THE BLOG
07/16/2015 09:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are You Ready for Summer... Policies?

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Ah, summer. Are you ready for picnics, warm weather and a slower pace?

And have you read the new dress code policy from Human Resources?

"Now that summer weather is upon us, we'd like to take this opportunity to remind you of our summer dress code. Please be advised that the following are not allowed in the office: tank tops, sundresses, shorts, flip-flops, exercise clothes..."

So begins the "seasonal update to the dress code policy" that the HR department of a global tax and audit firm recently emailed to all employees.

Mired in a culture of bureaucracy and grounded in negative assumptions about people, leaders create policies like this every day that destroy workplace trust and demean capable adults.

Mary Barra, the CEO and 37-year company veteran of General Motors summed it up this way, "I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can't trust you to dress appropriately?"

She reduced a 10-page treatise on clothing to two words: "Dress appropriately."

Another common policy offense is bereavement leave that is specific and limited. Often called "grieve, get over it, and get back to work" by HR insiders, many companies will specify that employees may grieve for a spouse or parent -- for a limited time of 2 or 3 days -- but not for a best friend or an uncle. Making matters worse, it's not uncommon for companies with hourly employees to require a death certificate as proof before granting employee leave.

Are All Policies Bad?

With examples like these, you might be tempted to think that all policies are objectionable. However, policies can provide clarity and explain common workplace questions such as how benefits are provided. Good policies can add necessary structure to an organization - especially helpful when the organization is growing or undergoing major change. Many policies are required by law, such as workplace safety or overtime regulations.

The best policies communicate the organization's values and high expectations for its team members.

Knight Transportation's newly released employee policies do just that. Driven by the conviction that policies should reflect their core beliefs about people, the company reduced a lengthy employee handbook filled with traditional policy language down to fewer than 20 pages. "Simply stated, we believe that the vast majority of our team members have integrity and are capable of directing their own behavior," said President and CEO Dave Jackson. "Our policies and procedures communicate our positive assumptions about Knight employees."

Not All Policies Are Created Equal

Policies are not neutral by nature. If they are not working for you to create a positive culture that reflects your positive assumptions about people, they're working against you.

Policies should motivate and empower team members at every level of the organization to do their best work. When these type of policies are implemented, you're in position to create the ultimate win/win:

  • Employees: Policies based on positive assumptions empower employees by expecting the very best from them, not directing their every move. They convey high expectations (as opposed to outlining prohibited behavior) and the language is always adult-to-adult in tone. Think of the freedom and the opportunities for achievement and personal growth this type of policy provides to employees.
  • Leaders: In a high-performance environment, policies are simply guidelines that empower leaders to think, interpret and use their own judgment. This is an enormous contrast from the traditional Human Resources matrix where "employee offence" in one column is matched to "prescribed punishment" in another. Imagine the challenge, opportunities for advancement and the results the leader in this company is able to achieve.
  • Owners and shareholders: High-performance policies secure a company's reputation in the community as employer of choice because employees love going to work there. As employees are entrusted with more and more, they act accordingly, creating an upward cycle of greater innovation and higher profits.

What About Precedent?

A misplaced focus on risk mitigation has caused leaders to ruminate endlessly on the question of precedent: "If I allow Mike in Production to take four days off to mourn for his aunt, what about Sharon in Quality?" You'll often hear these types of conversations in the managers' break room.

But leaders who worry about precedent are crippled by the notion that all employees must be treated equally or "the same" to achieve consistency -- which they equate with legal high ground when adjudicating discrimination claims.

In stark contrast, innovative companies and their leaders are consistently focused on fairness. If an employee does something that's not in the best interest of the company or fellow employees, a consistent process that makes the positive assumption that a responsible adult will want to resolve the problem and treats people with respect is followed.

Recognize that, because all people are different and all circumstances are different, the outcomes may be different. You'll know you're using good judgment if you can explain to any reasonable adult why there was a difference in the ways different situations were handled. Your employees will meet your expectations when you give them the power to do so. Rigid HR policies that don't allow for special considerations restrict their freedom to excel and will produce resentment, especially among high performers.

To retain your best talent, just replace your notions of precedent with this empowering mantra: Do the right thing, no matter the circumstance.

Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Consulting, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. She's driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members. Connect with Sue on Twitter.