Trash Your Policy Manual

On November 19, 2012, in Heather Bussing, HRExaminer, Policies, by Heather Bussing

Trash Your Policy Manual - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

Give employees the autonomy and resources they need to do the work.

This is a longer version of the Ignite speech I gave at HR Reinvention in Omaha last week. It was a great conference full of bold ideas and creative, insightful people. I met brilliant people doing interesting things like getting rid of leave policies. Here it is:

What if you got rid of your policy manual?

What if having a great place to work was more important than rules and covering your ass?

Policies are not a good way to manage. Policies don’t fix performance, attendance, or behavior issues.

Rules don’t stop people from doing things. Especially stupid things. Especially things to get around the rules.

It just becomes a game of policy Whack-A-Mole.

I had a client who changed from PTO to separate sick leave and vacation policies since paid time off was vested and had to be paid out. So they carved out sick leave and made it use-it-or-lose-it to save money.

Suddenly everyone was sick on Monday or Friday. And most illnesses seemed to last at least 2 days.

Then they required doctor’s notes for all illnesses more than one day.

Then healthcare claims went up. And illnesses lasted 3 days.

So they called me. They wanted to know if they could make a rule that employees could not see a doctor unless they were really sick.


Instead, they got rid of use it or lose it sick leave and went back to PTO. It’s much better now.

Work should be about doing great work, not beating or enforcing the rules.

But, you can’t get rid of all the rules. How will people know what they’re supposed to do?

They know. Has anyone ever missed a paycheck, a holiday, vacation, or how to complain about the guy sitting in the next cube? The required policies are all in the break room on those posters anyway.

Policy manuals just gets signed, shoved in a drawer and thrown away when the employee leaves. They rarely inform or educate.

The way to do that is training and discussion.

But what about rules to make sure that everyone is treated the same?

You already don’t treat people the same. They have different jobs, different tasks, different pay, different vacation, different hours, and really different lives.

And they don’t really want to be treated the same.  Do you give your kids the same Christmas presents?

Do you want to be treated like a 50 year old white guy?

You don’t have to treat people the same. You just can’t discriminate based on a protected factor.

Does it require judgment calls? Sure. You make them everyday, anyway.

What about managing risk? What if you get sued? 

Guess what? Happy employees who feel cared and appreciated don’t sue!

And if you do get sued, taking responsibility for your decision and terminating people for what they did instead of violating policies play much better to the jury anyway.

So what policies should you get rid of?

The ones that actually make a difference in the work culture and employees daily lives. The human policies.

The big 4 are Progressive Discipline, strict limits on Leave, Social Media, and anything that involves a Sign in the kitchen or bathroom. (You know it’s the boss who never cleans up.)

Progressive discipline is demoralizing to the employee, requires you to set them up and forces everyone through a stupid process that never works. It disrupts everyone because the employee gets angry and bitter and tries to get everyone else to agree with her.

Get rid of people as soon as you know it’s not working out. Give second chances when it really seems like a good idea, not as a matter of course. Keep your options open.

Leave–give employees leave when they need it. Work it out. Let them work from home. Reduce their load or hours. When you value employees, find a way to keep them and reassure them that when the dust settles they can come back. It’s the right thing to do.

Social Media– You have no control. You will not get control. Give up. Now. Besides, the best way to prevent employees from doing or saying something stupid is to have a great place to work.

Really. Trust people. They are grownups. If trust won’t work, then look at why you are hiring nincompoops.  Or, is it really that the boss is a complete jerk?  Policies won’t fix that.

Policies don’t fix management problems.

Give employees the autonomy and resources they need to do the work.

Then say thank you.

In that spirit, thank you to John Sumser and Jay Shepherd for encouraging and pushing my thinking on this topic. And thank you to Jason Lauritsen, Joe Gerstandt and William Tincup for their kindness and help.

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