Lawyers love to tell you about all the things you need to do. HR professionals are experts in compliance. Employee handbooks are mind-numbing tomes of legal drivel.
To most of us, the word "policy" is on par with "taxes" and "contracts" as one of the lowest expressions of business tedium. To a wise few, however, the word "policy" signifies opportunity.
A policy is a rule that governs your business. What kind of business do you want it to be? Sure, there are laws out there. We need to adhere to them. But policies can help to do more than define the requirements for jury duty and worker's comp. They can help define your culture.
The clever few who have realized this are reaping gains. Their policies are recruiting tools. They increase retention. They improve performance.
You know better than I the specific company culture you are striving to maintain. You'll likely know better what specific policies would work for your organization. But the following four categories of corporate guidelines illustrate how great companies are thinking differently about using policy to inspire better workplaces and better results.
In 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings released a presentation that provided a straw man glimpse into the culture of one of the most innovative companies in the world. The document has nearly 6 million views on SlideShare.
In it, he outlines the difference between "good processes" and "bad processes." Good ones help talented people get work done. Bad ones attempt to prevent "recoverable mistakes." He cites things like requiring written approvals for minor expenses and having three people review and approve banner ads as examples of bad policies -- things I'm sure many folks in our industry can appreciate.
In Hastings' view, we should make sure we have great people and then do everything possible to avoid "rule creep." Make no policy your policy.
Like many in advertising and technology industries, you've probably had your share of nights and weekends. So had the folks at Netflix.
"Until 2004, we had the standard model of N days per year. Meanwhile, we're all working online some nights and weekends, responding to emails at odd hours, spending some afternoons on personal time, and taking good vacations. An employee pointed out, 'We don't track hours worked per day or per week, so why are we tracking days of vacations per year?' We realized we should focus on what people got done, not on how many days worked. We don't need a vacation policy."
At Netflix they just hire great people and trust them. According to Hastings, there's also no clothing policy at Netflix, but they trust people not to show up naked.
Maybe tracking hours is essential to how you run your business. Maybe the notion of not having vacation time makes your head explode. That's OK. There are other opportunities to govern less and trust more.
At my agency, Traction, I'd like to think we have a pretty amazing culture. Part of that culture is that we have flextime. Some folks show up for work at 10 a.m. or later. If they come in late, they leave late. They make themselves available if they're needed for a meeting. At least I assume they do. I don't pay close attention.
Those same folks sometimes are up at a 4:30 a.m. to handle a program launch, however. Others might be at the office until 11:30 p.m. working on a pitch. I know they bust ass, I know they do great work, and I know they care about doing it right. So, I trust them.
Come up with some policies -- or get rid of some -- to demonstrate trust.
In Traction's employee manual -- the one with all the legalese that we hand out on an employee's first day of work -- we have a section on "Leaves of Absence." In that section, we have all the typical stuff you need to have in order to follow the law: military leave, maternity leave, disability leave, and jury duty leave.
We also have tucked into that section a not-so-typical item: The Burning Man Policy. The Burning Man Policy states, "Traction will prioritize requests for paid or unpaid vacation to attend events that inspire or enhance professional and/or creative development such as Burning Man or SXSW."
Now you can ask your HR person, but I'm pretty confident there's no legal requirement for such a policy to exist. I admit it's been a bit inconvenient to plan staffing the last week in August at least a couple of times over the past decade. And it has been carefully worded by "the people with red pens" so we're not committed to letting people run off to the desert if we have client work to deliver.
Then why have it?
Because it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to say, "Hey people! We value creativity! We value innovation! We value making the time to find inspiration!"
And it works. My employees have blogged about it. I've gotten scores of emails from people who read about it and wanted to work at Traction because of it. The folks at Burning Man have invited me to lunch at their HQ in San Francisco to discuss it. Most importantly, many of our people have taken advantage of it. They've gone to these events and come back inspired.
At Traction, we are creative thinkers. We are consistent innovators. I believe The Burning Man Policy is one small reason why.
Of course, you may not like to run around naked in the desert. Perhaps you are fair of skin. Does that mean you can't make a statement? Hell no.
Look at Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz who published an open letter to explain the brand's policy on why it doesn't allow firearms inside its stores.
I used to think that Starbucks was the evil empire of coffee. Now, I think Starbucks is a company that shares my values, and I'm happy to spend my money there. That's policy that works.
Here's a secret about great people: They all care about their professional career growth. Not their career path -- their career growth. I'm not talking about being hung up on job titles. Great people want to grow. They want to learn and be challenged. So, create policies to invest in their growth.
Google is infamous for letting people spend 20 percent of their time on pet projects. That's a huge amount of time. It's questionable if any major revenue generating lines of business have emerged as a direct result of this policy. Yet, it remains part of the Google story.
As a CEO concerned with the bottom line I look at that and say, "Whoa." Yet, Googlers are very good at math. I'm sure someone in the complicated math department over there whiteboarded up some complex equation illustrating quite clearly that the talent acquisition and retention benefits alone outweigh the cost of having such a policy.
Why? Because the No. 1 thing that separates great companies from mediocre ones is great people. And great people want to grow. The greatest want to grow a lot. Google lets them. So Google wins.
Last year, I was asked to be on a panel at an event held by San Francisco State about the Millennial workforce. One of my co-panelists was Andy Scollan, director of sales development at Salesforce, a company that knows a thing or two about selling. (Full disclosure: Salesforce has been a client of Traction).
Scollan shared that Salesforce used to have a policy of giving spot bonuses to motivate short-term performance among its rank and file sales team (i.e., hit your quota this week and you'll get $500 cash for the weekend). Over time, however, they noticed this kind of bonus was waning in effectiveness. The money wasn't talking.
So, they did something brilliant. They asked their team what would motivate them. What they learned was that the team was more interested in earning a bonus in collaboration than they were in receiving it individually. The public recognition made them uncomfortable.
So, Salesforce started giving spot bonuses to teams based on group performance goals. And it worked.
In order for a motivating policy to work, it needs to fulfill two criteria:
One, it must motivate the right behavior. Be wary of driving people to achieve one goal that could come at the detriment of another.
Two, it must actually motivate people. Think of it like marketing. The best way to understand customers is to talk to customers. The best way to understand employees is to talk to employees.
Take the police out of your policies
What's the common thread here? Too often policies are considered tools for policing. They exist to mitigate risk and check boxes. Those are important things to do, perhaps. But the thing all of the policies here have in common is that they are not about policing. They are policies that empower.
I'm not saying throw out the employee manual that's collecting dust on the shelf in your office. But leaf through it, and look for opportunities. Somewhere in there is an opportunity to take a mundane stricture and transform it into a valuable asset to your business. What will it be?
If you've got a great policy you think readers could benefit from, please leave a comment and share.
"Young businessman relaxing at his desk" image via Shutterstock.