Make It Your Business: Three Ways to Exercise Your Company Policies

How strictly should business owners and managers enforce company policies and procedures? Let’s begin by stating flatly that all companies with more than three employees—counting the owner/partners— should have an established, written Policy and Procedures Manual. It makes it doubly tough to maintain some semblance of order and control if the rules to whom one is referencing are vague, elusive and/or lack sound reasoning.

I have a client who owns a well-run, successful company with six employees. His team is very diverse—no two people are alike in job function, background and experience, age, personality and temperament, or degree of proficiency. He has accepted the fact that each individual must be led and managed differently. Recently he asked me, “So, how can I even begin to appear to be fair and firm in upholding the company policies, when the right thing to do depends on the particular situation and the person(s) involved?” In my response to him, I invoked the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You remember the one, don’t you? “The porridge was too hot … too cold … just right. The bed was too hard … too soft … just right.”

At first, I suspect Dan was even more puzzled than before he asked his question. Trying to allay his confusion, I said, “There are certain company rules that about which you don’t want to be ‘too strict’, some that you can ill afford to be ‘too lenient’, and others that are applied ‘just right’—affording you some latitude in enforcing them.” Let’s delve deeper about this, shall we?

What does the manual say?

One thing that every business owner ought to know is that in order for your employees to follow the rules they have to know what those rules are. And this applies to every position in your shop, whether the person works in the office, on the production line or out in the marketplace. But for some people just the thought of having to put together a handbook on what is acceptable and what is not at your workplace can seem overwhelming. In those cases, what most people do is simply rely on the talk around the water cooler, idle scuttlebutt, or the grapevine, and hope their employees figure out the rules.

Sometimes, business owners will hire a freelance human resources consultant to write an employee policies and procedures manual for them. The truth of the matter is that creating an employee handbook or creating inner-office policies do not have to be that difficult, if you follow a few simple tips.

Tip No. 1: When it comes to creating your employee handbook, you want to select the sections of the manual that need to be covered. For the most part, these topics are pretty basic and apply to every business. But, at the same time, you are going to want to make sure that you include other topics that are specific to your business and/or the sign and digital graphics industry.

Here is a list of common topics that you may want to address when creating your policies and procedures manual:

•          An overview of the company—which could include its mission statement, core values, purpose and brand promise, and philosophy on courtesy of and respect toward others (e.g., fellow work colleagues, customers, suppliers, etc.).

•          Personnel administration—which may include an organizational chart (aka chain of command), policies about compensation, payday schedule, benefits, vacation and excused absences, recognized holidays, dress code and work hours.

•          Health, safety and security—which addresses what everyone’s responsibilities are to preserve a clean, safe and productive work environment, and secure and protect the physical and intellectual property of the business. You may choose to include your drug and alcohol, smoking, and weapons policies in this section.

•          Business operations—including store/shop hours, rules of conduct, conflicts of interest, discipline and termination, interpersonal conflict resolution practices, sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and Internet and cellphone access for personal use during the workday and/or on company computers and the right to privacy or surrender of privacy rights.

•          Customer relations, retention and loyalty—which may cover your return policy and complaint procedures, credit and collections policy, satisfaction guarantee, down payment/deposit policy, and other fees and charges (e.g. rush, charge for quotes/estimates, delivery, restocking, etc.).

Tip No. 2: Your employee policy and procedure manual does not have to cover or address every topic suggested above, nor should you feel compelled to explain in great detail the company stance on every issue. However, when you are developing any of the aforementioned sections, you may want to include some specific situations that can arise, which will require you, as business owner, to intercede and take action. Basically, you want to give specific examples on what is and is not acceptable. Be sure to include the caveat that the list of examples is not comprehensive or all-inclusive.

For instance, in the "Rules of Conduct" section, what is unacceptable in the quality or quantity of work performed, what are some examples of discourteous or offensive conduct toward others, what constitutes a violation of a company rule or falsification of a company record, and what is immoral, indecent or unacceptable behavior (including off-hours and off-premises conduct that could reflect negatively on and adversely impact the business).

