Managing Corporate Policies Online

By Donna M. Owens May 1, 2008

HR Magazine, May 2008 Doing it right involves more than merely posting.

Ed Fishel spends his days juggling media tasks as news bureau director for the University of Maryland-Baltimore (UMB), an institution with a bustling urban campus and thousands of students.

With a hectic schedule and limited time, Fishel was pleased to hear that a required employee training course on sexual harassment policies could be accessed online.

“It’s still fresh in my mind, partly because I got a passing score,” Fishel says of the course that took about 60 minutes to complete. “And at the end, I was able to print out a certificate that was required by my boss. It was a pretty nifty system.”

Indeed, as employers—from academic institutions to global conglomerates—seek to disseminate policy information effectively to a spectrum of employees, many have sought automated solutions to push policies online.

The practice of managing policies on the Internet and intranets is gaining favor, says Kara Pernice, director of research for the Fremont, Calif.-based Nielsen Norman Group, whose employees work with companies to develop online applications.

Pernice says managing policies online has become more common, especially for disseminating policy information and responding to employees’ questions. The practice is most popular at large organizations with more than 50,000 employees, though smaller companies use online tools too.

Moving Online

“Technology has touched every aspect of the way we deliver information to employees, especially for the Generation X and Yers, who tend not to like meetings,” says Lani P. Barovick, SPHR, associate vice president for human resources at UMB.

Barovick, who has been with the institution for 14 years, remembers the era when thick policy manuals were the norm. Today, she notes, the university has a robust web site that delivers various kinds of employee information. ›

Despite what some professionals view as the relative ease of posting policies online, the process of implementation isn’t without challenges.

In practice, organizations need to demonstrate that an employee has read and understood the employer’s posted policies and agreed to follow them. In addition, ensuring the accuracy of the policy information often requires regular updates and content audits.

And because not all employees may be computer-literate and have computer access, employers may need procedures in place that allow employees to obtain information offline.

For example, some businesses use an interactive voice response system, whereby employees can call in by telephone and get answers to their questions regarding corporate policies, while other employers distribute policy information on paper, says Nick Ciancio, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Charlotte, N.C.-based Global Compliance, a provider of ethics and compliance solutions.

Crafting Delivery

While crafting corporate policies often involves the joint efforts of human resources, legal departments, and ethics and compliance teams, many companies are also seeking outside help.

Global Compliance and its 350 employees help corporate clients develop, maintain and disseminate employee codes of conduct online.

“We help companies write, design, simplify, produce and interpret codes of conduct,” says Ciancio. “We also help distribute them. A corporation will typically make the intranet available to employees so they can open and read these policies online at work.”

To access such policies, employees often are given a personal password that allows them to log on to company sites, with users granted varying degrees of access. Some sites also track employee activity.

Typically, online policies are written in a blend of “legalese” and simplified language that has been tweaked by HR professionals to make it understandable to all workers.

“On average, it would be on a sixth- or seventh-grade education level,” Ciancio says. Managers at a company like Wal-Mart, for example, want policies to be understood by their entire workforce, he adds. “Whether you’re a stock person or a CEO, there should be no differentiation.”

The information can be broad, unilateral and applicable to large groups of workers, or it may be tailored to a specific industry or job, explains Karen Kistenmacher, marketing director at Global Compliance.

For instance, in the health care profession, online policies may focus on Health Care Financing Administration regulations or Medicare; manufacturers might have safety, health and environmental concerns; retail companies might want to highlight policies that deal with shoplifting and internal theft.

For certain highly regulated industries—such as financial services or banking, utilities, and health care—Kistenmacher says there’s generally a need for a more finely tuned policy, since failure to comply can potentially result in legal and financial penalties for employers.

To supplement the policy information employees view online, many companies also set up online courses that have study materials, quizzes and tests, she adds.

An Academic Approach

At UMB, where the 40-person HR staff tackles the needs of some 3,000 employees, Barovick and her team strive to make the university’s policies on everything from unions to performance evaluations accessible across the board.

Policies get posted online according to target audience and subject matter, covering areas such as faculty, student affairs and miscellaneous policies.

The university also provides training for certain policies online and in classroom settings, then tests its employees.

For example, every new employee receives a copy of the HR department’s policy on sexual harassment during orientation and signs for its receipt. Within 60 days, workers must take a test with components that assess comprehension and understanding. The online test takes about an hour and includes a reading section and a 15-question mastery test.

Workers who receive a score of 72 or higher (no more than four incorrect answers) fill out their names and departments in the appropriate screens and submit the tests. If an employee’s score is lower than 72 (five or more incorrect answers), HR professionals ask the individual to retake the test. All of the results are recorded and maintained, and there are links to the policy on the university’s web site.

Whatever the policy, Pernice says it’s up to companies to ensure that their employees “get it”—figuratively and literally.

“Many [employers] ask workers to select a checkbox [confirming] that they have read the information,” she explains.

UMB’s Barovick says online posting of policies hasn’t replaced old-fashioned face-to-face contact when needed. She oversees an internal team of HR staffers known as the “HR Forum” that acts as a liaison for employees to address their concerns.

Indeed, having traditional modes of communication available for workers is a good thing, most experts agree.

“There are times when people still need to speak to or write to a person, so those avenues are typically still in place to a smaller degree,” says Pernice.

Staying Current

To successfully provide online policies, make sure the information remains up-to-date and is well-understood. Providing employees incorrect, out-of-date or unclear online content makes employees less likely to trust any type of employer communication.

While Ciancio says his clients typically review policies such as employee codes of conduct annually or biannually, Pernice advises updating online content as soon as policies change.

“The updates should appear with the policy, not as a news item or archived item that employees need to go hunting for,” she says. Display the date the policy was updated at the bottom of the page, she adds. The organization’s internal structure will determine who is responsible for making the updates, Pernice notes.

To prevent information overload, companies can target policy information to meet each employee’s needs, says Pernice. For example, some policies would go to everyone, but an employee in finance might get more information about policies on accounting requirements or disclosure rules than someone in a different department.

Finally, HR professionals should monitor online content to make sure vital information reaches the entire workforce.

“Here at UMB, everyone from the professors to the housekeepers, electricians [and] plumbers is computer-savvy,” says Barovick. An internal survey shows that those without a computer at home frequently use the library’s computers.

Even organizations with a large contingent of low-tech workers can create simple sites that present policy information effectively, Pernice says, concluding: “Removing clutter, adding task-based links and avoiding any superfluous elements can help.”

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM toolkit:
Paperless HR 

SHRM research:
Leveraging the Shift to Self-Service: It’s Time to Go Strategic 

SHRM article:
Portal Takes Off
(HR Magazine)


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