Spotting Ineffective Policies


Early in my managerial career, before moving into HR, I had an employee (we will call them Pat), who was a challenge…

  • Often late for work, but never by more than 15 minutes.  This was in a salaried non-exempt position, so we could work around it without too much trouble.
  • Missed a lot of days, but not so many that you start to really wonder what is happening, and always with a reasonable explanation.
  • Not a great performer, but not so bad that I would consider them incompetent.
  • Not a team player, but not openly hostile toward anyone.

This was the case for about six months.  As time passed, the behaviors became more pronounced.  I knew even then that there was an engagement issue, which was odd because the team worked really well together.  So I tried to figure out what was going on, and where we had gotten off track.

My biggest frustration, though, came from my HR partner.  When the absence rate started to climb, I looked to them for help and guidance.  Our attendance policy was, to say the least, non-specific.  Something along the lines of “reasonable absences.”  I was told this was on purpose, so as a manager I could be flexible.  Instead, I was left drifting without much help.  I was told to “document everything,” and we would address the issues in the near future.  (And we wonder why some managers question the value of HR.)

Fast forward a couple of months.  I was on the road, and heard from one of my team that there was an odd charge on our shipping account.  As it turns out, Pat had sent a personal package to a relative for Mother’s Day.  And charged the company.  I think the total cost was around $10.  Bad judgement, but not a big deal, right?  So, because this was an employee with whom we were having performance issues, and not wanting to overreact, I returned to my HR partner for guidance.

They fired Pat for theft.  That day.  While I was on the road.  And I was left in the unenviable positions of sitting on a conference call while it happened and looking like a complete tool, even though I had argued against the action.

Policy issue #1:  Too vague

The first policy issue was the attendance piece.  The whole point of having an attendance policy is to have a documented process for addressing an attendance issue!

Instead, I as a manager was left to address an issue when there was no defined guideline, discipline policy or outlined plan to deal with problems.  That’s not what a manager needs from HR.  That’s not what any of us need from a policy.  If you are going to write a policy, take the time to put enough meat behind it to be useful.  Otherwise you are just wasting paper.

Policy issue #2:  Too prescriptive

On the other side was the termination.  A $10 shipping charge?  Poor judgement, yes.  Termination worthy?  Tough to say.  For an employee with some performance issues, but nothing that spoke of dishonesty?  And a manager who doesn’t support the action?  That’s a stretch to me.

Part of living with policies is knowing when to be flexible.  As a manager and/or and HR professional, you have to know when to apply your best judgement to the situation.  You can’t always fall back on the policy manual to make decisions for you and still be fair.  You’re dealing with people.  Be a person in response.

 Striking a balance

So how do you exist in the space between?  Here are a few ideas to make your policies more effective…

  • Avoid policies you can live without.  You don’t need a 500 page policy handbook.  No one will read it, and those who do won’t be able to find anything.  Put in the important stuff, the bits that keep you out of jail, and leave out the things that are meant to replace actual management.  I’m looking at you, Dress Code.
  • If you are going to include a policy, it must be important, so be bold.  Outline what is OK, what is not, and what the response will be based on behavior.  Put some meat behind it so your managers are not left twisting in the wind.
  • Be ready to override your policies when it is appropriate.  Yes, this gets sticky.  Yes, it can make life difficult.  Yes, it means you will have to sit and talk about employees.  Sorry.  That’s what HR is for.  The “H” stands for “HUMAN.”  That’s important.

Not terribly difficult, right?  You can handle it.  Be there for your manager.  Be there for your employee.  But most of all, don’t duck tough converstations with bad policies.

You’re better than that.

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