THE BLOG

Policies Are Evil

02/11/2013 04:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

A lawyer called me to talk about an expert witness assignment. "My client is a great company, with really wonderful people," he said. "They ran into a stretch of bad luck, and made some mistakes, and now they're looking at a big lawsuit." "Run it down," I said.

The first piece of bad luck hit a VP who told a young female employee in a room of 100 people, "When our biggest client comes to visit tomorrow, you'll be the tour guide. Wear something nice, you know, a short skirt, and put some lipstick on." The second piece of bad luck befell a different manager, who told a young Hispanic guy, "There's a promotion opportunity, but it involves face-to-face customer contact, and I'm not sure our customers will accept you." The third stroke of bad luck concerned a department Director who insisted on elaborate gag-filled office birthday celebrations, complete with black balloons and fake headstones, for anyone in his department who turned fifty. Trifecta!

"What's the story with these people?" I asked the attorney. "They're such great people, how do they keep making such bonehead moves?" "The weird thing is," said the employment lawyer, "I go out there and do a lengthy training on employment law, every year. They call me every year, like clockwork. I do the training, and people are attentive. Then they go back to work and do stuff like I'm telling you about."

"In your workshop, what do you focus on?" I asked the guy. "I walk them through employment law," he told me. "We go through the company handbook. We talk about a manager's responsibility vis-a-vis his or her employees. We cover it all. Every few months, it seems that they find another way to mishandle something that they haven't addressed in their handbook yet. After the mishap, they write a new policy, and then someone finds another way to fumble."

What's the disconnect here? These guys understand policies, or what I call Tree Bark. They can't see the forest -- the overarching idea that people need to be treated like people, and not like categories (Comely Female, Hispanic dude, or Person Fifty or Older) because their policy manual and their employment-law training don't talk about those things. You teach a person minutia, the person learns minutia. This is why I say that policies are evil, and I'm not joking.

When we construct labyrinths of rules and policies to govern behavior, we teach people to turn their brains off. I was a corporate HR VP for ages, and now I consult with employers, where this phenomenon shows up with depressing regularity. Over and over again, I hear managers say "Oh, I didn't know THAT was illegal," because no one mentioned that a specific remark or decision might be legally questionable or ethically iffy or just downright stupid. If we don't teach people to think, to put their minute-to-minute actions into context and line them up with a higher-level goal (e.g., the goal of treating people as individuals) then no learning will happen. The best we can expect in that scenario is what we get in corporate America, and tons of other places: a Whack-a-Mole scenario where antsy HR people and attorneys scramble to react to every new management blunder. People won't see the whole unless we make it the point. They'll see the bark on the trees, and nothing larger.

When we write a new policy, we're saying "We're not going to talk about this topic anymore." We write policies to avert conversation, the very thing we should be happy to have more of. Whether it's a dress code policy or an attendance policy or a policy on vendor selection, the existence of the policy makes it easy and admirable (correct!) for people to read a page rather than engage their brains. Management by policy is the opposite of leadership. It's a way of telling people to trust in authority and words on a page rather than looking into a situation to understand it. It's a way of disenfranchising people by telling them that smarter people have already made the important decisions: all your employees and managers have to do is obey.

I encourage my client organizations to nuke one policy a month, and if they're really hidebound, to make it one a week. That exercise requires them to think about and talk about which policies carry their weight and which hang around just because no one's bothered to dust off the policy manual and look at it, sometimes for years.

When I was a corporate person, we had a Quality department, and the Quality department created massive binders of forms and policies that allowed our company to get ISO certification and compete for Quality awards. What a joke -- the idea of binders full of policies somehow making an organization more Quality-minded is the worst kind of corporate inanity. The poor young man whose job it was to run from department to department, taking out pages from the never-looked-at binders and replacing them with new pages to be ignored and end up in landfills, soon got a nickname: Binder Boy. Do we really think Quality (or plain old quality) is a matter of filling binders with never-to-be-read policies and rules?

If we care about quality, and energy, and trust, we'll talk about situations that arise, and handle them in context, the way people have done in every society since the dawn of time. We'll keep written policies to a minimum, to handle things like physical safety and discrimination and sexual harassment. The rest of what we need to do, we'll do on the ground, using our excellent brains and our pluck and instinct and collective problem-solving skills. Isn't that why we hire smart people, in the first place - to figure things out on the ground?