13 Mar 2024

Managing “By the Book”

Yesterday, a policy and procedures manual (also known as a staff handbook, code of conduct etc.) might have been regarded, at best, as a dust collector which managers referred to as a last resort.  At worst, it was probably used to slap an employee’s wrist.    If I were to ask you whether your organisation truly gets maximum value out of its staff handbook would you be able to say yes?  Or is it one of those necessary evils that is imposed on you by HR?


Today, our view is that employers who use their staff handbook primarily or solely as a response to a legal requirement or as a form of legal protection are missing a great opportunity to send a positive message to their workforce.    We know from our experiences that a well-written, well-executed staff handbook is a very powerful tool for workplace success.  Imagine if decisions are made consistently across the organisation because everyone is singing from the same song sheet, or greater clarity is achieved because managers know how to manage and employees know what is expected of them, or that you can achieve greater productivity because clear boundaries reduce the need for micromanagement.


So how do we get these outcomes?  Here’s an important question to start with – does your handbook enable staff to be successful in their jobs?   Handbooks that focus largely on telling employees what they should not do provide little or no guidance on what they should do.   Reading the staff handbook should enable employees to “see clearly” the desired behaviours and outcomes required by the company.   For example, if it’s important that your employees convey a professional image, give examples of what a “professional image” looks like so everyone sees the same picture.   Provide the standards and expectations and then you can manage behaviour and outcomes based on those.


Here’s another point to consider – research tells us that most employees want to do a good job and meet or exceed management’s expectations.  Too often, however, the staff handbook does not help them do that – in fact it may even hinder their efforts.  Pat Lynch, Ph.D. and president of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc, has an excellent take on “the necessary evil” or “tools for success” approach to staff handbooks:


Element Necessary Evil Perspective Tools for Success Perspective
Primary Focus Enforce rules and regulations; punish non-compliance Ensure fair and consistent treatment of all employees, support desired behaviours
Language Legalistic, formal, indirect, technical Conversational, written at an appropriate level
Tone Impersonal, punitive, threatening Personal, respectful, supportive
Boundaries Unclear, inflexible, overly constrictive, focus on what employees should not do Clearly stated guidelines and outcomes, focus on what employees should do
Portrayal of employees Commodities, order-takers, untrustworthy Valued and respected members of the team, experts in their area
Portrayal of management All-knowing experts, enforcers Supporters, resources, guides
Ease of use Difficult to find information, confusing messages, no sample forms Easy to find information, descriptive headings, samples of relevant forms


If your answer to the question about whether your staff handbook enables your employees to be successful in their jobs is anything other than a resounding “Yes”! then ask yourself what changes are required to transform it into such a tool.


Senga Allen Managing Director