Precedent. It’s not a dirty word.

Five years or so ago, I wrote about the word ‘precedent’. I suggested that it should be banned. I called it a cop out.  The poorest of HR (and manager) excuses for not trying something new, doing something different.

I have changed my position. A little at least.

Someone said it to me recently, in the context of flexible working (of course). The concern around setting a precedent is cited often by their management teams as a reason to say no.

I’d like to approach precedent differently.

Let’s see it as an awesome opportunity.

A Father wants to take discontinuous Shared Parental Leave? Let’s set a precedent by saying yes.

An employee wants to work compressed hours but we haven’t allowed that before?

Someone else wants time off work to attend the development programme of their choice?

Another wants to take a career break?

Let’s set a new, positive precedent.

If there is a risk that a precedent will be set and others might ask for the same, this might just mean that this is because they can see the benefit to them and their lives too. Demand is telling us something about what employees want and value – and in turn what they will join your organisation for, and stay there for too.

Saying yes to new ways of working may well encourage others. But change, challenge, innovation – these are things to welcome, not things to fear.

What is the real impact of ‘setting a precedent’ by saying yes? A few more requests for something or other.  A little bit of management time to assess them.  A meeting to communicate the decision.

When it comes to saying yes to something new, nowhere in the HR handbook does it say that we are then required to say yes to everyone, everything else, that we are ever asked in the future. The workplace isn’t a court of law, bound by the decisions that went before.  We just have to explain that to people.

It’s not rocket science.


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