Bonfire of the Policies


We have talked before about the shortfalls of Human Resources Management. Taking its principles from a so called ‘scientific’ approach to people management, we have shown how its approach has been to superimpose arbitrary structures on top of real organisational shapes, and then focus on attacking the rogue bits that don’t fit. Finally, we are realising this, and HR policies are the first to go up in smoke.

To understand why this is changing we need to think again about HR’s instincts and most common values. For all our talk of enabling and supporting, a deep attachment to controlling, standardising and policing remains. This is why – even today – otherwise high performing practitioners will revert to policy compliance, consistency and “not wanting to set a precedent” rather than the right outcome for the individual or business. We still take enormous comfort from this approach to our work. The difference now is that we are becoming increasingly aware of that an want to move away from it.

Policies and procedures are fundamentally about consistency and compliance with an agreed approach. In recent designs it is true that we have tried to build in more discretion, more opportunity for managers to ‘do the right thing’ rather than simply ‘do things right’. Where this does happen though, it doesn’t sit comfortably. Managers flounder, practitioners panic, and a ‘sub-procedure’ or ‘managers’ guidance’ is produced to build the framework of a bridge over these tricky areas of discretion and judgement.

The truth that we are beginning to see now is that this approach is fundamentally unsuitable for how we now want to work with people in organised situations. Howver much we try and shoehorn discretion into a policy framework it doesn’t work. Policies and procedures will always contain three dangerous elements:


  •  Narrowing discussions rather than broadening them out;
  • An imbalance of power in which one side operates the policy or procedure and the other side has it done to them;
  • An implicit or explicit test that the right outcome is determined by how well the policy or procedure has been adhered to.


So what do we do instead? How do we ‘manage’ difficult people situations without these narrow lines and binary logic gates to help us on our way? I think the answer is in a deep and sophisticated use of values and value based decision making. This isn’t to endorse some new Wild West. Rather, it is to redefine the role of HR in difficult situations away from the guardians of the process, and towards a highly skilled coaching and ethical narrator role. We need HR to help managers open up rather than close down discussions and to facilitate those decision making processes. In taking this approach, managers will also get to experience the satisfaction of working through a difficult situation with expert colleagues and being able to reach a decision they are comfortable with – rather than being constrained by a generic policy or procedure. The days of painting by numbers is coming to an end.



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