Making the Most of Organizational Policies

A pile of four notebooks containing organizational policies

It is remarkable how so many managers consider policies as their go-to tool for organizational change. Bring them an organizational problem and they immediately start drafting a new policy to address it. It is as if, once a policy is written, the problem is solved and it is time to go on to the next challenge. In many cases little effort is made to inform employees of the policy, and little effort is made to be sure it is followed. At most an email is sent out informing everyone about the new policy, but there is no follow-up to be sure the message was received. Last year I wrote that policies are insufficient for changing culture. It is not that they are unimportant, but rather they are not given the attention they need. Making the most of organizational policies takes more than just sticking them in a manual or posting online.

The Limitations of Policies

Policies themselves are just words–a pile of pixels. They have no impact until they are distributed, explained, discussed, and enforced. Modern organizations have hundreds of policies. I checked my university employer, and there is an online index containing 276 separate policies involving administrative (e.g., selecting vendors), faculty (e.g., handling grievances), and students (e.g., academic integrity including plagiarism). Often policies are violated simply because people are unaware of them, and often no one pays attention to violations. Even if people know the policy, it is unclear that violation will have any serious consequences other than being told not to violate them again. In order for a policy to have impact, people have to know and understand it, and they have to internalize the value that it represents. Coercing compliance is one approach, but it requires continual monitoring that consumes too many resources to be practical. To be effective, everyone needs to understand the importance of policies, and be convinced that it is in everyone’s best interest to follow them.

Making the Most of Organizational Policies

Making the most of organizational policies involves two things. First, there are characteristics of the policy itself. What does it say and is it understandable? Second, there is the implementation. How will you be sure employees understand policies, how will they be encouraged to follow them, and what is the plan for making sure they are followed?

An effective policy begins with the words. Is it clear and does it speak to the people who need to follow it. A well written policy has the following elements.

  • The writing is clear and unambiguous. Employees should understand what is and what is not allowed under the policy. Guidelines should be as concrete as possible. Sometimes there is a temptation to leave enough ambiguity to allow managers wiggle room, but this also allows employees latitude to violate policy and make a case that they were within policy guidelines.
  • The policy should reflect an important organizational value. To a university, research integrity is a fundamental value that is reflected in a research integrity policy. At my university it is 22 pages long because it is important.
  • There should be a clear objective. Employees need to understand the why of the policy so they do not believe that it is arbitrary, and therefore, unimportant.
  • The policy needs to be fair to everyone. Unless there is a clear reason to the contrary, policies should apply to everyone. At a university, administrators, faculty, and students play by the same rules when it comes to research integrity issues like plagiarism.
  • Policies are reasonable. Employees need to feel that policies are reasonable, otherwise they will not be motivated to follow them. We have seen this with resistance to companies requiring employee physical face time. Many employees who like working virtually do not feel that it is reasonable to ask them to come to the office. Transparency about the reason for the policy can help, but of course there will always be some employees who just do not want to comply.

Once the policy is written, the job is only half done. The more difficult step of educating and motivating employees needs to be taken.

  • The first step is to distribute the policy and educate employees about what it says. In my experience, this usually is limited to an email with a copy of the new policy. This approach is rarely effective by itself. Half the employees won’t read the email, and most of those who do will either not understand it, not agree with it, or ignore it. A better approach is to use multiple approaches: email, meeting discussions, videos, and even physical documents mailed to everyone.
  • Take an educational approach. If the policy deals with something critical, a training program is a good way to implement it. This can be face-to-face or virtual, conducted on work time.
  • Involve direct supervisors. Often supervisors are the first ones introduced to a new policy. If they are the first ones trained, they can help implement. One technique is to let the supervisors train their direct reports in the new policy.
  • Someone needs to pay attention. If a policy is important enough to spend resources writing and distributing, someone should be monitoring if it is being followed. It can take time for everyone to get on board with new policy, so it is a good idea to track progress over time.
  • Violations need to be dealt with. The violation procedure should be thought out so it is fair and reasonable, that is, the punishment should fit the crime. There is no one-size fits all approach to policy violation because not all polices are equally important. Some violations might warrant termination because of the seriousness, for example, they might involve illegal or unethical acts. Others might be most reasonably handled with the progressive discipline approach. A first violation is a friendly but firm corrective discussion. Continued violations get increasingly harsh action.

Policies are necessary tools for organizations to create order because they define expectations for behavior. If we take them seriously, we need to be careful in how they are written and in how they are implemented to have maximum impact.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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