2020-10-21 HR Examiner article Why Less is More with Policies Heather Bussing stock photo img cc0 by AdobeStock 366090926 544px.png

“If you need a screwdriver, don’t use a mallet. The more comprehensive the policy, the less flexibility there is to deal with people. Pretty soon, the plan defeats the purpose.” - Heather Bussing


Many employment policies are giant sledgehammers


If you need a screwdriver, don’t use a mallet. Many employment policies are giant sledgehammers. Large companies often require standardized procedures and systems to run efficiently. This thinking usually extends to personnel policies. After all, everyone needs to know what the rules are. Also, blanket policies, consistently enforced, prevent claims of favoritism or discrimination. These are valid and important considerations in having employment policies.


As exceptions and new policies are created, your policy manual becomes a rabbit warren of rules that are often contradictory and inconsistent. – Heather Bussing

However, the more comprehensive the policies, the less flexibility there is to deal with people. Pretty soon, the plan defeats the purpose.


Policies spawn exceptions


People, departments and offices do not function in a “one size fits all” manner. So every time you create a policy, you will have to make and justify exceptions when new situations arise that don’t fit the policy. As exceptions and new policies are created, your policy manual becomes a rabbit warren of rules that are often contradictory and inconsistent.


For example, most companies have broad “at-will” employment statements in numerous places throughout their handbooks. This should mean that either the company or the employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason. Yet often, a company will also have a 90-day “probationary” period with elaborate progressive discipline procedures. This implies that employees will continued to be employed unless they don’t pass the trial period. Also, progressive discipline implies that employees will not be terminated except for good cause and whatever steps the policy requires. So both probationary periods and progressive discipline erode the concept of at-will employment.


The justification for progressive discipline is to provide employees with an opportunity to correct behavior for less serious offenses. But in truth, not having an elaborate system of second chances allows for the greatest flexibility to deal with a situation that is not working for anyone. And keeping unhappy employees usually causes far more damage in lost work and moral than terminating them as soon as you see it’s not working out.


Having advised companies of all sizes, my philosophy is: less is more. Fewer policies allows for more flexibility in dealing with individuals and their distinct situations.


How to evaluate your personnel policies


photo of Heather Bussing on HRExaminer

Heather Bussing is our vice President of Strategy

There are certain items that should be in every policy manual—EEO compliance, wage-hour, workers’ compensation. You also need basic information on the company’s business hours, holidays, paid time off and benefits. But the rest is optional.


The policies that make sense for your company depend on the makeup of your workforce and your company’s culture.


Does progressive discipline make sense for your company? This depends on whether your company emphasizes retention, learning and improvement or whether it has a fairly low threshold for misconduct or poor performance. Most companies aspire to both—but is it really possible?


When a company has progressive discipline, the managerial focus is on the relationship between the policy provisions and how the employee conduct fits the policy. There is less room for customized solutions.


When a company does not have a progressive discipline system, then the focus shifts to managing employees in connection with company needs, priorities and what is happening with the employee in that position at that time. It is a more individualistic approach that often requires more time and decision making by management. However, it also allows for the greatest agility as needs, economic factors and employee performance shifts.


Do performance reviews, complete with multi-factored forms and interviews, make sense? This is usually an evaluation of cost, time, and effectiveness. Do performance reviews actually make a difference in performance? Do they make it easier or more difficult to make salary decisions? Does the work get done better, faster or more efficiently? If the answer is no, then perhaps the process can be pared down and pieces of it eliminated.




A word of caution though – the fewer policies and procedures you have, the better HR’s relationship needs to be with the company’s employment lawyers. The focus of the relationship with the company’s attorneys should be both preventative and proactive. It is important to develop an understanding about how best to prevent problems before they appear and handle situations as they arise.


This can be a difficult transition for both managers and attorneys who are used to fixing problems instead preventing them. The lawyers may feel threatened because if they do their job well, they will have less work. But my experience is that preventing problems, finding custom solutions, and eliminating cumbersome and inconsistent personnel policies create a more efficient, effective and better place to work.

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