Manage people personally, not by policy

Over the past 15 years I have been engaged by a number of commercial organisations, local and central government and SMEs and a recurring theme that seems to run through every sector is the way some managers prefer not to face up to the tricky side of management: correcting the unacceptable behaviour of their staff.  This has been compounded by the loss of the traditional functions of HR departments to automated workflow systems, providing a  temptation to justify their existence by introducing nit-picking rules and policies. It is a seductive mixture but in the interest of maintaining staff morale in difficult times it would be well to resist that temptation. There are a number of ways in which individual infractions, which would be most effectively dealt with face-to-face by managers and supervisors, end up as one-size-fits-all policies that antagonise the best and are ignored by the rest.  If organisations can rethink their moral-shattering policies and remove or alter those that are unnecessary or demoralizing, everyone will have a more productive time at work even if it is at the cost of managers having to manage.

Alan tells me that this is one of my “grumpy old man” blogs (thanks, Alan …) but if you have the stamina come along on the ride.

Websites. There are certain websites that no one should be visiting at work but once you block the  porn-sites and the other obvious stuff, it is a difficult process deciding where to draw the line and many companies draw it arbitrarily in the wrong place. People should be able to kill time on the Internet during breaks. Does anybody object to them reading a book or newspaper? When companies unnecessarily restrict people’s Internet activity, it does more than demoralize those that cannot check Facebook; it can limit people’s ability to do their job. Many companies restrict Internet activity so severely that it makes it difficult for people to do on-line research. When I am bidding for a contract, for example, I might expect the client to check my Facebook profile to get a better feel for the kind of person I am. And some people need specialised access that is cut off by over-zealous Internet rule-makers. When my friend Jenny worked as the unit administrator of a sexually-transmitted diseases clinic in London she was banned from accessing, and came close to being disciplined for trying to access, websites containing reference material for her job because these sites “contained sexually-oriented material”. Really!? Reference works on STD’s contain sexually-oriented material! Gosh …  So public service can be as bad, or even worse, than business.

Timekeeping. Generally you pay your employees for the work they do, not for the specific hours they sit at their desks (unless you are running Dombey & Sons). When companies penalise salaried employees for showing up five minutes late, even though they routinely stay late and work at home over the weekend, they send the message that policies take precedence over performance. If you cannot trust your staff to deliver then you should not be employing them; if you can trust them then why risk losing their “go-the-extra-mile” willingness by introducing nit-picking rules?  Of course there are occasions when you might need employees to be in a certain place at a certain time. If you are running a shift system on a call centre, for example, or for an important meeting, but when companies are unnecessarily strict in requiring documentation for bereavement and medical leave, it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of employees who deserve better. After all, if you have employees who will fake a family death to miss a day’s work, what does that say about your company?

Email. Some companies are getting so restrictive with email use that employees must select from a list of pre-approved topics before the email software will allow them to send a message. Again, it is about trust. If you do not trust your people to use e-mail properly, why did you hire them in the first place? In trying to rein in the bad guys, you make everyone miserable every time they send an email. And guess what? The bad guys are the ones who will find ways to get around any system you put in place. There are legal banana skins to sending emails, particularly in a world where there are those who spend their time relentlessly tracking down every opportunity to be offended, so you do need safeguards, such as filters to trap unacceptable terms, but they should be unobtrusive and preferably invisible.

Toilet breaks. I still find it difficult to believe that there are organisations that restrict their staff’s toilet breaks.  What is that all about? When you limit basic personal freedoms by counting their  trips to the toilet you can expect your staff to start counting their days at the company. If you are going to limit people’s trips to the toilet you might as well come out and tell them that you would prefer to employ robots that have no inconvenient bodily functions to cater for. The day you have to bring in a doctor’s note to prove that you warrant additional trips to the loo is the day you realise that you do not want to be here.

Airmiles. Do you do a lot of flying on business trips?  Work travel is a major sacrifice of time, energy, and sanity, puts a strain on the person and a strain on the family. One little perk that travel-weary employees earn, is their frequent flier mileage. So how about employers who do not let their staff keep their miles for personal use? It is greedy and small-minded (and often a visible sign of a business in financial tail-spin) and staff become more resentful with every flight. Taking employees’ miles sends the message that you do not appreciate their sacrifice and that you will hold on to every last penny at their expense. It says to creditors that it might be time to start calling in their loans.

Political Correctness. Political Correctness is a much disputed topic. Maintaining high standards for how people treat each other in a world that is full of hostility and prejudice is a good thing. As long as employers know where to draw the line. Going on a witch-hunt because someone says “Bless you” to another employee who sneezed (real example) creates an environment of paranoia and stifled self-expression, without improving how people treat each other and can even be counter-productive by building resentment against “favoured” groups.

Performance measures. Some organisations use statistical measures of performance. I read statistics at university and love the old “bell curves”. However, some individual talents follow a natural bell-shaped curve, but job performance does not. When you force employees to fit into a pre-determined ranking system, you do three things: 1) incorrectly evaluate people’s performance, 2) make everyone feel like a number, and 3) create insecurity and dissatisfaction when performing employees fear that they will be fired due to the forced system. Performance management should be a major part of the work of managers and supervisors not a spreadsheet calculation.

Mobile phones. If I ban mobile phones in the office, no one will waste time texting and talking to family and friends, right? As the Duke of Wellington said: “if you believe that you will believe anything …” Organizations need to do the difficult work of hiring people who are trustworthy and who will not take advantage of things. They also need to train managers to deal effectively with employees who underperform or violate expectations (such as spending too much time on their phones). This is hard work, but what are you paying your managers for? The easy, knee-jerk alternative is to ban phones. It will stop people making or taking calls; it will also demoralize good employees who need to check their phones periodically for pressing family or health issues or at an appropriate break from work.

Personal possessions. Many organizations control what people can have at their desks. A life-size poster of a shirtless soccer star? OK, maybe that could be a problem. But some employers dictate how many photographs people can display, whether or not they can use a water bottle and how many items they are allowed to place on their desks. Sadly for them people have personalities and are happiest and most productive when allowed to express their personality. I worked in technical support for a while and nothing was more frustrating than turning up to fix a problem with a PC and having to remove photographs of children, partners and cats, gonks, dried flowers, rubber elephants, birthday stars and a host of other detritus attached with large quantities of blu-tac. If we had banned these personal items we might have saved two or three minutes on each call.  However, these were people, not androids, and the clues their personal items presented about the caller’s personality smoothed our way when dealing with people who just wanted to get on with their work but were being hindered by a blank screen.

Dress codes. Some organisations need dress codes.  They work well in private schools, armed forces and liveried organisations but they are unnecessary at most workplaces. Hire professionals and they will dress professionally. When someone crosses the line, their manager needs to have the skill to address the issue head-on. Otherwise, you are making everyone wish they worked somewhere else because management is too inept to handle touchy subjects effectively.

I think you see the thread running through this blog: choose good staff, trust your staff, deal with shortcomings and poor performance face-to-face and do not ask HR to fashion a rod to beat all the staff with because one or two have crossed the line.