Policies don’t Fix Anything

Policies don’t Fix Anything 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

One reason I was always an outlier when I worked in HR is that I have a healthy disdain for policies.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that necessity of some policies.  I’m not completely anti-policy. But I am anti-unnecessary policies.

Here’s the problem with policies. We have this misguided notion that policies somehow change human behavior.

Here’s how far too many policies come into existence.

  1. An employee does something stupid or careless.
  2. Manager and/or HR know it’s stupid or careless but aren’t sure how to handle it.
  3. Manager and/or HR goes to the policy manual to see if there’s a policy that tells them how to handle the situation.
  4. If there’s no policy, it’s suggested that one should be created.
  5. Meanwhile, the employee coasts along not knowing they’ve done anything wrong, likely to do the same thing again in the future.

Our policy manuals are full of misguided policies created based on the hope that they would change employee behavior.

How is that working for you?

Here’s the reality, policies don’t fix anything.

People know there’s a policy about showing up on time and they still come late.

People know that they are expected to perform at expected levels and yet you still have low performers.

People know they aren’t supposed to use their personal devices at work and yet they still do every chance they get.

If you want to change behavior, skip the policy and work with the person whose behavior needs to change.

Instead of more policies, try this.

  • Real-time feedback. If someone is doing something stupid or careless (or in any other way unacceptable), pull them aside and tell them.  Tell them what they did, why it’s unacceptable and jointly discuss some better choices for future behavior. Sometimes the employee is clueless and simply telling them can change the behavior. If you were doing something wrong and your manager saw it, wouldn’t you want to know as soon as possible? Then why not do that for your people?
  • Plain talk. I’ll never forget the day early in my career when my manager sat me down and said to me, “You are being really stupid. You have an opportunity to move up here and you are blowing it.” He laid the unvarnished reality out for me in those two sentences and he was right. And he didn’t sugar coat it. It got my attention and I decided to change my behavior. To be clear, I don’t recommend calling employees stupid with regularity (in this case, it was warranted), but I do recommend using straight talk that the employee can easily understand.
  • Clear and Consistent Consequences. Policies themselves don’t change behaviors, but consequences do. If the policy says showing up on time is required but my boss never addresses it when I’m late, the policy is meaningless to change my behavior. Consequences don’t have to be simply punitive, though. Take performance for example. It should be very clear to employees the real positive (rewards and recognition) and negative (loss of opportunity) consequences of performance. That empowers them to choose their own path. This also makes addressing issues much easier.

Next time some suggests writing a new policy, step back and ask yourself what you are really trying to accomplish. If your goal is to change employee behavior, step away from the policy manual and find another way.

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