People don’t follow policies, they follow culture

Sophie was the HR manager in an office of 100 or so workers in the city’s downtown core.

She noticed that too many employees were not putting in their hours. Everyone in the office, from the highest executives down to the lowest positions, straggled in at about 9:30 AM or shortly thereafter, and by 4:30 PM the place was a ghost town.

The office policy was clear:

  • Office hours run from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Every worker in that office was given a copy of that policy when they started. As new employees joined the office, even if they stuck to the 9-to-5 schedule for the first week, it didn’t take very long before they followed the crowd.

Sophie decided that the way to attack the problem was to make the policy statement sound stricter. She got her senior management to approve a buffed-up wording:

  • ALL employees are responsible for ensuring that they are at work no later than 9:00 AM and always staying until AT LEAST 5:00 PM.

Things changed for about a week. The first few work days after the new policy was released, people kept an eye on the clock, but soon after that they went back to their old ways.

It’s easy to see why. The problem was not the policy; the rule was clear as it was originally written. The problem is the culture of the organization.  For Sophie to get what she wants, she needs to change the culture.

Too often organizations use policies to solve problems that are not policy-based.

People don’t follow policies, they follow culture.

We don’t know why the culture in the office is the way it is. It may have something to do with a lack of monitoring, it may have something to do with leadership, it may have something to do with the absence of consequences, or any combination of reasons.

Once we determine what supports the current culture, we will be in a position to make the appropriate changes. We can devise a strategy to change people’s behaviour, and it’s very possible that the strategy might include the redrafting of policy statements. We won’t know that until we know what the strategy is.

Too often organizations use policies to solve problems that are not policy-based. It’s easy to reword a policy, and the traditional control-and-command structure of organizations may have promoted that approach in the past. In today’s world, though, you can’t simply order a culture change and expect people to be compliant.

First create a strategy to effect a change, then determine if a change of policy is required to support the strategy.

More Policy Writing Tips

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You’ll find information on writing titles for policy instruments and many related topics in Respectful Policies and Directives, available at any bookstore.

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