My mother had a set of unwritten rules which my sister and I learned to respect and never question. One such rule was not to slam the screen door. “Tommy, you go outside and come back in again without slamming the door this time!” There was no defense. It made no difference that my father had installed a spring powerful enough to launch that door into space. The ultimate control over the slamming door was the
responsibility of the last child to enter. Obviously the rule was intended to teach us discipline and respect, but the punishment to re-enter the house quietly was actually quite funny to us kids. I wonder if Mom ever knew that sometimes we would slam the door just to piss her off.
The one lesson the screen-door-rule taught me was that some rules have very little meaning beyond a show of authority by the rule writers. Many times in my career I have found myself in the position of writing policy and procedure documents for an employer or client. Undoubtedly one of the most thankless jobs anyone can have is to create a process that keeps order without the appearance of being arbitrary. Looking around every day I see rules that are obviously created at the whim of the rule maker. Even if based on some realistic need to organize and control a process, it is difficult to portray the seriousness of the rule if it is unenforced or unenforceable.
One manufacturing plant displayed signs requiring the wearing of steel toed shoes for all persons entering a certain department. No one would argue that this is not a valid safety concern…until executives from the home office visited and wore street shoes into the restricted area. Now that employees know that the rule is arbitrary how seriously will they take this rule?
Maybe what we need is a list of rule rules.
- Don’t be a solution looking for a problem – The best way to keep from looking like an egotistical idiot is to only make rules that address actual concerns: such as health/safety, control of a critical process or to standardize policy. Codifying political practices of the organization and protocol processes make no sense and create discord when there is inconsistent or illogical application, especially if there was no perceived problem in the first place.
- Explain the reason in simple terms – If the reason for the rule is intuitive, there is no reason to go into lengthy detail about why the rule is in place. Take the “Cafeteria Closed” sign for example. Is it necessary to turn it into an eye chart explaining that “The cafeteria is closed from 10:30 AM to 11:00 AM daily for cleaning and will also close promptly at 2:00 PM to give employees time to prepare for tomorrow morning… yadda yadda yadda.”
- Eliminate redundancy which is costly and can actually subvert the rules – Before implementing a new policy, insure that there is not a parallel policy in another area that addresses the same issue in different terms. Even if not an actual conflict, there has to be consistency in application of company-wide, business unit, department and individual management team policies
- Be clear and concise – Bullet points sell. Paragraphs bore. No policy is enforceable if nobody reads it, understands it, and agrees that it is their duty to comply. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” only applies if an actual judge is making the determination.
- Avoid conflicting directions – Verify that each new policy is in line with those that have gone before. If replacing previous rules, clearly state what is different and why and how this new direction is important. The complex technological methods for posting policies andprocedures make it imperative that all copies are changed and the new ones are publicized.
- Maintain consistency with desired culture and business outcomes – The expected outcome of the rule must be determined before deciding to make it a rule. Each policy or procedure must contribute to the bottom line of the company through improved efficiencies. Failure to define cultural implications is to allow haphazard directions and inconsistent application.
- Question enforceability – If the rule is worth making in the first place there must be some consequences for non-compliance. Before making any policy absolutely unwaiverable, make very sure that it can be enforced without prejudice. Terminating one employee for violating a rule and excusing another is asking for trouble. If there is no intention of enforcing the rule, then why make bother with it in the first place?
- Remember that unwritten rules are still rules – The working environment is impacted by the undocumented results of meetings, emails exchanged between executives and personal instructions communicated verbally. Management of the unwritten process is never more apparent than in the orientation of a new employee or expanding the scope of an employee into new and unknown areas. Failure to somehow communicate these rules can create disparate treatment and loss of confidence and respect.
- Recognize the importance of defensive rules – There are “Contents May Be hot” warnings on take-out beverage cups because some companies have been sued by customers injured by scalding hot coffee. Policies that emphasize or repeat higher guidelines are not unnecessary if the company can face liability by ignoring the situation. A pharmaceutical company’s compliance with FDA regulations is a great example. Also, there are laws against discriminatory practices, however every company must publish and communicate diversity policies to insure that employees know that they are serious about enforcing the law.
- Define responsibility for compliance – Too often it is considered that it is the overall responsibility of Human Resources to police company policies. I uncategorically reject that notion! It is always management’s responsibility to determine which policies are necessary for the organization and how to communicate and handle compliance. HR is a key partner with management, should be knowledgeable in the business practices of the company and assist in integration of employee efficiencies into the bottom line.
Of course, the irony of my arbitrary rules for the creation of rules is intentional, however this is a real problem. How can we fix this situation? Not all of us are involved in creation of policy. My answer is to “Respectfully Question Authority.” Be a voice when policies are counterproductive and communicate that to management whenever possible. No, this is not a democracy where the votes of the employees decide policy, but when management refuses to listen to ideas there are much more serious problems in the organization. So what policies do you see that make no sense or need to be changed? Maybe I should prime the pump with one of my pet peeves: Employee Referral Policies: Most employee referral systems suck. The killers of these well intentioned programs are rules that are prohibitive in who can submit a referral, refusal to recognize more than one referee, and an ambiguous bureaucracy passing on the legitimacy of a referral. I personally dislike bounties on any referral, but if there is a referral bonus it should be applied equitably and for all jobs. Metrics are almost never collected to measure the worth of the program or to determine trends. In my opinion, this is a policy that should either not exist or made to be less sucky.
Now it is your turn. What policies have you seen that are either screen-door-rules or in need of improvement or should be entirely eliminated? You will be pleasantly surprised when you answer that question and find that you are not alone in your observations.