All the policy that is fit to print

I am spending a whole lot of time at the moment writing people policy. It’s one of the main areas of focus for my interim work.

On people policies, I so often hear the same complaint:

The policy doesn’t work.

Of course sometimes this means something else. I don’t like this policy.  Enforcing this policy isn’t my job. I don’t want to have this conversation.


Here is what I know about people policy:

You can write whatever you like .

You can agree approaches with your trade unions or employee forums.

You can establish a tone of voice and a format. You can make the language inclusive.

You can place responsibilities wherever you wish.

You can produce accompanying guidance notes and toolkits and flowcharts.

You can introduce all of the above with great internal communication and mandatory training.

You can consider the impact on equality and diversity.

You can follow all of the best practice.


But so what?

Documents don’t change stuff. People do.


Policies can fall down in the drafting. Documents written in the abstract, following what is the so-called best approach rather than what is right for the context. Only in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  When companies tell me that they have a problem with their policies, often isn’t the policy itself that is the problem, it is the application – and the lack of consequences.

The problem is not in the drafting but the doing.

If your absence policy says return to work interviews are compulsory but no one does them, is the policy wrong or the manager who doesn’t bother?

If probation reviews are seen as vital, but you don’t actually monitor completion and the only time they take place is when someone is underperforming, where does the fault lie?

Are there any consequences for ignoring the policy? Does anyone care?

I will always favour people doing people stuff because it is the right thing not the told to do it by HR thing. I don’t want HR to be about compliance.


Policies are targeted at employees.  What they can do and what they can’t.  Sanctions. Responsibilities. Requirements.

The question arises…..

Who manages the managers?

You can have all of the policies that are fit to print, but what matters is that documents come alive. That they make the transition from paper to real life action.

HR can listen, draft, consult, support, guide, teach.

But ultimately it’s the people manager that make this stuff happen, in the every day.  And if they are not, the response shouldn’t be to change the policy or produce more checklists, flowcharts and scripts.

Its about skills – and accountability.

Less is More

Periodically (by which I mean fairly often), I find it necessary to have a good old rant blog about policies and procedures.

Here’s the thing.  Almost every people policy I have ever seen is about twice as long as it really needs to be, and plenty of them are full of irrelevant and unhelpful content. Many fall into the same traps, adding little in the way of real value, but plenty in the way of time, and frankly, waste paper.

These are the problems with policies that I see, far too often.

Policy Trap 1                       Stating the obvious.

I once saw a policy that referred to the fact that a company would have a meeting with an employee if certain situations arose.  It then went on to define what amounted to a meeting.  Just in case anyone wasn’t entirely sure.  Or any of the people reading it were five years old.  If it is obvious, then you really don’t need to state it.

Policy Trap 2                       Trying to cover every eventuality

You can’t.  So don’t even try.  If you set guiding principles and empower your managers to act within them, then this should be sufficient.  Consider a social media policy.  If you try and mention every type of platform or activity, or try and think of every way that employees can use or misuse them and then add them to your policy, you will never keep up.  But herein lies a key problem; some people like being told what to do in every eventuality.  It saves them from having to make a decision, or gives them the opportunity to say ‘HR said’.  So amending your policies to principle led ones will force these people out of their comfort zones to learn and think for themselves.  No bad thing.

Policy Trap 3                       Keep on growing

One of the problems with people policies is that they get bigger without you even noticing.  They start off nice and concise, and then a couple of years later you take another look and they are bigger than the Yellow Pages used to be. Something occurs at your place that has never happened before (see trap 2) so it is quickly added it in to the document for next time.  Just stick to your principles.  If you can’t say it in a couple of pages, or better still a couple of paragraphs, then maybe this is telling you something about people stuff or management capability at your place.  Where I work, our Social Media Policy has seven bullet points.  It can be done.

Policy Trap 4                       Having too many.

How many policies do you really need?  I’m betting that the average HR Department has upwards of 30.  Sometimes we write policies that we just don’t need.  For example, if your approach to redundancy is to do nothing more than the statutory minimum, then you don’t need to have a policy at all.  You just follow the law as and when the situation arises.  If when it comes to discipline and grievance you follow the ACAS code, just have a statement in your contract or handbook that says so.  There are some policies that you do need.  Social media is a good example, for no more reason than you might just loose an ET without one.  But you do not need a plethora of policies so large that printing them kills an entire tree.

Policy Trap 5                       Not being flexible.

Rules are made to be broken.  By which I mean that there is a time for following a policy to the letter, and a time to know when you need to be flexible, and either make an exception for good reason, or flex your whole approach to the principle as culture and good practice evolves.  Yes, I mean you, if you are still blocking social media on your corporate website based on a decision taken in 2004.  Over reliance on policies rather than applying common sense and considered thought to a given set of circumstances will turn your people into robots.  ‘Because the policy said so’ is never a good way to start any conversation with your people.

Policy Trap 6                       Swallowing a dictionary.

Plain language is just fine.  Leave the ‘hereafters’ and ‘up to and includings’ to the legal documents.  Write like you speak.  That is all.

Policy Trap 7                       Getting people to sign them.

If there is ever a signal saying ‘we don’t trust you’ it is getting people to sign HR policies.  You might as well add onto the bottom of the document ‘this is so we can prove you read it if we want to discipline you for breaking it at some time in the future’.   First of all, this isn’t necessary from a practical point of view.  If your policies are widely available and signposted appropriately this will be sufficient in almost all cases.  From a HR perspective, chasing all over the place getting people to sign stuff and checking who has and who hasn’t, is work of naff all value and will do your reputation no favours.  Your time will better spent doing something that makes your organisation a more awesome place to work.   Last of all, and perhaps most importantly, culturally, this does all the wrong stuff.

Your people policies and procedures are more than the sum of their parts.  They are not just instructions and guidance and requirements.  They are subtle signals about your culture, windows to the organisational world.

Think carefully about every word that you write in a policy.  What does that clause, paragraph or bullet point really say beyond the simple text, and what consequences will it lead to, intended or otherwise?

And if all else fails, think of the poor trees you can save.