HR and Made-up Rules

Here is the rule for making a sandwich with Swiss cheese: There is a two-slice minimum. The second slice must be rotated into such a position that there is no exposed gap from a hole beneath it in another layer. To do otherwise would degrade the flavor experience of enjoying the taste of Swiss cheese with every bite and adversely impact the quality of the sandwich-eating experience.

Ridiculous? I have written before about my low threshold of tolerance for made-up rules. Lately, following several Twitter chats, blogs and live conversations, I have renewed my campaign to once again elevate everyone’s consciousness to this blight on productivity. If you believe everything someone tells you is a law or a rule, stop reading now. If you are rigid in your thinking about things because you have “always done it that way” then this is not for you. I may not have all the answers, but I do have several questions that need thoughtful consideration.

Social Media at Work – I am amazed at the number of companies who still block access to social media sites on company networks. The made-up rules for banning social media are justifiable on the surface because employees are paid to work, not to harvest their crops on Farmville. Here’s a novel idea: Why not have a viable social media policy which not only allows employees to have access but encourages them to spread the company brand and engage with potential employees? Employee referral programs are a key source for recruiting new talent. Providing the tools to everyone for making a sourcing outreach makes sense. Expanding the brand by training employees to use the tools rather than prohibiting them will also give rise to new creative ideas and innovation. Yes, people outside of HR have ideas too, you know.

Absenteeism – I recently read a study about the high cost of absenteeism in companies. On the surface, it appears damning until you realize that the company pushing the study is a vendor of time and attendance software…rather self serving, don’t you think? And, it isn’t clear that the costs would be any different by abandoning made-up rules about sick time. Somewhere in space an alien culture is looking down on planet Earth, scratching their heads and laughing their butts off (assuming they have butts) at this primitive culture that thinks they can legislate when people can get sick and how long it will last. The more progressive companies today have adopted a Paid Time Off policy (PTO) which rolls all the sick time, personal time and vacation time into one lump of allotted time off to be used as needed.

Job Specifications for Recruiting – Is a bachelor’s degree required for administrative assistants? Does that accounting position require a CPA to perform the duties of the job? There are circumstances where bona fide occupational qualifications would include such things, but how many existing qualifications are not BFOQ and are simply arbitrary. A friend of mine, a brilliant scientist and the person you would want to be leading the lab doing cancer research, found that his career at a major pharmaceutical company was at a dead-end because he did not have a PhD. In most cases, the training required to perform this work would indeed require the education and graduate work expected of a PhD, but isn’t it a bit arbitrary to ignore legitimacy for letters? Some rules are there for a good reason, but others should be challenged to lead us to excellence.

Telecommuting and Virtual Offices – There is reluctance on the part of some companies to endorse the concept of working offsite. Granted, there is no substitute for eyeball-to-eyeball contact coupled with a handshake to make work happen. There are also synergistic effects of having people collaborate in person. However, with technology as it has evolved today it is possible to arm the soldiers of industry with weapons of mass instruction that not only expands their reach but also solves some of that previously mentioned absenteeism problem. Today it is possible for entire companies to operate virtually without the brick and mortar backdrop. The cost of technology to operate virtually can be offset by increases in productivity.

The list doesn’t end here, but these are enough to point out that there is a common thread running through the arbitrariness of made-up rules. Perceived problems are first attacked by a list of “Thou shalt nots” assuming that employees are not trustworthy and incapable of self-discipline. The knee jerk reaction is that the employee is to blame when the real problem is management. If a manager is in touch with the lives of his employees, he will manage performance and not time worked. If there is a rotten apple in the bunch who would be seduced by the time suck of social media, that situation needs corrective action or a new employee. Perhaps in our leadership training we could include a course on challenging managers to challenge their workers to improve rather than belittle them with rules. Treating employees as adults will encourage professionalism.

The worst part of made-up rules is that they are still rules until somebody changes them. Their arbitrary nature encourages inconsistent application of discipline. The key test is the “best employee” test: What would be the outcome if the best employee broke the rule? There will always be the need for policies and procedures to define the workplace. Standards need to be established to define and measure performance. When policy is ambiguous, arbitrary, unspecific or unenforceable, it needs to be changed and managers need to actually manage.