in documents like policies. Perhaps it’s used out of habit, or in an attempt to cover every possible contingency. A lawyer may argue that it’s employed to be precise and utterly unambiguous. And indeed it might be, except that often no-one but a lawyer can understand the results (complete incomprehensibility may be different from ambiguity, but is hardly better).

Since a policy document will have legal implications, it is worth getting a lawyer’s sign-off on it. But work with them to avoid the common problems of legalese. In addition to the ones outlined above, try to avoid muddying the waters with unnecessary, archaic words, like ‘therein’, ‘herein’, ‘forthwith’, and ‘aforesaid’.

The goal is for every employee in the company to understand the documents. The wording should be suitable for the average layperson (unless, of course, it is a legal firm), so that everyone really is on an equal footing.

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