Is your employee handbook or policy manual haunted by shadowy policies and provisions that are treated as if they aren’t even there? Such “ghost policies” can creep into a handbook in any number of ways. They may be relics of the past that once lived useful lives—the legacy of long-ago-departed HR managers—their original purpose now unknown. They may be more-recent additions that never caught on. Or they may simply be the result of error (not yours, of course).
You should be afraid—be very afraid—of ghost policies. Left floating in your handbook, they can give rise to legal claims or liability.
‘Dord’: A Ghost Word
What is dord? According to the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, it’s a noun that means density, as used in physics and chemistry. But it was never a real word. Dord is what lexicographers call a “ghost word”—a word that comes into use or gets published because of misinterpretation, misreading, typographical or linguistic confusion, or other error.
So how did the non-existent word dord end up in the dictionary? In the first edition of Webster’s, entries for abbreviations and words were intermingled. But in the second edition, abbreviations were moved to a separate section at the back of the book. An editor created a card with the notation “D or d, cond/density,” meant to indicate that the new edition should include D and d as abbreviations for density. The note card mistakenly ended up in the words pile, and the phrase “D or d” was misinterpreted as the single word “Dord,” meaning density. A new card was prepared that assigned dord a part of speech (noun), pronunciation (dôrd), and definition (density), and off it went to the printer. A proofreader failed to catch the error, and dord appeared in Webster’s Second in 1934.
There it remained, undetected, for five years, until an editor noticed that the entry for dord had no etymology. He investigated and found the mistake. Dord began to fade away in 1940, but hung on in some printings as recently as 1947.
Ghosts and Other Policy Monsters
Like ghost words in a dictionary, ghost policies can materialize in your employee handbook. But ghosts are not the only policy monsters that may be lurking in your workplace. Beware of Frankenstein policies, which are pieces and parts harvested from other organizations and stitched together. Just like Dr. Frankenstein found out with his creature, the swiped parts don’t always fit together right, and the brain may be faulty. Also be on the lookout for zombie policies: these are policies that HR kills, but which live on, brainless, in practice.
Here are a couple of real-life examples of ghost policies we frequently encounter.
An employee handbook contains a robust discipline policy instituted years ago. But that was then, this is now, and the employer basically ignores it. The employer fires an employee for misconduct, skipping the process in the policy. The employee sues for discrimination based on sex, race, age, or whatever. The employer’s failure to follow its own policy can be evidence that supports an inference of unlawful discrimination.
An employer’s policy, lifted from the Internet, says that employees earn a certain amount of paid vacation each year. Nobody knows exactly why it’s worded the way it is or appreciates the impact of the word earn. And it doesn’t say what happens to the balance when employment ends. The employer doesn’t pay out earned vacation if an employee is fired for misconduct, or perhaps upon any separation of employment. The employer may be liable to pay the earned vacation time, as well as a penalty, under Kansas wage payment law. (This is a problem that can be easily avoided with proper drafting up front.)
Make a Halloween resolution (don’t wait until New Year’s) to start ghost busting. Read your employee handbook and all other policies cover to cover. Ask yourself if you understand exactly what each policy means, why it exists, whether it’s being followed, and whether it’s accomplishing its intended purpose.
Now have some front line managers, administrative staff, or others in the organization read it. Ask them the same questions you asked yourself. Then take time to clean things up. Exorcise the ghosts. Clarify ambiguities. Reconcile inconsistencies. When you think you’re done, have your employment lawyer review it. Contrary to the old joke, we’re not all blood suckers.