Are you in Love with Policies?

“Oh wow – what a great series of policies your staff are obliged to follow, I think I’m going to hire you as my lawyer” – said nobody, ever.

Yet, as lawyers, we are policy bound wherever we go.

If you work in a firm larger than a few people, the chances are pretty good you’ve got a policy about something, if not many things.

Social media policy? Tick!

Staff functions policy? Tick!

Remuneration policy? Tick!

Be Nice to Each Other policy? Tick!

But here’s the problem – policies are stupid.

How about instead of writing another policy, we start to teach people about good decision making?

Yes, yes – I know that some government tenders and stuff like that require you to have a policy on breathing just to get through the door – but surely we can shelve them in between tenders right? I’m sure the HR people would find something else to occupy themselves with…

Time to Tear Up the Policies

The interesting thing is this: it doesn’t really matter what your policy says – I still think you need to tear it up.

You see, people don’t function on the basis of policies – they function on the basis of trust and culture.

Let’s take a look at the law for a minute to illustrate.  The law forbids murder (most places).  Do you think that if the law forbiding murder was repealed that people would suddely start murdering each other left, right and center?  I don’t.  Sure, some might have a go, but by and large society would prevent it from occuring.  In reality, the law against murder is a reflection of society’s value, not the creation of it.

So let me ask you this: have you ever joined a line to buy a ticket or a meal?  Why?  Why not just go straight to the front?  I mean, it’s not like there is a law that makes you join the back of the line.  Of course, you do it because that is a cultural norm, and a deviation from it would probably get you in some trouble – but it’s not illegal, we just understand it to be the case.

Policies Get Ignored Until it Suits Someone

Ever noticed this?  There are dozens, if not hundreds of policies in some firms.  You know who actually follows them all and knows what is in them all?  NOBODY.

There’s a reason.

First, the policies are often just common sense, so bothering to read them is a waste of time.

Second, and more importantly, where the policies are not reflective of common sense, they get ignored by the majority of people.

The only time the policies get dug up from the dust bin is when HR need an excuse to chastise someone or send a memo.

Policies Break Trust

Every time a new policy comes out stating the bleeding obvious, I can’t help but wonder what they thought was going to happen without that particular policy.

This is especially the case where the policy directly contradicts the actions of some, or many, people within the firm (which is entirely common).

Basically what an overemphasis on policies says is “we hired smart, hard working people that we don’t trust at all to make good decisions”.

How about instead of writing another policy, we start to teach people about good decision making?

It’s Not About Policies – It’s About Culture

So how can firms possibly function when everyone ignores the policies? It’s because the firm is based on culture, not policies.

Firm culture trumps excessive policies every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

A policy that says “don’t post stupid things on social media” is hardly useful if 50% of the firm is posting drunken pictures of themselves every Saturday morning.

Similarly, a policy that says “you can’t take the last day of the month off” is only effective if the partners don’t take that day off every month.

People will follow a positive and influential firm culture far more readily than they will a set of policies.

So It Comes Down to People

Once again, firms succeed on the back of their people. Instead of building people up, policies break them down.

Instead of fostering trust, policies increase cynicism.

Instead of encouraging creativity, policies stifle it.

In short – it’s time to start tearing up the policies, and start working on the culture.

Happy Lawyering!