The HR Policy Police…Not

There is an interesting thread on LinkedIn titled “Whose job is it to make sure the workplace is drama free? The company, human resources, or your boss?”  As of this post, it has been going on for 14 days, and has 52 comments, including a couple of mine.

My first comment was that it would be helpful to define “drama”, because if drama means conflict, then we really don’t want the workplace to be drama free.  Conflict can be a sign of a healthy workplace, where diversity of thought propels the organization to innovation.  It can also be a sign of an unhealthy workplace, in which case it provides good data that deserves investigation.  I cannot imagine a healthy workplace where there is no drama, no conflict.  A couple people agreed.

From the 52 comments, the majority tasked leadership aka “the boss” with modeling expected behavior and thereby creating the culture.  Several said both the boss and HR.  Several indicated that the organizational culture was everyone’s responsibility.  Two definitively said “not HR!”  Someone said, “whoever recruited those creating the drama.”   It was not clear if that comment inferred whether “the boss” or HR was in that position.

Four comments tasked HR with creating the infrastructure for the culture through the development and enforcement of policies.  Hmmmm.  Okay, so my first thought was “ewwww, policies.”  I am naive enough and idealistic enough to think there could be a perfect world where leaders were so skilled and knowledgeable about their jobs that organizations wouldn’t need policies.  I know, but I can dream.

But let’s think about this just a bit.  HR has spent many years trying to shed the reputation of being the “policy police,” right?  Realistically, however, policies aren’t going away any time soon.  As long as my ideal state is still elusive, organizations will need to establish what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in order to communicate expectations to members of the organization.

But is there a way for HR to change our vocabulary in such a way that we are helping the organization gain commitment rather than compliance?

Suppose we teach policies, not as policies, but with the underlying rationale; something like We expect our employees to dress appropriately, because they are a representation of our brand to our customers.   Yes, we have a policy because there are potential legal reasons to do so.  But our vocabulary says “marketing, branding, customer service.”  Compliance cites the policy.  Commitment cites the reason.

Do you think that we, as HR professionals, could possibly use semantics to help avoid becoming the “policy police?”

Instead of explaining the policy, perhaps we could ask why the manager or employee thinks that setting this behavioral expectation is important.  If the response makes it clear that they understand the “why”, we could then ask what the manager or employee feels is the right course of action and why.  This puts the ownership of the decision in their hands.

If they cannot explain the “why”, perhaps this is a great opportunity to explain it, and link the rationale back to the business.

If the link back to the business is tenuous, perhaps the expectation is irrelevant.

I think this subtle shift in language could be helpful to HR professionals.  What do you think?

Image by Junior Thespian @ Flickr Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “The HR Policy Police…Not”

  1. I think the shift you mention is more than just language, but language is a good start. I like your idealistic workplace without policy and think we come closer to it when we have meaningful conversation in place of policy policing.

  2. You are right, Kitty – language is only the start. I guess my hope would be if we keep teaching ourselves to change our language we will begin to really believe it! Thanks for commenting…

  3. My counsel to HR business partners to their organizations has been: “Never make a employee relations decision for a manager AND never let a manager make a bad employee relations decision.” This means that the HR business partner is the expert on interpreting the policy and must use their influence skills to guide the leader. The leader then owns the decision.

  4. Hi Sherri – you are so right, HR can’t own the decision. In terms of guiding and influencing, yes that is the right way to go. I have observed, though, some HR professionals struggle for the ability to influence, and then be perceived as “making the decision.” Whether the leader owns the decision truly and internally is so dependent on the HR partner’s ability to influence. I’m suggesting that part of the skills of influencing the business leaders might be to shift their words from those of compliance (policy) to those of commitment (here’s why we…) It seems a small point, but can be a powerful one. Thanks for your comment….

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