Statement 1 – I’m not a big fan of policies.
Statement 2 – I’m also not an anarchist and I prefer not to do things that are illegal.
I don’t think these statements are mutually exclusive, but all too often any discussion of HR Policies falls into a binary dialogue. It’s an artificial dialogue, where you pick a position where you are either for chaos or you are for wrapping the company up in red tape. As with anything the truth normally lies somewhere in the middle – and neither side gains much by the oversimplification of their position.
When do we need a policy?
- When there is a genuine and clear legal requirement to have one
- Where it is essential that every employee does the same thing in a specific situation.
When don’t we need a policy?
- Where you are unnecessarily removing choice from the individual because you are unsure if they would do what you would do
- Where your policy exists primarily out of concern that you employ idiots
- In case something goes wrong and you have to explain why you don’t have a policy.
Every time you remove the ability for someone to make a choice you remove an opportunity to learn. Organisations are the sum of their people and the quality of their decision making – you are removing the ability and requirement for people to learn how to make good judgment calls. That is, by default, your talent management strategy. You are creating talent that doesn’t make decisions and hasn’t got the resilience that comes from making mistakes.
If you need an aide memoire for people to follow in complex situations then that is sensible – but wherever you have a policy in place the most you can ever hold people accountable for is following (or not following) those policies. You can’t hold people accountable for customer experience and you can’t hold them accountable for not using their brains to deal with the situation.
You don’t get to give people a policy and then ask why they didn’t decide to do something else – you’ve asked them to follow your script. You don’t get to complain about the lack of sparkling improv and flashes of flair – or why they didn’t use their noggin. You asked them to turn off their flair and noggin.
What does this mean for HR?
Our profession can be accused (not entirely unfairly…) of falling back on policy to prop up our ability to require people to behave in a certain way. We feel stronger with policies and employee handbooks sitting behind us, so we can be really clear of what the company requires (or what we think should be done). It minimises risk. At times we overplay the risk to get people to do things – that is poor practice.
Most business isn’t really about risk mitigation – business is about sustainable growth. If HR is to be commercial then HR needs to be about sustainable growth – it’s not any more complex than that.
And sustainable growth isn’t about command and control – it is about creating shared will, shared direction and the space for people to deliver. HR have a role to play in preventing stupidity, but you limit stupidity most effectively by hiring well, educating people well and always holding people accountable. Luckily, we have a role to play in those two things too and that seems worth a policy.
The Policy Policy
I’ll only write a policy where I can’t find a way to help people do without it.
And then I’ll ask myself why I haven’t been able to help them do without it.
Then I’ll wonder whether I really meant to write guidelines and just got carried away.
Then I’ll reflect on whether if I was hiring better people they’d need guidelines.
Please note that for the purposes of this article I simply lumped policies and procedures together – it was a policy decision so you can’t argue with it. If you fancy revising your policies then consider checking out this product of the CIPD hack