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Write concrete terms into your policies; don’t waffle

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews,Preventing Workplace Violence

Issue: The wording used in your employment policies.

Risk: Overly vague language makes it difficult for employees to comply and makes you more vulnerable to lawsuits.

Action: Use clear, concrete wording in your policies to describe acceptable employee behavior.

Put yourself in a new hire's shoes and scan through your policies on harassment, diversity and workplace violence. Do you get a crystal clear idea of the kind of behaviors that are (and aren't) allowed? Or do you see a lot of wishy-washy statements that don't offer much guidance?

At too many organizations, the latter is more common. Not smart.

As the following case shows, employment policies should never leave employees guessing about how they should comply.

That's why it's vital to use concrete terms in such policies, not vague statements that have multiple meanings (such as requiring employees to "respect each others' difference"). In the same way, managers should set concrete, tangible goals for employee performance.

Recent case: Albert Buonanno ob-jected to language in his employer's diversity policy. It required employees to sign an acknowledgment form saying they "fully recognize, respect and value the differences among all of us," including sexual orientation.

Buonanno was willing to pledge not to discriminate against or harass anyone, but said he couldn't sign the policy because of religious beliefs about homosexuality. He requested that the employer "work around" the requirement that he sign the form. But the employer said, "Sign or be fired." He refused, and the employer fired him.

Buonanno sued, alleging religious discrimination, and won. Reason: The employer failed to show it would have suffered an "undue hardship" by accommodating his religious beliefs. In fact, it never even considered his request.

Plus, the policy's vague wording made it difficult for employees to know how to comply. Five corporate officers testified about the policy's language, but none of them shared a common understanding of what it actually required of employees. (Buonanno v. AT&T Broadband LLC, No. 02-MK-0778, USDC, Colo., 2004)

Another lesson from this case: When employees object to a policy on religious grounds, take the complaint seriously. Consider whether their accommodation request creates an "undue hardship." If it doesn't, you must figure a way to accommodate it. Courts will judge your actions by looking at whether you genuinely tried to solve the problem.

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