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August 27, 2019 Practice Points

Ditch the Handbook? Personal Interaction over Policies

Instead of a policy that may do nothing, interact directly with your team and make sure they understand the importance of their actions

By Stephanie Richards

Policies, rules, and laws surround us and attempt to regulate our behavior. Every one of us has seen an employee handbook somewhere in our career. Why do these excessively long documents exist when employees rarely read them and hardly any employers enforce them? “[The company’s l]awyers don’t know how things really work, or even how and when the policies get applied. They are there to come up with language that works with statutes and cases and that is designed to show to a jury if someone sues.” Policies are society’s way of responding to misconduct. When an employee acts a certain way and management does not agree with the conduct, a policy is created as an attempt to fix the problem.

Often, employees are notified of a new policy with a simple email stating the new “rule.” Why is this ineffective? Well, because typically no one knows (1) why the policy was created, (2) why management disagrees with certain conduct, or (3) if it will even be enforced.

Instead of drafting policies in response to employee behavior, we should consider alternate routes to foster favorable behavior depending on the degree of the misconduct. There are three approaches that may be appropriate, depending on the misconduct, ranging from less severe to more severe.  

Real-time Feedback—Pointing Out Misconduct

Feedback is a way to gently tell people what they did, and why they should not do it again. Maybe the unfavorable conduct is very common among the office; approaching the people as a group could be a good way to open a conversation and build a relationship to ensure that the feedback isn’t taken personally. Instead of going to the handbook and updating a policy on the matter, going to the team and explaining an acceptable way to behave in the certain context is typically effective, especially with minor or inadvertent misconduct.

Plain Talk—A Straightforward Approach

Plain talk is something employers often struggle with. There’s a certain balance that companies feel needs to be maintained in an employer-employee relationship when it comes to speaking frankly about employee behavior. Letting employees know that you recognize their conduct and explaining why the conduct will not further their goals, helps employees understand that their conduct really does impact day to day operations. When employees understand that something simple, such as office behavior, impacts a much bigger area than is immediately apparent, they are much more likely to WANT to change their behavior because it benefits their careers.

Clear and Consistent Consequences—Creating Expectations

Responding to misconduct with consequences is especially important to re-direct misbehavior. “Policies themselves don’t change behaviors, but consequences do. If the policy says showing up on time is required but my boss never addresses it when I’m late, the policy is meaningless to change my behavior.” When employees know the result of their conduct will be unfavorable, they are more likely to behave in an acceptable way. Remaining consistent ensures that employees know what to expect when they decide to act in a way they know is not tolerated. If I do “this,” then the company will respond with “that.”

Instead of immediately picking up the pen and creating a policy that may very well do absolutely nothing for your business, interact directly with your team and make sure they understand the importance of their actions—both for their career and the business as a whole. 

Stephanie Richards is a 3L at Creighton Law School in Omaha, Nebraska.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).