Thinking about the problems facing the business, a CEO is likely to pinpoint such bogeymen as competitive pressures and labor costs. The organization's internal policies aren't likely to make the list of things that keep a leader up at night. Maybe they should. Most organizations of more than a few hundred people are burdened by unfortunate and misguided policies that serve to slow operations and drive away talented employees.
Overwritten or heavy-handed policy manuals hurt your business in three ways. First, they take your employees out of the realm known to sports psychologists as The Zone—the most productive mental place to be. It's the arena where staffers can push your agenda in a fully engaged, minimally distracted way. Bad policies force an employee to stop and look up a rule or consult a manager, slowing down the action. Second, policies are expensive to disseminate and costly to administer. Third and most destructive, policies speak loudly about CEOs' trust in themselves and their management teams. Where trust abounds, policies are few. In organizations where trust exists, leaders have confidence in themselves to hire and manage team members without minute-to-minute supervision. In fear-filled environments, policies rule the day.
Here's our list of the five most destructive human resources policies we've come across. If several of these protocols are in place in your company, the sucking sound you hear may be your profits gushing down the drain, as smart and capable employees flee your shop for more adult environments.
1. Sorry, We Can't Accommodate Your Life
A sure sign of a second-rate organization is a time-off policy oblivious to a normal person's entanglements and obligations. One young friend of mine began a job with a multinational bank, only to be told on orientation day: "I'm sorry, we can't accommodate the two hours of time off you need for a court date three weeks from now. You'll have earned enough time off to take that two-hour break in a few months." She walked out halfway through the day. Employers who can't flex in small ways to accommodate carbon-based life forms don't deserve their talents.
Why this unaccommodating policy reeks: It broadcasts to employees that "your personal life has no value to us; invest your mental and emotional energy in us accordingly."
2. We'll Transfer You When We Feel Like It
It's reasonable to expect a new employee to stay in his or her job for a year, but to put your managers forever in charge of your employees' career progress is a very bad idea. Smart people who don't love their assignments can leave your company and join your competitors, and if you make it too hard for them to apply for an internal opening, that's what they'll do. Don't make managers the decisionmakers on their employees' transfer requests. Let hiring managers in other groups interview and hire (or not) your current team members the same way they consider outside applicants.
Why a manager-driven transfer policy is the pits: It lets employees know that if they can't trust their boss to look out for their interests when an appealing job in the company is available, their best bet is to bail on the organization entirely.
3. Sorry, We Don't Give References
It's stunning and horrifying to realize, if you haven't heard it before, that many employers do not allow their managers to give references for people who have worked on their teams in the past. The boneheaded logic here is that managers might say something unfortunate, subjecting the employer to defamation charges. Withholding positive references for people who served your interests is unethical and shameful. Put your managers back in the reference-giving game if you want talented people to invest brain cells in your success.
Why the no-references policy makes our list: It says that "our concern over the unlikely prospect of a defamation charge—brought on, if one should happen, by our ineffectiveness at training managers—is more than ample justification for us to prevent you from getting the good reference that your excellent work at our company should have earned you."
4. Bereavement Leave Police
The phone rings with awful news: A family member has died. At this low point, your employees call their managers to report that they'll have to miss a few days of work. Here's when they learn that your company doesn't trust them to take a few days off with pay. They are told they've got to bring documentation from the funeral home to prove that their loved one has died. Could anything be tackier, more insulting, and less professional? Nearly every day I get queries from HR people who've been charged with writing and installing these bereavement leave policies. If you can't trust your employees for two days off during a family crisis, why are they are on your payroll at all?
Why this policy stinks: It's the ultimate in bad-faith, bad-taste management, an enormous insult to your trusted employees and the capable managers who hired them.
5. Theft-of-Time Policies
When HR people call or write me asking about theft-of-time policies, I feel like a character in a science fiction novel. Theft-of-time policies are the ones that seek to ding (or terminate) employees for checking eBay (EBAY), updating their blogs or Facebook profiles, or otherwise doing nonwork stuff during the workday. Problem is, there is no theft of time for salaried employees. We don't pay for their time. We pay for their hard work and their good ideas. In my experience, the people you want on your team (and why would you keep any other kind around?) can't stop thinking about work, even when they want to. So why would you care whether they get their work done in 40 hours a week, or 55, or 22.5, and whether every minute at the office is spent "productively?" When we implement policies that bust people for "stealing time," we're making it clear that we really don't know how to manage or evaluate the work our people do. We only know how to count the hours their body is in the seat. That's a management failing—and a time-obsessed culture will drive your best people right into your competitors' arms.
Why theft-of-time policies fail: They make it clear that while your company may believe in talent, its true love is old-fashioned face time. Big Brotherish software programs that track minutes spent on outside Web sites are equally ridiculous. If your best call-center rep has a Solitaire addiction that gets her through the day, what do you care?