Policies Never Solve People Problems
Every time I hear or see an overly controlling policy change I can guarantee there is a problem employee that the boss won't confront/discipline/fire directly. Instead, a blanket policy goes out to try to and change the behavior of the errant employee.
Does this ever work? Seriously, if you've done it and it solved your problem, I want to know about it, because I've never seen it happen. Why? Because problem employees never believe they are the problem. And, furthermore, they already believe that the rules don't apply to them, because if the rules mattered, the problem employee would already be following it.
Here's a case in point from an email I received yesterday:
My employer wants me to dictate when Exempt employees can take time off for doctor appointments. He said he wants all exempt employees to take time off for doctor's appointments "only in the late afternoon" (i.e. after 3-4PM). When I attempted to explain to him that while legal, this isn't the best method for managing exempt level employees he became furious with me and he told me to just do what he said. Truth is, he has one manager who abuses the company policies in regards to time off (i.e. he takes it when he wants, doesn't request approval in advance, leaves and is gone for the majority of the day, misses key meetings, etc.) Instead of dealing with this person, my boss wants to place a burden on all of his managers. The employee who is truly a problem will actually just ignore the new mandate--he will continue to do as he pleases because my boss won't deal with his poor behavior.
Yep. She's nailed it. And as a result of this policy not working, the boss will try to implement yet another policy and another. And what will happen? The good employees--the ones who never abused taking off an hour to go to a doctor's appointment in the first place--will increasingly feel unappreciated. And the problem employee will continue on, business as usual.
There's an easy way to solve this problem, if only the boss would take it. And that's to sit down and talk with the problem employee. "Jim, you disappeared for four hours this morning and two hours yesterday. You missed a very important client meeting. That's unacceptable. I need you here, in the office, doing your work and available to your coworkers and clients. I understand if you need to take some time off now and then, but you need to get approval, from me, in writing, from now on. If you cannot do this, then I will let you go." And then you document the conversation, and email it to the offending employee.
Harsh, I know. But, you need to be harsh with people who do not respect their coworkers and your business. If you do this, of course, you may end up having to fire your problem employee. If you just cannot stand to do that, ask yourself why. If that's because your business cannot survive without this person's spectacular and inimitable skill set then acknowledge that it doesn't matter if he misses key meetings and takes off on random Tuesdays. And then ignore it. Stop sending out policies. Acknowledge that you value this employee more than you do the other employees and move on with your day.
However, the real reason you don't want to fire your problem employees is probably because you're nice. Being nice is good. I highly advocate niceness. But, it's not being nice to let someone continue on doing things that will ultimately destroy your business. Don't tell yourself that you're destroying someone's livelihood by firing him. He's destroying his own job by being selfish and unreliable. Your job is to give him clear instructions and provide guidance and mentoring. Your job is not to pay his mortgage.
Remember that your other employees--the ones who don't disappear for hours at time--are bothered by this guy. His behavior affects them. And while there's a chance that they'll just begin imitating him by taking off whenever they feel like it, it's far more likely that they'll start looking for new jobs instead. And you'll wonder why your turnover is so high.
So, when you feel the need to make a new policy, ask yourself, "Is this really something we need a policy for, or are there one or two employees who need to be spoken with?" Always start with that. Treat your employees like adults unless (and until) they prove that they are really junior high schoolers. Everyone will be happier and more productive.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.