HR Policies: A Golden Opportunity to Reinforce Culture

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A former colleague who is now an HR executive for a new technology venture recently contacted me to find out if I would be willing to help her draft her policy manual. I responded with a laugh and a resounding, “Absolutely.” She sighed, and said, “Really, I almost hated to ask because I thought the last thing you would want to do was write policies!”

There’s a very good reason why I’m happy to write policy manuals: very few things can damage your culture and the level of trust between managers and employees than badly-written policies. This is one of the reasons we insist on the integration of HR and OD. If you’re trying to build a culture of trust, empowerment and engagement, you’re sending a mixed message if your policies contain the message, “We don’t trust you.”

For most organizations, policies are a headache. People generally don’t like policies, and in some organizations, policies are little more than a CYA mechanism in case trouble arises. Often written in boring, legalistic language that can only be interpreted by attorneys, employees often sign the annual “Yes, I have read and understood the guidebook” statement without really reading the guidebook. Managers often spend tremendous energy trying to figure out ways to work around the policies rather than collaborating with HR to find workable solutions that satisfy the policy requirements.

These are all symptoms of a bigger problem. If your managers don’t follow your policies, those policies will provide little in the way of legal protection. If your employees can’t understand your policies, there’s very little chance that they will accept responsibility for the behavior encouraged by those policies, thus making it more difficult for managers and HR professionals to successfully deal with employee relations problems.

This is why the worst thing you can do is approach policy development purely from a compliance standpoint. Yes, you must obey the law, but you must also obey the values of your culture to give your policies credibility. When your policies are woven into the consciousness of your culture, they become an extension of the values of your organization, the guideposts for everyone to use as they navigate through the work day. Policies should not be drafted on the old rules-obedience model, but viewed as a golden opportunity to reinforce important cultural values.

So how do you take policies from a collection of admonishing, “Thou shall not” statements to more of the “golden rules” of expected behaviors? Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Change your perspective toward policies. Realize that the policies you adopt should be the expression of important values that the organization believes should guide behaviors. For example, an Equal Employment Opportunity or Diversity policy can be an affirmation of the company’s value of respect and fairness rather than just cut-and-paste legal filler.
  • Choose your policies wisely. Of course, every organization needs a core set of policies that reflects proper governance of the business. But you don’t need policies for everything. Focus on policies that address situations that are common to your industry and workplace. Stick to the things that are important. Ask yourself a couple of questions, “Why do we want this policy? What is the core value that we are trying to support through this policy?”
  • Policies should be written in clear simple language that anyone can understand and in such a way that people understand their choices and the consequences of those choices. When managers have options on how they can implement a policy, make those options clear; if the only option is to obey, link that obedience to one of your fundamental values.
  • Don’t draft policies inside the walls of HR. Consult with managers and employees when you develop and vet your policies to see if they are clear, understandable and helpful. Note that this is not a call for consensus decision-making; the final decisions on policies rest with the executive team and HR, with obviously significant influence from legal counsel. That said, you can gain more support for your policies if you allow people to have a say in developing them.
  • Finally, don’t confuse policies with processes. Policies express positions, values and general guidelines; processes focus on how-to’s. How-to’s change much more often than positions and values, so the general rule is to keep them out of your policy manual to give yourself operational flexibility and reduce clutter.

As with all HR activities, value comes from how the activity supports the business strategy and the culture. If you design your policies with that in mind, you’ll create policies that are relevant, meaningful and helpful . . . and policies that people will actually read and support.

Photo Credit: © Sergeitelegin | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos