Policies are the backbone of every organization. Even start-up companies that don’t yet have formal policies follow long-standing, commonly accepted “rules” of individual and corporate behavior — implicit policies (e.g., the “Golden Rule”) that guide them. Formal, written policies guide appropriate (ethical) behavior in larger companies. Yet, everyone has had to deal sooner or later with policies that are so poorly written that they’re without meaning and validity. In short, they’re unenforceable. But if good policies are so important to the company, what are the reasons why policies are unenforceable?
Top 7 Reasons Why Policies Are Unenforceable
1. Policies are Written for Problems That Don’t Exist
The first reason why policies are unenforceable is because the problem they are written for doesn’t really exist. Outside of the corporate policy statement — which stems from your vision and mission statements — a policy statement is generally a response to a problem. Policy is one aspect of a plan to rectify the problem (a corrective action, if you will). One example of a policy written in response to a problem is, “We will respond to every customer complaint within 24 hours.”
You write such a policy not for an isolated complaint, but because complaints are piling on top of complaints and customers are beyond “dissatisfied”. If you’re introducing a new product or line of business and you have no customers yet…well, what’s the point of having a complaint policy? How would you know if it’s appropriate if you’ve never received a complaint?
2. Employees Are Unaware That a Policy Exists
If you have a policy that no one knows about, it’s as bad as having no policy. The last time you wrote and implemented a policy, how did you get the word out to employees? How do you notify new employees that the policy exists and how do you train them?
- They’re too long. Observe – but do not follow blindly – the Golden Rule of Policy Writing. If it’s longer than twenty words, make sure the point of the policy is perfectly clear.
- Their scope is undefined or unclear. Who does the policy apply to? Under what conditions? If it’s a blanket policy, it’s not an appropriate response to a specific problem.
- The policy is too complex. Another Golden Rule of Policy Writing ought to be “stay away from buzzwords, jargon, and platitudes”. Get to the point.
- It’s too vague. If the average employee can’t tell who the policy is meant for, what the point of the policy is, or you use indefinite words like “sometimes” or “often”, your policy will eventually be misinterpreted.
Also, if your policy lacks specific terms of compliance (e.g., a definition of compliance, how to monitor it, and what to measure), how do you know if people are complying?
4. It’s Unclear Who Owns the Policy
Who has additional information regarding the policy? Who is empowered to make policy changes? If you’re not empowered but you see a need for a change, who do you go to and how do you get it taken care of?
5. Responsibility for Policy Enforcement is Unclear
Whether the penalty for a policy violation is “a maximum of 30 days in jail, $5,000 fine, or both”, “thirty lashes at the mast”, probationary status, or a stern talking-to, who’s going to enforce the policy? What enforcement tools are you giving them?
6. Consequences of Policy Violation Are Unclear or Don’t Exist
How do you reward compliance? How do you penalize noncompliance? Is the reward or penalty appropriate to the noncompliance? (Or, do you figure on using the “honor system?”)
7. People Don’t Believe in the Policy
The last reason why policies are unenforceable is because people just flat out don’t believe in it. This ties together “not understanding the policy” and “who owns the policy”. If your employees don’t understand the reason for the policy – if they don’t buy into it – they’re not going to throw their weight behind it. People need to have a vested interest in policy development, implementation, and enforcement. They need to participate in – have a stake in the outcome of – the process.
So, if you want meaningful, effective, and enforceable policies, start with these seven basic tenets:
- Don’t write a policy for a nonexistent problem;
- Be sure all employees are fully informed;
- Write policies so they’re easy to understand;
- Let everyone know who “owns” the policy;
- Make it clear how the policy will be enforced and by whom;
- State the consequences of noncompliance; and
- Implement policies people can believe in.
Do you have an example of a really good – or a truly atrocious – policy? If it’s an example of “bad policy”, how might you make it right?
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