Lessons from Charlie: Policies prevent problems

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When I brought Charlie home from the Blue Mountain Humane Society he had to learn the rules of a new home, and I had no idea how to explain rules to a dog.

Within a few days we had no problems with basic house training but Charlie was used to running his own life at his own pace. Now he was on a leash, forced to walk at my pace and only where I wanted to go for a walk. He had to sit when he didn’t want to. Tension gates were blocking him from a couple of rooms. Charlie was indignant; he had lost his freedom.

But the leash came with long walks. Sitting on commend was rewarded with neck rubs. And when the gates came down he was invited in and found a new bumper bed that fit him perfectly. Within a couple of months if a gate was leaning against the doorway Charlie sat and stared in the room, but he didn’t enter until invited.

When Charlie understood and obeyed the rules and boundaries, life was good. As a human resources professional for many years, I’ve observed the same holds true in the workplace: rules and policies make work life better for everyone..

Employees need to know what the rules are or they will test the waters and make their own rules. If coming in to work fifteen minutes late doesn’t upset the boss, they will push until they find the point that triggers a reprimand. Some people will take advantage of a no-policies or few-policies workplace. But the genetically conscientious types will want to impose their own standards on their co-workers. There will be squabbles.

Even with only one employee in the business, that person needs to know if he or she will have any paid vacation or sick days, the work hours, limits on spending and equipment use and a good understanding of what behavior is expected or banned.

Unwritten policies or unstated rules allow an employee to think everything is going just fine. Then out of the blue the boss is yelling: “How could you not know that you have to be on time?” or, “You don’t have the authority” or, “You can’t take work or equipment home without permission.”

When a few simple policies and rules are in place and understood, misunderstandings and friction happen less often.

Exceptions weaken the value of a policy. When Charlie had a bad reaction to a shot he could barely stand up so I kept him on my bed until he recovered some strength the following day. Then we battled for six months as I reclaimed my bed. Hard and fast rules Charlie accepts; exceptions make no sense to him. My exception was well intended, but Charlie saw it as the end of the rule.

If I ask employees in many organizations to explain a policy they will usually say something like: “This is what the policy says. But here’s what really happens.”

But not at Intel Corporation. Years ago I was doing a small project at Intel and I discovered that every meeting started and ended exactly on time, meeting agendas were followed carefully, and every single employee could explain the policies as well as the “why” and “how” behind each one, plus any possible exception. It was amazing.

The employees acknowledged that Intel’s policies were strict, but they were consistently enforced with no double standards and rare but well explained exceptions. They saw that management walked their talk; the employees knew what to expect and could trust what they were told.

Rules come with consequences, otherwise they don’t have much purpose. Charlie has learned that if he jumps around in excitement and I can’t quickly clip on his leash he won’t get a walk. Now he trembles with excitement from nose to tail, but he is determined to sit while his leash is clipped on. He knows the disappointment of a cancelled walk.

When I worked for Wells Fargo Bank there were rules that if broken would cause an immediate termination. A third cash balancing mistake within six months; a marketing campaign that was more than 10 percent off target; giving incorrect information to customers; among others. Everyone knew exactly what to expect. The policies, work rules, documentation and consequences were crystal clear and it made work easy for the bank’s human resources staff.

Policies are a form of protection, just as Charlie’s leash and harness protected him when he jumped out the window of my moving car to chase a cat. The harness system kept him from hitting the ground. Yes, he had to dangle in the air on the side of my car until I could pull over; he was humiliated, but he also was unhurt.

You can’t predict what any living creature will do, but with good policies and controls in place you can limit the damage, if not a little humiliation, along the way.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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