Dumb Rules: Is it time to Overhaul Your Workplace?

By Mike Cook

I met with a local employer today to check on how his recovery from a recent off the job injury was going. As usual he was in good spirits, despite the walking cast he is sporting, and we talked for about 45 minutes. His business is doing well but he could be doing a lot more work, in fact he has turned away nearly as much business this year and he will do altogether, for one simple reason, he cannot find enough of the right people. Granted, his is a somewhat specialized business but one that has been around for well over three decades, so we are not talking about rocket scientists, but we are talking about skilled trades people and they are in very high demand, and that goes for all trades at the moment.

As we talked, I got to thinking about the general condition of not only the workforce but the workplace. In my many visits and conversations with local employers I still find that many of them are facing a shortage of what for their business would be good people. While they bemoan the shortage of candidates they often remain focused on having either current employees or potential employees comply with outdated workplace rules. It seems that somehow, somewhere some employers still have the idea that they are creating opportunity for employees when in fact the scales have tipped and what used to be in short supply, capital, has become less so and what used to be ubiquitous, skill, has become the scarce commodity. These same employers also insist on seeing employees as COST when anymore your human capital is best related to as investment. Of course much of this has to do with the nature of the economy in our country, dominated by service/knowledge workers who have to have a wide variety of skills where in the past if you could provide a healthy pair of hands and be on time you could find a job in many industries.

The pool of labor that could perform the tasks required in many legacy industries was vast and largely undifferentiated, simply put, virtually every employee was replaceable by any other. This is much less so today. In our lean organizations almost everyone is a specialist of one kind or another. This being the case, today’s employee is also more mobile than in the past. If employers persist in creating and enforcing unnecessary rules the best of these highly skilled workers can be on the move to a new situation in a matter of hours.

What do I mean by dumb or irritating rules? Let me get more specific and put the issue in the context of trust. Your employees, when they are away from work, engage in any number of transactions that involve risk; purchasing homes and automobiles are prime examples. How is it then that when they come to work, they are often faced with the need to get approvals for common purchases? Before coming back to me with a story about budgets etc., save the story for someone who actually believes your budget is a sacred document rather than a best guess on how you plan to conduct business during a particular period of time. Budgets are meant to be guides not control mechanisms. Where is the logic in being faced with a basic requirement for equipment replacement, needing to get approvals and finding that this quarter you are over your equipment budget, so you’ll just have to wait? Meanwhile, customers are told they must wait for their orders. What is the adherence to the arbitrary numbers doing for the business that the judgment of a talented employee cannot account for during some other period?

So, approvals yes, they are often a reflection of mistrust rather than good financial practice. When talented people are not allowed to do their best work because of some controlling process they begin to question the employer’s commitment to customer satisfaction and quality work. Quietly they begin to pack up their office, knowing that sometime not long from now they will be moving on.

Take a look at your policy manual, first, remind yourself that it is a policy, not a rules manual. If it is longer than a few pages, say seven to ten, it is time for an overhaul. Very likely you are obsessed with control, trying to employee proof your workplace. Give it up. Take a look at the work you are asking you employees to perform; does it require passion, initiative and creativity? If the answer is yes then understand that the people who will perform this kind of work are not only in short supply, they are likely people who work best with as few constraints as possible. If they see constraints, they do not like to play the game, especially if they determine that the constraints are arbitrary and not strategic.

Lastly, be honest with yourself, is your place of work worthy of the types of people you need to attract, clear out the clutter and turn the talent loose.

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