#Nextchat: Should You Trash Your Policy Manual?


Policies in the workplace: You can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.

Or can you?

Some say employment policies are essential for establishing expectations and avoiding litigation. Others think that policies are rules created by people who don’t know how to manage performance.

Employment attorney Heather Bussing falls into the latter camp. 

In her blog post Why Policies Don’t Work, Bussing says, “There are two main reasons to have employment policies: to educate and to manage risk. The trouble is that policies don’t do either.” 

In Trash Your Policy Manual, she takes it a step further and contends that “Policies are not a good way to manage. Policies don’t fix performance, attendance, or behavior issues. Rules don’t stop people from doing things. Especially stupid things. Especially things to get around the rules.”

In her argument for getting rid of policies, she writes:

“Most employment policies are issued in a large manual on your first day of work, along with a bunch of other forms to sign and return. The manual gets dumped in a drawer while the IT person is waiting to hook you up to the network. You mean to pull it out and read it, but you don’t. That’s because if you really want to know how things work, you go ask someone in the break room. The other reason policies don’t educate is because they are written by lawyers who can’t even tell you how to find the bathroom. Lawyers don’t know how things really work, or even how and when the policies get applied. They are there to come up with language that works with statutes and cases and that is designed to show to a jury if someone sues.”

Bussing goes on to say that “Policies increase risk more than decrease risk. Lawyers write policies to protect companies from liability. The main ones are EEO [equal employment opportunity] statements, at-will, disciplinary, and leave/holiday policies. Depending on the company, you often see nondisclosure/confidentiality, health/safety/workers comp., and various flavors of code of conduct. Unless it is required to be on a poster, or unless you can apply it in every instance without variance, you don’t want policies. Your at-will policy covers it. And if you don’t follow your policies to the letter, you will look like a liar in a courtroom.”

But you can’t treat people differently, that’s discrimination! 

Bussing disagrees and says, “No, it isn’t. Companies treat different people differently all the time. Your paycheck is not the same as your colleagues’. You don’t take the exact same vacation and sick days as everyone else in the company. You don’t do the same work as other people in the company. The idea that you would treat everyone the same is ridiculous. And it’s not true.

Discrimination is an adverse employment decision based on a protected factor. It is a narrow band of protected/prohibited conduct. You can treat people differently all night and day and never discriminate.”

So how would an organization function without policies?

“If you get rid of policies,” says Bussing, “you will have to take responsibility for your decisions. Somebody has to say, ‘I looked at the situation and made the best call for the employee and the company based on the circumstances.’ It may be the line manager, or the VP of HR, or the CEO. And that is the right thing to do.

Fire people who don’t work out for the reasons it’s not working out. Reward people who are doing a great job. If you give someone the responsibility to do something, give them the authority to actually get it done. Encourage communication. Concede. Better yet, embrace the fact that there are many ways to do it right. Allow for the fact that people screw up. And sometimes those screw-ups are called innovation.”

Which of your policies does that?

Please join @shrmnextchat at 3 p.m. ET on June 7 for #Nextchat with special guest Heather Bussing. We’ll chat about the pros and cons of employment policies and whether or not organizations would do better to learn to manage without them. 


Q1. What are the pros of employment policies?

Q2. What are the cons of employment policies?

Q3. Which employment policies are the most difficult to administer fairly and cause more angst than they’re worth?

Q4. Do you think that employment policies can help fix management problems? Why or why not?

Q5. Is it always discrimination if you don’t always treat employees the same? Why or why not? 

Q6. What are the pitfalls of progressive discipline policies, and what can you do instead to fix performance? 

Q7. Which policies do you wish you could remove from your organization’s handbook—or modify—and why?

Q8. Write a “new and improved” 140-character policy for any of these:

1) At-will employment

2) Paid time off

3) Social media use

4) Protecting confidential information


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