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The Cage that Frees: Why Good Policy Matters

By Jonathan Presson

As indicated in a previous article, a good principle for any company to maintain is, “policy is policy except when it isn’t.” The principal has been stated in this manner deliberately and for good reason. Many companies have extensive policy handbooks with vastly complicated structures, while some seem to operate with few if any policies at all. While the policy is important, it can only work if it is well-written. Though HR staff rarely write policy, they are often the best positioned of all policy implementers to encourage change. The change should never be taken flippantly and should always be implemented systematically in order to maintain a stable work environment for all involved. Whether you are a business owner writing a policy for the first time or an HR trying to decide whether or not you should suggest a policy change, there are some key principles to be considered.

The first principle is that “exceptions should be the exception, not the rule.” While there are times when policy exceptions apply, policy exceptions should be rare and seriously considered in advance. When “exceptions” become the rule, it becomes very difficult to maintain structure and morale because it becomes nearly impossible to maintain these exceptions in an equitable manner. Failure to maintain policy immediately begins to break down company efficiency by disrupting 4 of Fayol’s 14 principles of management, namely authority, discipline, order, and equity. This decays morale and leads to a decline in Fayol’s 14th principle, esprit de corps, or team spirit. There are few things harder to manage than a divided workforce and efficiency and productivity can be severely hampered by such morale-sapping divisions as well. Whenever policy exceptions become necessary, this should be taken as a sign that policy may be inadequate in that area and should likely be revised.

The second principle is that “confusing policy is poor policy.” There are many considerations to take into account whenever producing policy, but the policy should be boiled down to the most core aspects of management and should be written in clear and concise language. The longer a policy handbook is, the more difficult it will be to remember, particularly for entry-level employees. Depending on your organization, “entry-level” could mean anything from those who’ve not yet graduated high school to only those who’ve graduated grad school. This should be considered as well and policy should be written to be understood by all who may be hired, not only those who you most desire to employ. When the policy is confusing, employees may be unable to follow the policy correctly. If the policy is written with too many variables included (rather than being direct and concise) it can create a situation where an employee, who is attempting to follow policy, inadvertently fails and suffers the consequences of this failure by no fault of his or her own. This, again, destroys Fayol’s principle of equity, damages the principle of authority and discipline, and likely will result in negative gossip amongst staff, once again destroying esprit de corps. Moreover, the loss of such an employee can result in long-lasting consequences as pertain to hiring and retaining future staff.

Thirdly, “uncommunicated policy is not policy.” While this may not be true in the legal sense, it is certainly true in daily practice. A policy uncommunicated is a policy that is not policy in the mind of the employee. In fact, it is so far from policy in the employee’s mind that they have probably never even thought of it. Communication is paramount in all areas of business, not the least of which is policy, and assuming that your employees have read and understood the manual because there’s one in the breakroom is a huge mistake. While principles one and two apply mainly to policymakers (which HR may or may not be), the third principle falls firmly within the bounds of HR management. Onboarding is a key aspect of the hiring process and should not be skimmed over or ignored in order to rush an individual into a position for which they were hired. For many companies, annual retraining should also be employed and all training, from onboarding to annual retraining, should be implemented carefully and should follow four stages of competence to completion. This should include a deep dive into policy. When policy is well-known and understood, consequences and expectations are clear and the workplace becomes predictable and enjoyable. When policy is either unclear or unknown, the workplace becomes a dark and twisted path through dangerous territory. When the employee cannot predict the outcome of their actions mental fatigue, dissatisfaction, and low morale set in, leading to high turnover due to attrition.

Policy, at its best, creates predictability and stability within the workplace, which liberates employees to operate freely within their well-defined boundaries. When policy is well structured and predictably implemented, employees are freed from confusion, anxiety, and low morale and are better able to operate within their given limits with individualism and creativity.