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Principles not policies

Lucy Adams on June 22, 2021

Principles not policies


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I was reading in the news today about a guy who had just won a legal claim against unfair dismissal. He’d called in sick complaining of a bad chest infection but had been spotted out later that day, drinking and smoking in a bar. His company fired him but lost their claim that they had been right to do so because, their detailed sickness and absence policies hadn’t specifically mentioned that employees couldn’t socialise whilst off sick.

Apart from despair, what should our reaction in HR be to cases like these?

Should we immediately add in a new rule about not socialising whilst off sick? Maybe we even need to clarify what we mean by socialising? Is seeing family and friends ok, but not drinking alcohol? How far a distance from their home should they be allowed to travel? And how long could the socialising last for? Is one hour ok, but not two?

I know I’m being facetious and whilst this particular case might seem absurd and extreme, HR does have these sorts of issues cropping up with depressing regularity.

Full disclosure – I’m not an employment lawyer and my colleagues have suggested that I’m not even a proper HR person as I didn’t come up the traditional HR route of policy and process. But, it seems fairly obvious to me that more rules, more detail, more specifics are not the answer. We can’t possibly legislate for every eventuality. What’s even more important is that by trying to protect our organisations from people like this guy, we penalise the vast majority of our people, who have no intention of calling in sick and heading down the pub.

Tons of rules scream ‘we don’t trust you!’

Tons of rules speak volumes about how little we trust our people – to either behave decently or be capable of using their judgement. And this at a time when we are crying out for innovation, personal accountability and the ability to work with agility and cope with ambiguity. For all our values posters about integrity and teamwork, the pages of fine print we get employees to sign point to a very different culture.

And the biggest irony? We potentially leave our organisations more exposed to risk of damaging claims because we have so many rules – but not the precise one that caters for every scenario.

So, if the answer isn’t to provide more detail, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe this company that is right now reeling from the absurdity of their legal battle, should be thinking about how they take a step back, move away from the detail and instead work with principles, not policies.

Principles not policies

Fortunately, this is a growing trend for HR. Instead of being placed into the role of compliance officer, HR is replacing rules and policies with broad principles that use notions of reasonableness, that start from a position of trust – or assume positive intent.

Let’s look at some examples:

We’ve got social media policies that encourage employees to ‘play nice’, ‘use common sense’ and ‘if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ being used by companies such as Gap, Intel and Ford.

We’ve got dress codes that suggest you ‘Dress for your day’ being used at Legal and General.

We’ve got expenses policies that give employees the freedom to spend without pre-approval on the basis that they do so ‘within reason’ at the company Base Camp.

We’ve got Telefonica showing they trust their people to ‘work where you are most productive’ instead of the worrying post-pandemic trend of 3 days in, two days out of the office.

And we’ve got organisations like HubSpot who dispense with rule books almost entirely and encourage their people to ‘use good judgement’.

I’m not naive enough to pretend that there doesn’t need to be some kind of legalistic framework to some of our policies. Of course there does. But I do think we can revisit many of the countless rules we inflict on our people and take a different approach. So maybe the next time you’re thinking about tightening up on the detail of a policy, maybe instead just write a statement based around common sense and sound judgement and see how that goes down?

Next time we’ll look at how you help managers cope without the detailed rule book and how HR can help them to use their judgement.

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