Any company with more than 20 people most likely has something akin to an Employee Handbook or Manual. An Employee Handbook usually contains information about the company, benefits, pay cycles, contact lists, and a long list of policies. These policies include things that an employee can (but usually things an employee cannot) do. It covers topics like the maximum number of sick days, or maximum number of vacation days. It could include benefits and perks like education allowances or extra paid holidays, but there are usually accompanied with limits.
Now, there are plenty of policies that need to be written. In Ontario, for example, employers are legally required to have well-documented and publicly available harassment investigation procedures. That’s good practice, and it’s not a “limiting” policy. It outlines exactly what happens when an employee experiences harassment of any kind. These types of policies are for the benefit of employees and they need to be written.
However, there are plenty of other “company policies” that are completely voluntary and they suck the life out of a company’s high performing culture. Here’s an example:
“ABC Company values its employees and promotes learning and development. Each employee at ABC company is entitled to receive up to $2,000 towards courses and seminars that directly relate to his or her job.”
At first glance, most people think, wow, we’re getting $2,000 from the company every single year and the company wants me to learn. Well, yes, that is true. But the company is also saying that it values its employees to a limit. $2,000 worth, to be exact.
Adding to that, the course has to relate to their job. So, if it happens to be a course that just interests a person, or perhaps is for a different job that they aspire to at the same company, that won’t be allowed. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are lots of companies that include an additional clause that says, with senior manager approval, they can get anything approved. I’ve even seen whole MBA degrees being sponsored by companies.
My point here is not that companies aren’t offering their employees great things. My point is that policies are written in a way where it places limits to an employee’s ability to even ask. The average employee reading the education policy above would believe that the company won’t cover the course they want to take because it is over $2,000 or it is outside their direct job. Dealing with senior management is daunting, so most employees won’t even ask.
Policies written in that manner lead to disengagement. They lead to employees believing that they are pigeon-holed in their current job or career path. Looking even further down the line, the employee stops offering solutions, stops offering new ideas because, well, they’re just in finance and not on the investment team. Or they’re in HR, and not in sales. And when new ideas stop coming forward, with different perspectives, that is what kills morale and productivity at a company.
Here’s how I would write the company “policy” on education.
“ABC company has a long history of promoting from within and we encourage all employees to focus on continuous improvement and development. If you’re thinking about a course or seminar you would like to attend to, talk to your manager about it. We have sponsored courses and programs of all kinds, in all disciplines, and your manager will be able to explore options with you.”
This reworded policy invites an employee to talk about what’s on their mind, instead of making conclusions for them. It promotes free thought, it allows employees to bring forward ideas, even if they’re outrageous, especially if they’re outrageous. It’s those outrageous ideas that propel a company out of the middle-of-the-line mode in which most companies get stuck. Imagine the possibilities if you allowed your investment analyst to tell you exactly how the lessons from a travel course would benefit the investment team selling investments to high net worth individuals. Or how a negotiation course could help the accounting team in getting your receivables paid faster.
Don’t ask employees to complete a form to explain why they want to take the course. Give them free reign on how they present information to their manager. Allow them to exercise their minds, get them excited about taking the course. And whether they put together a great case or not, it will be a learning experience.
Managers need to be retrained on how to manage free-thinking employees. There needs to be a non-judgemental culture where managers know how to handle employees who think so far out of the box. It takes practice and it takes time. The one thing I can guarantee is that changing your policy’s language to be worded this way is never a losing proposition.
Policies should not be a list of things that employees can’t do. They should outline to everyone exactly what they can do and what they should be allowed to do. Policies should not be something that people fear HR wields around to “catch” them doing something wrong. They should be there be to show people the possibilities, to allow people to grow in their organizations.
Let’s change the way your policies are written. Let’s change the way your employees think at work. Let’s give them a chance to really shine and then see where your business goes. If you would like help rewriting your policies, we’d be happy to help.