Tip No. 3: When you are developing the employee manual, you want to cite the reasons for the policies, the rewards of complying with the procedures, and the penalties or reprimand for non-compliance. If appropriate, write down what disciplinary actions will be taken for a first offense (e.g., written warning, documentation in the employee’s record) and subsequent offenses—such as termination, financial restitution or loss of privileges.

Now comes the hard part—enforcement

Once you have spelled out everything you want to address in the employee handbook, you are going to want to make sure that you encourage cooperation and compliance, and enforce the policies. Sometimes the toughest thing to do is to follow through with disciplinary actions if people violate the policies. The best way to do this is to make sure that you document everything in the employee’s file, even if it is just a verbal warning. It would be wise to consult with an attorney who is familiar with the employment laws in your state to be sure the rules you’ve set forth are legal and defensible.

You will want to provide a copy of the handbook to all new employees during orientation and distribute or make accessible copies of the handbook after any revision or changes have been made.

Often, frequent and open dialogue with your employees provides that ounce of prevention that can preclude you from having to prescribe a pound of cure after-the-fact. Review and update the policies on a regular basis and then hold all-employee meetings to discuss any changes. If the manual isn't updated regularly, it makes it very difficult to enforce and uphold outdated or irrelevant rules and guidelines.

Enter Goldilocks

Now, let’s be realistic. It would be presumptuous for anyone outside of your organization to claim to know enough about your particular shop or the company culture to give you an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all employee handbook that would fit your business perfectly. Add to it that it’s quite possible that you could be seen as a more effective and benevolent owner, if you were flexible on certain company policies—such as, say, dress code or between-job breaks.

For example, let’s say you have a salaried office employee who routinely works late and interrupts her weekend to handle work-related demands. Do you really want to give her a hard time about being 15 minutes late so she can drop her child off at daycare? No, you probably wouldn’t. If you lowered the boom on her, you’d predictably end up with an employee who either (a) wouldn’t give you a minute more than she’s scheduled for, or (b) would quit and go somewhere else that treated her in a more sensitive manner.

Of course, there are exceptions to this scenario. In certain jobs, it may be critical that people show up precisely on time, every day. If that’s the case, you will need to talk to those employees about why punctuality is important for them, so they understand why you will likely be a stickler on that.

There are really two questions here: First, what policies would be most effective being self-governed or placed in the hands of empowered, well-trained employees? Second, what policies ostensibly require you to dictate how precisely things are done because varied procedures will yield wildly different results—many of which are intolerable?

If you decide that the issue at hand lends itself to more on focusing on the end result—rather than following the letter of the law—then exercising more flexibility may be your better bet.  Try this approach: Go back to each policy in the employee handbook—especially the section on customer relations, complaints and loyalty. It is in this section that it would behoove you to have your team members listen closely to what the customer is saying and asking for. People making reasonable requests have little patience when they are told “We can’t (do something)” because of some seemingly-arbitrary company policy.

After each section or policy statement is stated and explained, make a note of how much deviation is allowed. It’s fair for you to forewarn where you will insist the policy and procedure will be followed to the letter (we have to be ‘too strict’, and here’s why), where the employee has unconditional latitude (we may be ‘too lenient’, but that’s ok), and where you invite employees to offer better ways to reach the same or better end result in a different manner (feel free to suggest a ‘just right’ balance).

I’m a big fan of bringing stuff like this to the forefront and talking candidly about where policies seem to be out of alignment with the company’s mission and goals, and discussing how to accomplish the spirit of the policy in a more effective way.

But, you want to resist falling back on the “these are the rules and that’s the way it is” defense. That’s tantamount to a parent saying “Because I said so” to a child who innocently asks “Why?” If you can’t come up with compelling reasons beyond “That’s the rule!” that’s usually a sign to go back and revisit the value of the policy itself. Good luck!

Vince DiCecco is a business training and development consultant and has been involved in sales, marketing and training since 1981. Contact him via e-mail at vince@ypbt.com or visit www.ypbt.com.