When I first started out working out in HR, I was told that there needed to be a policy for everything. A policy for managing absences. A policy for holidays. A policy for dress code. A policy for adverse weather. I even once wrote a policy to respond to the very specific strain of swine flu that was sweeping the nation at the time.

For a long time, I kind of thought this made sense, and I did indeed, when I moved into my first standalone HR role, write a policy for everything. Unsure how to deal with a situation? Well, with a well-written policy suite, there should never be any doubt on the part of managers or employees about what to do next.

When I was a couple of years into that role, I went off on maternity leave. In between the daily grind of looking after a new baby, I started thinking. About all of those policies, and quite what their purpose really was.

Common sense and good judgement

The reason I started thinking was because in my home life, I realised, I managed quite nicely without any policies at all. I didn’t need a policy to tell me when my baby needed feeding, or changing (his frantic yells were usually clue enough); nor did my husband and I have a set of a policies to determine whose turn it was to take the bin out, or empty the dishwasher, or do the supermarket shop. (Though I can’t deny there might have been some benefits in the latter case if we had!)

I didn’t need policies, because common sense and good judgement told me what the right thing was to do. I didn’t need to be told not to wear ripped jeans and a jumper with an offensive slogan on when I went to a smart restaurant. I didn’t need to be told to be polite to the people I came into contact with. I certainly didn’t need to be told that, if I couldn’t make an arranged appointment to meet a friend, that I should phone up and that person know. I didn’t need any of that… because I am a thinking, feeling person, who is able to make the right decisions… all by myself.

Making the right decisions

Now I know that at this point, the argument might be that policies are necessary at work, because not everyone who is employed can be trusted to make those decisions in the right way.

And therein lies the issue.


The reason the vast majority of organisations have whole suites of policies… is because they don’t trust the people who work there. It gives them, they believe, the ability to keep a tight rein on behaviours, and to stamp out anything which they deem not to be strictly in line with policy. The concept that people can be trusted to make the right decisions of their own accord… is genuinely alien to many – too many – businesses out there.

The intricacies and nuances of the human brain

The crux of the matter is this, though. We need people to enable our businesses to deliver. Robots just won’t cut it; not yet, and, in all likelihood, not ever. It takes the intricacies and nuances of the human brain to create stand out products and experiences. You can therefore see the dilemma. On the one hand we’re telling people to use their most human abilities to deliver something amazing. On the other hand, we’re trying to create a steel cage to restrict their ability to do so through the use of misguided policies and procedures which actually block delivery, not enable them.

Asking ourselves why

If your recruitment process is doing its job, then, bar those policies which it’s a necessity to have from a legal perspective (and even then, most of these could be cut down and “de-jargoned”), and process documents which detail the way a particular process or task is carried out… the rest simply aren’t necessary. And could be replaced by four simple words:

Do the right thing.

Ultimately, we’re either going to trust our people to deliver… or we might as well have not bothered hiring them in the first place and brought in a team of robots instead. And, if they’re not delivering… instead of throwing the policy book at them, why not ask ourselves a few questions first. Have we been clear about what we need them to do? Provided them with the tools that they need? Given them a thorough understanding of their job role? There are very few people out there who actively come to work to do a bad job. If people aren’t behaving in the way we’d expect them to, perhaps it’s time we started asking ourselves why… as opposed to writing yet another policy to deal with the issue.