by Boyd Byers
Is your employee handbook or policy manual haunted by shadowy policies and provisions that are treated as though they aren’t even there? “Ghost policies” can creep into a handbook in a number of ways. They may be relics that once lived useful lives—the legacies of long-departed HR managers—but their original purpose is now unknown or ignored. They may be recent additions that never caught on, or they may simply be the result of errors (not yours, of course).
Be afraid—be very afraid—of ghost policies. If left floating in your handbook, they can lead to legal claims and liability.
Dord: a ghost word
What is “dord” ? According to Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, 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 is published because of a misinterpretation, misreading, typographical or linguistic confusion, or other error.
So how did the nonexistent 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 in the back of the book. An editor created a card with the notation “D or d, cond/density,” which was meant to indicate that the new edition should include “D” and “d” as abbreviations for density. The card mistakenly ended up in the word pile, and the phrase “D or d” was misinterpreted as “dord.” A new card assigned dord a part of speech (noun), pronunciation (dÃƒÂ´rd), and definition (density), and off it went to the printer. A proofreader failed to catch the error, and dord appeared in Webster’s Second Edition in 1934.
The error 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 the ghost word hung on in some printings until 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 you may encounter. Beware of Frankenstein policies, which are pieces and parts harvested from other organizations and stitched together. Just as Dr. Frankenstein found out with his creation, the swiped parts don’t always fit right, and the brain may be faulty. Also, be on the lookout for zombies—policies that HR has killed but 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 but doesn’t follow the process in the policy, and the employee sues for discrimination based on sex, race, or age. The employer’s failure to follow its policy can be evidence supporting an inference of unlawful discrimination.
- An employer’s policy, which was lifted from the Internet, says employees earn a certain amount of paid vacation each year. Nobody knows exactly why the policy says that or appreciates the impact of the word “earn.” The policy doesn’t say what happens to vacation time when employment ends, and the employer doesn’t pay out unused earned vacation time when employment ends. Under many states’ wage payment law, the employer may be required to pay the earned vacation time as well as a penalty. (This problem can be easily avoided with proper drafting up front.)
Make a Halloween resolution to start ghost-busting; don’t wait until New Year’s. Read your employee handbook and 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.Have frontline managers, administrative staff, or others in your organization read the materials. Ask them the same questions, and 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 all. Contrary to the old joke, we’re not all bloodsuckers.