Whether You Believe It or Not, Your Policy Manual Is Evil

Try this logic on with me.

If anything that makes a person feel worthless or of less value is evil (and perhaps you aren’t as dramatic as I am, so you can just say “bad”). And if many of the policies written in your handbook assume employees are some combination of incompetent or idiotic (hence, less valuable or worthless). Then, your employee handbook and many of the policies within it are evil.

The logic is sound. If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

An engaging expression of the brand?

Last week, I had the privilege to hear a presentation about how Chili’s restaurants shaped their culture to create competitive advantage and market growth in the fiercely competitive restaurant business. Chris Ebbeler, Senior Manager of Workplace Community and People Branding (one of the coolest titles ever) at Chili’s, walked us through the hard and inspired work they’ve done over the past five plus years.

It’s an awesome story.

One of the actions that Chris and his team undertook was re-writing the employee handbook for the organization. They decided to do this on the heels of feedback from employees that not only didn’t read or use the version they were given, but they didn’t even understand most of what was written in it. It was a pretty compelling call for change.

The goal of this rework, as I understood it, was to make the employee handbook an engaging expression of the brand to employees — a way to invite them into the company and encourage them to become a part of the brand. Sounds great, right?

But, what does this have to do with evil? I’m getting there.

Simple and subtle is best

One specific example Chris addressed in his presentation was how they addressed the fact that there is a “policy” against drinking or using drugs while at work. He asked the audience in the room (this was at Summer Brand Camp in Dallas this month, an awesome event for leaders in the restaurant industry) if any of them expected anything different from their employees. Everyone was on the same page.

That’s when he said the thing that struck a chord with me.

This isn’t an exact quote, but this is how I remember what he said: “It should be obvious to your employees that they shouldn’t use drugs or drink while they are working.”

Any conscientious working adult would assume this to be true. So, that’s exactly what they said in their handbook. “Obviously, you won’t drink or use drugs while you are at work.” No policy statement. No threat of punishment.

Simple, subtle, and awesome. A tip of the hat to the employee that the company recognizes you are an adult and will make responsible decisions when working.

Handbook questions you should be asking

Consider the alternative. Flip through your handbook and pay attention to a few things.

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  • Who is it written for? My guess is that it feels like it’s written for either HR or the legal department. It’s called an “employee handbook,” and yet it’s not written in employee-friendly terms or language. If I can’t relate to or understand the employee handbook, what message does that send to me about how valued I am by the organization? And this is usually one of the first documents given to a new employee. Ouch.
  • Do your policies assume people will make responsible and conscientious decisions OR do they assume that people are morons who will do stupid and illegal things when left to their own devices? For example, do you assume that people will use drugs all the time unless told not to do so? Or (my personal favorite) do you assume people have no clue how to dress appropriately for work and will probably show up in tattered jeans or a tube top unless threatened with punishment?

It might be good practice to assume people have a brain and some common sense. Assuming otherwise really is evil, and we need to stop doing it. It makes people feel gross.

I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t have policies, but I am suggesting you probably need about 75 percent less policies than you probably have today. Most of our policies are written to mitigate the irrational fears of leaders who have lost faith in humanity based on their experiences with a few bad apples.

Getting people to rise to your expectations

We need to stop it. In my experience, most people are good, conscientious employees who want to do a good job for the company.

My experience also says that people rise or lower to your expectations, so you generally get exactly what you expect. But forget my experience; the Best Places to Work in America are those where employees feel valued. We have 10 years of data that proves it (peek at our 2013 Trends Report, for example).

What does your policy manual and handbook communicate about how much you value people?

I know your intentions aren’t evil. But, your policy manual is.

Let’s fix that by treating employees like grownups and assuming they have positive intentions and some common sense. They will reward you for it.

This was originally published on the Quantum Workplace blog

Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author and advisor.  He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. 

A former corporate human resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. 

Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. 

Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at www.JasonLauritsen.com

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8 Comments on “Whether You Believe It or Not, Your Policy Manual Is Evil

  1. Great article Jason and food for thought. Unfortunately, we continue to lose unemployment claims from the “evil” folks in the government who demand that we show where we’ve told employees they can sleep on the job, use drugs, hit a coworker…fill in the blank, and preferably give them three warnings for such misbehavior. It leaves us between a rock and a hard place on whether to create policies that will protect us against moronic behavior but create policies in our handbook that should go without having to be said!

    1. Laura – With respect, if moronic behavior is a big problem in your company, then you might want to look at your hiring practices. Policy’s won’t fix bad hires.

      1. This has nothing to do with hiring practices, you can’t expect that people will know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior unless as an organization clearly states it. I just had an administrative judge tell me not even two weeks ago that just because an employee spent ALL day on the computer (as I had a minute by minute print out of each webpage) that she shouldn’t have been fired because the old policy wasn’t clear enough to state that using the computer all day to look for apartments, jobs and other personal things was against the rules and ethics…..and this is coming from a JUDGE! Handbooks are a must.

        1. Drew – I respectfully disagree. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the incident you describe, but if the manager was spending time tracking minute by minute computer usage of your employee, rather than trying to understand why she was misbehaving, then the problem lies with that manager, not her. Progressive discipline is designed to let the employee know what they are doing wrong and allowing them a chance to correct it. If that were followed in this case then the Administrative Law Judge would have upheld the termination. Simply having a policy on computer usage, regardless of its specificity, would not have adequately addressed the issue.

  2. Jason – I hate policy manuals, for many of the reasons you outline in your post. These documents exist, for the most part, as a vehicle to manage risk, and written by lawyers who are by training risk averse. They also exist as a management crutch; rather than dealing with a situation based upon its circumstances, it’s easier (and safer?) to have a policy that managers can point to, when convenient, so they don’t have to do their jobs. Of course, these policies are continuously violated because the reality is that people are not treated the same in all situations, and employees know that, so credibility goes south, both the policy’s’ and the company which promulgated it.

    You can’t put lipstick on a pig, so trying to make a policy manual ‘user friendly’ is, in my view, a failed exercise, and can be more confusing to employees than the policy’s themselves.

    The answer is to replace policies with a set of company values which guide employee behavior. Values have meaning, and most employees relate to them very well. Build a culture around a set of thoughtful and authentic values, modeled daily by the leadership of the organization, and consistently and effectively communicated and reinforced, and the old policy manual becomes a thing of the past.

    1. I totally agree with you Jason, you put it all together! We have to revive or reinforce employee’ engagement letting them know what is worth it and why, there’s the values meaning.

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