When I’m working with companies, I come unglued when they show me their employee handbook or policy manual and its pages and pages of “rules”. “Policy” is a fancy word for “rule”. As with synonyms, if you want them to be effective, you must take great care in writing them, keeping in mind that less is more.

If you go to a Four Seasons Hotel, you will not see a big sign with a rule by the pool stating “do not bring glass into the pool area”. Instead, the staff know that if they see you heading to the pool with a glass bottle or drink in your hand, they approach you and ask if they can refresh your drink for free. Magically, when the employee re-appears with the drink, your gin and tonic or beer is poured into a plastic cup. No fuss, no muss, no rule, no policy. Everyone is happy. We don’t have to worry about glass breaking into or around the pool, and the customer is impressed.

Now, if you are going to write a policy, first ask yourself, “why is this rule necessary?” Be clear on the purpose of the rule. The reason is that if I’m an employee and I know the reason, I can determine when I can break the rule. You should always be able to make exceptions if you are prepared to make the same exception for anyone under the same set of circumstances.

Know why you are making company policies. We don't want to use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Click To Tweet

One night, I arrived at a hotel in Houston. It was late at night and I had a bunch of books for handouts at the presentation I was making the next morning. There was a bus in front of me that just pulled in, so I grabbed a luggage cart so I could get things up to my room quickly and get to sleep. A bellman approached me and said, “I’m sorry sir but you can’t bring that cart up to your room”. I responded with my usual “why not”, and he said, “If you take it up and leave it outside your room, we won’t know where it is, and we will be one cart short in helping these people on the bus with their luggage”. In response to this “why”, I took out a $100 bill, wrote my room number on it, and told him that if I didn’t have the cart back down to him in 15 minutes, he could come up to my room, grab the cart, and keep the money. He didn’t accept this, but I continued loading the cart because I don’t have time for robots who can’t think.

But, it wasn’t his fault because his company probably trained him to follow rules or be fired. So please, when you are reviewing policies ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it really necessary? Are we using a sledgehammer to kill a fly? Are we creating a rule for one or two individuals who are driving us crazy, but we don’t have the courage to deal with it one-on-one?
  2. If it is necessary, what is the “why” or reason behind it? Never write a rule without first writing down why it is necessary.
  3. Do you want a culture of robots or leaders? Be sure your people know that rules do not apply to every situation and you can make exceptions if you are prepared to make exceptions for anyone else under the same set of circumstances.

Treat your employees and customers like thinkers and they will be.

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