The High Price of Overly Prescriptive HR Policies

Executive Summary

Too many companies’ HR policies are overly restrictive. Such policies are often convoluted and overly paternal, and attempt to control the behavior of regular people through rules designed to rein in the “bad apples.” Although a small percentage of employees may try to take advantage of more flexible or generous policies, designing your HR policies with such people in mind isn’t the answer. It won’t help boost the performance of the majority of employees – employees who have the organization’s best interests at heart. It will only make them feel distrusted. Most employees who work for you are intelligent adults. If your employee handbook or HR policy manual is large and prescriptive, consider cutting back on picky rules and doubling down on common sense.

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Recently, one of my colleagues left our firm to make significantly more money at another company. We wanted to keep her, but the commission-based salary offered by the other company was more than we could match. She hadn’t realized how long her new commute would be during rush hour, however, and after three days of long, round-trip commutes during rush-hour traffic, she asked to shift her schedule an hour earlier to spend less time in unproductive gridlock.

Her manager denied her request, saying, “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for others.”

It was good news for us; she was back with our team the following Monday.

Too many companies’ HR policies are overly restrictive. Such policies are often convoluted and overly paternal, and attempt to control the behavior of regular people through rules designed to rein in the “bad apples.”

Having consulted with hundreds of company leaders on how to create high-performance workplaces over the past 30 years, I’ve seen this firsthand. Although a small percentage of employees may try to take advantage of more flexible or generous policies, designing your HR policies with such people in mind isn’t the answer. It won’t help boost the performance of the majority of employees – employees who have the organization’s best interests at heart. It will only make them feel distrusted.

Most employees who work for you are intelligent adults. If your employee handbook or HR policy manual is large and prescriptive, consider the following:

Don’t play “gotcha” — make positive assumptions about employees

Attorneys may recommend codifying company rules in a series of “thou shalt nots” and then making employees sign a statement confirming that they’ve read the handbook. If employees violate rules and then claim ignorance, companies can then say, “Gotcha! You signed that you’d read our policy, so you did know.” This approach relays negative assumptions from day one.

Creating an environment of mutual trust is much easier than trying to run an authoritarian regime free of rule breakers. And there are some situations where making something a “rule” can really backfire.

In an effort to become known as a positive place, for example, Ochsner Health System made it a punishable offense for any employee to fail to smile within 10 feet of a customer. Instead of setting the expectation that politeness was part of the company’s image, it tried to make happiness a rule.

Giving leaders a comprehensive book of infractions and punishments isn’t helpful — it turns them into “bad cops” in situations where nuance would work better. In high-performance environments, guidelines empower leaders to use their personal judgment to make decisions.

If you believe employees require need strict rules and enforcement to be productive, hiring and retaining high-performance people will be a challenge for you. You hired these people for their tenacity and talents. Get out of the way, and let them be great. Deal with any people who choose not to meet expectations on a case-by-case basis.

Carefully evaluate the messages your policies communicate. Is each policy necessary for the vast majority of adults working for you? Can you reframe punitive rules as positive goals to aim for? For example, instead of a policy that provides definitions of “tardy” or “absent,” and punishments for each, state that you expect employees to show up on time. If your organization requires a dress code, take a cue from one of our clients and simply define the policy as “Dress appropriately.”

Communicate one standard of conduct that states, “Everyone is expected to act in the best interest of the organization and his/her fellow employees” as a replacement for a long list of conduct rules. Another company, for instance, replaced its employee handbook with a 17-page “leader’s guide” that set the expectation that leaders would use judgment and company values when making decisions that impacted employees.

One place to draw a clear line is around telling the truth. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for dishonesty. The costs of untrustworthiness are just too high, and the only way a common-sense approach to HR policy will work is if integrity is a core organizational value.

Follow common sense, not policy

Strict policies are often excuses to not think. When common sense and bureaucracy clash, you see headlines like the one about a longtime Lowe’s employee who was fired for calling 911 on a shoplifter. Her action was against store policy, and the “book” called for immediate termination. Somewhere along the way, rules trumped logic and created an environment of uncertainty and fear.

Involve your team in creating expectations, not rules, or you’ll only get compliance from those unwilling to go beyond basic requirements. The cost of compliance is ongoing. Commitment is an upfront one-time cost, and then it’s self-sustaining.

Having a team meeting for the purpose of clarifying the team’s charter — what value the function adds to the company — is a good start. First, you should facilitate (versus present) this by asking for responses to “What is our role in the company? What do we do that provides a unique value?” Later, those responses can be distilled into a charter. After that discussion, ask, “How do we want to be perceived? How do we want the organization to view us?” Then, ask, “How do we want to view ourselves as a team?” Together, the group determines gaps and develops standards or expectations of each other that drive committed behaviors as members of a high-performing team.

Prioritize leadership over technical skill

Early in my career, working as an employee relations manager for a Fortune 500 company, I quickly realized that most of its endless rules stemmed from three factors: Frontline supervisors managing the majority of the workforce were promoted for loyalty and technical skills, not leadership ability. Once promoted, there was limited investment in their leadership training. To mitigate the risk of these untrained supervisors using judgment in decision-making, HR published and policed rules instead of improving the selection and development of more experienced leaders.

Policies are a company’s message to its employees regarding how it values people. If your company must have policies, senior leaders should allow and expect managers to use their own discretion and judgment in administering these policies. Again, expectations and guidelines work better for thinking adults than black-and-white rules and steps.

Most companies hold lots of meetings related to production, scheduling, and sales, but few dedicated to how they’re managing their workforce. One company we work with is an exception; they place equal value on how results are achieved and what the bottom-line results are. This company holds weekly meetings in which managers and front-line leaders discuss people issues. They don’t wait for others to challenge current policies; they look at the policies they’ve published and ask, “Is this a policy designed to catch one of the few bad apples (who know how to game the system, anyway)? Is the tone respectful, positive, and adult?”

Do your HR policies outline specific punishments for detailed infractions? Do they focus on what employees can’t do, rather than what they should do? If so, they’re holding employees back more than they’re protecting you from a bad apple or two.

When you spend time thinking up rules to stop every conceivable bad behavior, it’s easy to forget to rely on the people around you. Take your faith out of policies, and place it in the people you hired to grow your company into a thriving business.

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