HR & Management

How thick is your employee handbook? The problem with well-intended rules

7 min read

05 December 2018

Take a hard look at your employee handbook, says author Chris Dyer. What is it telling you about your company culture?

Your employee handbook probably started out lean, just like your business. As your organisation matured, you may have added or tweaked rules here or there.

Look at the handbook now. Is it still in good shape? Or overweight? Exponential growth is a warning sign! When you feel the need to add directives year after year, the real question is not what they should be, but why that manual continues to grow.

People should be able to turn to the employee handbook to resolve questions on company policy or legal issues. This saves time for your HR department and puts all of your staff, literally, on the same page.

Too many criteria, however, dilute the message and cause readers to tune out.

If you’re piling rules on top of rules, simply culling outmoded information may return the more pressing items to the forefront. If you’ve already done that, though, you may have a larger problem: you tend to micromanage.

Micromanagement is unsustainable. It leads to overworked executives or a revolving door for employees.

Either condition is evidence that your company’s culture is ailing. While you may have several sore spots, your overstuffed employee handbook points to a fundamental deficiency: your workers are in need of more autonomy.

Battle for control

You may not realise it but layering on the rules is an attempt to maximise control – of the office dynamic, a productive work ethic, or the work process itself. Unable to stand over employees and watch their every move, your management team substitutes with written guidelines and reprisals meant to induce compliance.

But compliance is not alignment. Threatening punishment does not call workers on board your train, heading together in the direction of your company’s mission, vision, and other goals.

In fact, researchers have found that less control improves employees’ attitudes and engagement with their work.

Author Daniel Pink lists autonomy as one of three fundamental human needs – along with skills mastery and having a significant purpose – that lend meaning to work. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink argues that cognitive science shows “carrots” to be far more effective tools than “sticks.”

More personal autonomy, not less, actually enhances job performance.

Why? Giving individuals the freedom to perform tasks and reach goals in a way that makes sense to them demonstrates respect and earns trust.

Workers who trust their employers are more likely to want to do a good job, to make an effort to excel, and to stick with a company for which they can feel proud to work.

What employees gain

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t provide parameters and protocols for achieving objectives. On the contrary, broadly defining what is encouraged and acceptable keeps employees grounded in firm expectations.

It gives them something to shoot for and tells them how to be successful in your company.

Letting them chart their course to that point is like asking a kid to colour something pretty inside the lines of a colouring book. As long as you wind up with a nice piece of art, you don’t need to specify which colours to use or how much pressure to put on the crayon.

Those rules suck the joy out of colouring. The freedom to create is what makes it fun and innovative.

Trusting workers to take the best path toward achievement keeps them engaged with the task and in ownership of the outcome. This makes people accountable and self-motivated to do well.

They may find new ways to make work easier, more efficient, or more effective. The happier they are in performing even routine tasks, the better they will do and the more secure they will feel in their jobs.

What you gain

As you give employees autonomy, then, you do not lose an equivalent amount of control. Instead, you actually gain freedom from having to track their every move.

In his book Turn the Ship Around! former naval commander David Marquet describes how a measure of autonomy grooms good leaders. Marquet once caused a dangerous error at sea when his crew followed a flawed order. He realised that cultivating good judgement was far more effective than requiring blind loyalty to the rules.

So, step back and let capable people do their jobs. You’ll gain some breathing space, while opening the door to new ideas and techniques.

More importantly, you’ll earn respect by offering it to each of your employees.

Autonomy on the job creates an atmosphere of accountability, rather than a demand for obedience. This reverberates throughout your workplace, as people generate their own motivation and rationale for what they do. Collectively, teams then operate on a basis of trust and respect, without the need for rules telling them do so.

Take a hard look at your employee handbook. What is it telling you about your company culture? If it’s in the “needs improvement” category, see where you can make gains by losing a few rules.

Chris Dyer is the author of The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits, out now published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99