Rethink your employee handbook

As many of you know, after years of building brands for external audiences, I have now turned my attention to what happens inside companies. To re-engineer company cultures so that employees are able to help to deliver the brand

So I’m learning more every day about the world of HR management in Africa. And as that is all about people, I had hoped that it would be a vibrant world. Colourful, human, and packed with emotional engagement.  Sad to say, that has not been my experience to date. Human Resource professionals usually fall into two groups. Those who are administrators, and those who are people developers. Ideally to rise in the profession and indeed to escape its career limitations, HR stars need to have both sets of attributes. And many of them do. But my observation is that few of them are given the chance to use both halves of their brain in their daily work.

Africa’s top management teams place an over-riding emphasis on tasking their HR professionals to sort out the administration of HR. This usually means:

  • Creating job descriptions – a never-ending story full of reminders, revisions and recriminations.
  • Developing performance review processes – a similar circle of disappointment.
  • Firing people – and trying to repair the morale damage after the event.
  • Hiring people – trying to re-staff using a range of imperfect instruments such as the job description (see above), the newspaper ad or digital equivalent, and the recruitment consultant.

If the boss demands all of this, then one cannot blame the HR Manager for only having time to create a lacklustre training programme. Or to limit the personal development effort to the more senior people in the organisation.

Competitive company cultures are not built on HR administration. And at the heart of the administrative process lies a document longer than War & Peace, less human than Mein Kampf, and less well read than a Holy Bible in modern Raqqa.HR Managers call it the Employee Handbook. Here are 4 good reasons to throw it out, and challenge our HR professionals to produce something better:

First impressions really count. The employee handbook may be one of the first pieces of communication your employees will get from you. After all of the effort and expense of recruitment (intended to convince them that you offer a fantastic workplace where innovation and empowerment is encouraged) your handbook arrives and shows them otherwise. Countless pages of small print and legal jargon tell them all the things they are not allowed to do for fear of disciplinary action. If they are really unlucky, they will also have to wade through pages of mind-numbing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s). Such procedures are vital when your job involves arming and launching a nuclear missile. However if you are expected to turn out a decent cheese omelette at a breakfast buffet you might appreciate less direction and proscription.

Rules won’t keep you safe. Ask the guys at Enron or Arthur Andersen. Rules themselves couldn’t protect the company or its shareholders from damage. Only employees with the right values and good judgement could do that. Years ago I worked in the railway sector (about to assume renewed importance in East Africa) and I was struck by the sheer number of safety rules and procedures that had been added incrementally over time. Ironically, as the volumes of rules were so confusing and occasionally contradictory, it actually meant they tended to be ignored, thereby making rail travel less safe.

More rules mean less judgement. We live in a disrupted world, where the pace of change quickly renders many of the rules we write today invalid tomorrow. There is now a real risk that we are proscribing the very attributes that we need in our employees – the ability to take responsibility for decisions and to make sound judgements. This adult-to-adult philosophy is behind the Netflix expenses policy (“Do the right thing by Netflix”) that has led to reduced expense claims in the company. These judgement-based approaches won’t work everywhere. But where they do, they should be celebrated. They are brave. They won’t stop the rogue employee, but they will foster the kind of employees we need for the future.

Rules only address the lowest common denominator. Think of the feeling you get when you open the wardrobe door in your hotel to find that the coat hangers are the kind that stop you stealing them but are actually more difficult hang your clothes on. Many employee handbooks are like this. One employee does something wrong once (the equivalent of stealing a coat hanger) and there’s pressure on HR to create a rule to prevent it happening again in the future. The truth is that creating a working environment based around the lowest common denominator in your company is not going to create a great place to work. You’ll be frustrating the 99% who have no intention of stealing a coat hanger.

One unintended consequence of all of these rules is that HR often ends up having to police them. I think the reputation of HR could be enhanced if we freed them from the role of Rule Cop – not to mention the time it would free up to do the things that actually matter.

I’m grateful to Lucy Adams of Disruptive HR for inspiring this column. Next week we’ll look at what could replace the Employee Handbook – forever.

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