HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Policies or Common Sense

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (Fall 1999), the HR Group newsletter.

There are two incidents that I always recall when thinking about the usefulness of organizational policies. The first was a presentation to approximately 2000 employees about the introduction of a corporate Quality Management program. As Director of Human Resources, I put an 11 lb, 9 inch thick binder on the podium and asked if anyone knew what it was. No one did. It was the organizational policy manual.

The second was when a client phoned us on our HR Help Line and wanted to know whether or not they could discipline an employee as they had no written policy on discipline.

We are so governed by policies, rules and regulations, especially in the public sector, that in their absence, people stop thinking for themselves and take no action even when required. The process governs instead of the desired result. Policies are all too often misused and undermine the use of practical common sense.

The Policy Manual described above, for example, had a policy in the Human Resources section that defined the hours of work. First of all, the hours of work were outdated and incorrect and secondly no one needs a policy, I trust, to know what their regular hours of work are.

Many organizations rely on policies, rules, regulations and elaborate processes and procedures to preclude any use of human discretion and to minimize the risk of human error. Policies, however, cannot by themselves prevent risk or the necessity for human discretion. Employees that are knowledgeable and empowered to use their common sense, can do far more for risk management than any number of policies.

Today’s organizations require employees that are knowledgeable, well trained and have the delegated responsibility to make informed decisions that benefit their employer. Good customer service demands that the front line salesperson or receptionist, for example, has the ability and authority to make decisions that require the use of their discretion and common sense. Not all customer questions and needs fit into the neat categories of an automated message center or the predetermined FAQs on a web site. Quality and safety, we are constantly told, is the responsibility of all employees. If that is the case, then even in an assembly line environment, the individual employee must have the delegated responsibility to shut the line down in the event of a perceived emergency or to remove a defective product or component.

Policies and the like are not a substitute for good management. All too often, for example, organizations rely on an elaborate system of performance appraisal yet practice little, if any, on going performance management. As we have pointed out in past issues, periodic appraisal is useless without on going daily attention to performance in all aspects. This reliance on the formal appraisal lets managers “off the hook”; they do not then have to provide goals and objectives, to keep employees informed or coach them when necessary. They avoid daily performance issues and save them for some future magical date when the appraisal is due. This does nothing for effective risk management.

Good management practices are good risk management. Good management means delegating responsibility to all employees to make decisions that are based on common sense and the use of a well-informed discretion. If we expect and rely on policies to guide our every action then we undermine and preclude effective management and create additional risk. Policies are useful tools to provide broad parameters for behavior, but they must be balanced with the use of effective management practices that promote and encourage well informed and responsible employees at all levels in the organization.