A client recently called me to talk about improving their employment brand. I was very excited and had loads of ideas about how they might change their approach to some of the big HR ticket items such as talent, performance and succession.I confess I was a bit disheartened when he asked me to take a fresh look at their employee handbook as I tend to see employee rules and policies as the least sexy part of the HR job. However, it actually turned out to be a challenging and strangely enjoyable exercise as our approach to setting out the rules for our employees often goes to the very heart of our relationship with them. I would like to share some thoughts on why I believe it is time to ditch our current employee handbooks and try something new.
The 5 reasons to ditch the Employee Handbook (or digital equivalent)
Think of that feeling you get when you open the wardrobe door in your hotel room to find the coat hangers are the kind that stop you stealing them but are impossible to actually hang your clothes on. Our employee handbooks are like this. One of our employees does something wrong once (the equivalent of stealing a coat hanger) and there’s pressure on HR to create a rule so that no-one can do that wrong thing again, ever. The sad truth is that creating a working environment based around the lowest common denominator in your company is not going to create a great place to work – you’ll be frustrating the 99% (who have no intention of stealing a poxy coat hanger) to protect yourself against the 1%.
Your employee handbook is one of the first pieces of communication your employees will get from you. After all of the marketing effort and expense to convince them you offer a fantastic place to work, where innovation and empowerment is encouraged, your handbook arrives and immediately shows them otherwise. Countless pages of small print and legal jargon tell them all of the things they are not allowed to do for fear of disciplinary action. Branding experts tell us that it is these “moments of truth” that shape our perception and the impression we are creating is not terribly appealing at precisely the moment when we want them to feel excited and confident.
I was working with a company recently who employed nurses who worked with vulnerable adults. They were worrying about how to make sure the nurses did the right thing by the patient, especially at night when they were largely unsupervised. The reality had dawned on them if they had a nurse who wanted to behave badly, then there was very little they could do, despite the myriad of rules they had in place. Of course good training mattered and clear guidelines and checks and balances – but the rules themselves couldn’t protect the patient or the company. Only employees with the right values and good judgement could do that. I was struck when I worked in the rail sector by the sheer number of safety rules and procedures that had been added incrementally over time. Ironically, as the volumes of rules were so confusing and occasionally contradictory, it actually meant the rules tended to be ignored, thereby making it less safe. Given that less than 1% of us actually read our employment rules anyway, we are potentially fooling ourselves that they are protecting the organisation.
A VUCA world, a disrupted world, the pace of change – all present the danger that the rules that may have been written at a time of greater certainty begin to lose their relevance. We know that command and control is becoming increasingly less effective as a leadership style but we rarely apply this to our employee handbook. There is a real risk that we are diluting key attributes that we need in this new world – the ability for people to take responsibility for their decisions and make sound judgements. Maybe we could learn something from the experiment in the Dutch town of Makkinga where they removed the traffic signals. The premise of the experiment was that 70% of traffic signs are ignored by drivers anyway but perhaps more importantly, the glut of prohibitions was treating the driver like a child and prevented them for thinking for themselves. The result of the experiment? The number of accidents declined dramatically as drivers began using their judgement more. This adult to adult philosophy is behind the Netflix expenses policy (“Do the right thing by Netflix”) which has also led to reduced expense claims at the company. These judgement based approaches should be celebrated. They are brave and they won’t stop the rogue employee who wants to do bad things but they do foster the kind of employees we need for the future.
Of course one unintended consequence of all of these rules is that HR often end up having to police them, once again ensuring managers are either disempowered or are able to delegate their responsibilities. I once refused to create a set of rules for managers to administer a small bonus pot to reward discretionary effort. Their reactions said a great deal about them as leaders. There were many who rejoiced at the fact that they could take decisions outside of the usual HR constraints. Equally there were those who were unhappy that they might have to explain their choices to their people without being able to blame HR. There was even one guy who wrote his own rules so that he could happily absolve himself of any responsibility! The reputation of HR could be enhanced if we freed ourselves from the role of Rule Cop – not to mention the head space it would free up to do the things that actually matter.So, what could a handbook look and feel like?
I am not an anarchist – I do believe that some framework to operate within is usually helpful and occasionally vital. So, some form of rulebook should be made available. How can HR professionals provide some useful guidance without frustrating or boring our employees? Here are three suggestions:
If you answer “yes” to the question “does this rule exist because we don’t trust some of our people to do it properly”, chances are you will be frustrating large numbers of really great people to try and stop a few rogues. Maybe it’s time to tackle the people you don’t trust and get rid of the rule?
Could you replace long winded policies which try to cover every eventuality with a simple statement that encourages employees to use their judgement? One of my favourites that I came across in a manufacturing firm recently was a dress code that simply said “If you look in the mirror in the morning and have to ask yourself the question “can I get away with this at work?” – you should probably get changed”!
If you ask your employees “what do you wish you’d known when you started here?” chances are you will get to something very different and much more useful than if your starting point is “what do we think they should know?” You will also get something written in human language and more enjoyable to read than if it’s delegated to the lawyers to draft.
I would love to hear of any approaches you have taken in your organisations to move away from prescriptive and often infantilising rule books and policies. Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org
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The plans we are making now for a post-Covid world offer a genuine opportunity to re-shape our businesses and the lives of our people but we have to re-shape our thinking as well as giving up the lease on our office.
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