Kate Sayer: Pare back that rule book

A hefty set of guidelines can do more harm than good, writes our columnist

Kate Sayer
Kate Sayer

It has become the norm for organisations to create hefty rule books. Each function creates its own set of procedures, which staff and volunteers are expected to read and follow. In my opinion, this practice can do more harm than good.

The good is obvious because we assume it is better to provide staff and volunteers with clear guidelines so they know what they may and may not do in the workplace. So what might be harmful? In my experience, detailed procedures result in staff and volunteers abdicating responsibility because they can say "I was following the rules". You might also find that some people will follow the letter of the rules, but ignore the spirit of them. A classic example of this is the member of staff who takes a day off sick because they see it as an entitlement, even though they are not actually sick.

A detailed rule book needs policing to ensure that everybody sticks to the rules. So who does the policing? Typically, it is the teams responsible for human resources, IT, finance, and health and safety. This can have a negative effect on those functions because it is hard to combine a support function with the policing. The policemen end up taking on the responsibility for the "correctness" of the expenses claim, the budget, the job description, the performance appraisal and so on. The support staff themselves can see their role as entirely about enforcing the rules and introducing new ones if the existing rules have loopholes. Forgetting the original purpose of the procedures, it is easy to get locked into petty email arguments and bitter feuds over meaningless details. Teams in HR and finance typically spend far too much time on transaction processing, and checking every detail exacerbates the problem: it makes the team inefficient and the job is not satisfying.

In his book Maverick!, Ricardo Semler describes how he threw out the rule books and asked his workers to use their common sense. You might not be able to abandon all written procedures because there are some laws and regulations you have to follow in all organisations. But you could review them and pare them back to the core policy and guidelines. Try relaunching internal guidance with the overriding principle that staff should think for themselves. Couple this with the message that anyone who takes advantage of the new flexible approach for their own personal gain will be disciplined. Talk to the finance team – what’s the risk if they do not check every expense claim and receipt when it is submitted? Could they just select a sample and check them at random?

Shorter guidance that focuses on the principles will be easy for people to read, so it is more likely that they will refer to it. Inductions should explain that the responsibility stays with each member of staff or volunteer, and managers should resist the temptation to tell people what to do. This is a small but meaningful step towards dismantling stifling regulation.

Kate Sayer is a partner at specialist auditors Sayer Vincent

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