By Angela Finlay, Chief Human Capital Strategist, Windward Human Capital Management LLC
Before I begin, I want to set the record straight. I do not believe that corporate policies are going away, particularly around necessary business requirements like anti-harassment and discrimination, code of conduct and legal requirements. What I do believe will be ending are the amounts of overly abundant corporate policies that structure everything that managers do in organizations. Why are we “policying” leadership? Structure is a necessity of corporations; having worked in both large global and more agile smaller organizations, I know that we need some structure to manage the chaos. But, have we gone too far in setting policies that we now allow our leaders to relinquish their real responsibilities and make it “corporate mandate” on how they do things? How we approve a time off request has a specific policy with step-by-step instructions for leaders to follow. Performance discussions have very defined processes, with steps broken down, to basically hold our leaders’ hands in giving feedback. At what point do we need to pull back from policies and start to give leaders “guidelines” instead of creating policies to keep them aligned?
Company policies evolved because they were necessary. We need them to communicate our expectations, ensure that we are complying with legal requirements, provide transparency in how things are done, and ensure consistent treatment throughout organizations. This has not changed. However, somewhere over the past decades, organizations have felt the necessity to create policies to essentially take over management responsibilities. Even now, as we think about the future of work, I keep getting requests from companies about the creation of “policies” on how leaders should manage remote or hybrid teams. Let’s stop “policying” everything. Is it finally the time to step back and decide what is really a policy and what should be a loose guideline that requires our leaders to step up into their role?
What Should be a Policy? The Checklist
Policies communicate company values and objectives. They provide a pathway for decision-making and lay out measurement for evaluation of success. Unlike guidelines, policies are enforceable and mandatory. They usually have some sort of consequence if not followed.
It is important that we clarify the difference between policies and guidelines. Policies are non-negotiable. Guidelines are just that – the opportunity to provide employees with some guard rails but, how you proceed and the steps that you take, are not critical at the end of the day. Too often, companies rely on policies for everything. The reality is, though, we do not need that many policies. We need to think back to what a policy really is and start to differentiate better in our approach. Policies are formalized statements that apply to a specific area or task. So, what warrants a policy?
• Values and ethical expectations
• Employee-employer relationship expectations (confidentiality, anti-harassment/DEIA, no retaliation, health & welfare plans and procedures, etc.)
• Termination procedures
• Safety expectations
• Technology and resource use policies
• Tactical procedures and policies (how the work gets done)
What Should be a Guideline? The Checklist
Guidelines are general guardrails to provide a framework for leaders. While the expectations of work to be done may be required, the actual steps to be taken should have flexibility for the leader to lead most effectively.
• Management of employee performance
• Development of employees
• Day-to-day management of employees, such as hybrid/remote work, time off, etc.
Leadership responsibilities, such as managing the day-to-day responsibilities and work, should be managed by leaders. Yes, we know that we need guidelines for some accountability and consistency. However, we need to entrust our leaders with managing their staff. I know that some leaders are problematic, but let’s weed those ones out, and empower our real leaders to manage the performance and responsibilities for their teams.
As organizations, the next time that we are discussing the creation of a policy, we should take the opportunity to step back and really assess if this is necessary. Perhaps we will find ourselves creating guidelines for leaders that allow them to take ownership in the management role with just a little support to guide their way.
Angela Finlay is Chief Human Capital Strategist at Windward Human Capital Management LLC. Windward HCM builds sustainable, value drive human capital functions that are aligned directly with driving business performance and company strategic initiatives. We believe that your people programs should be realistic, simplified, data-driven and targeted to your organization. We build transformative programs to meet your people needs for today and in the future. Angela Finlay was a former CHRO/Head of HR at organizations ranging from Global Fortune 150 to small, start-up companies. She is currently a lecturer/adjunct professor teaching Leadership, Strategy & Human Capital Management at Columbia University’s Master’s in Human Capital Management program and Yeshiva University’s Executive MBA Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.