Policies, startups, and small HR departments

Pants policyTwo great comments stood out to me when I attended the session on running a small HR department recently, but they prompted a related question I need a little help with.

Don’t create a policy just for the sake of having one.

Fantastic. We have too many policies as it is. Totally agree.

Don’t create policies to deal with outliers.

Another good one. Use coaching and one-on-one feedback to handle issues with onesies and twosies; don’t punish the bunch because of one bad apple.

So… When do you?

The question I have is when do you create a policy? When does it go beyond personal one-on-one coaching and become “official?” One of my friends has a saying, “Don’t make me create a policy for that.” :-) While it’s said in jest, there has to be a time where a policy is necessary (right?).

So… When?

Let’s hear some thoughts and suggestions!

11 thoughts on “Policies, startups, and small HR departments

  1. HR Introvert

    First rule of policy making: Don’t follow the example of federal government.
    So actually, our founding fathers had it right with the constitution, but even that proved to be lacking as society grew and human ingenuity led to changing the environment beyond what many could imagine. But a workplace isn’t a country. You can throw out the whole rulebook at once and start again if you want to.
    I once worked in a union shop that had a pretty big contract book, and an even bigger collection of “memorandums (memorandi?) of agreement”. Documents that resolved grievances and other issues that the contract did not specifically address. Some of the agreements dated back to 1960 and no one could remember why they came to be in the first place.
    So in a major negotiation, we killed the MOA booklet, and incorporated a set of principles into the new contract. We then used those as the basis for making decisions in response to employee complaints, which forced the union leadership to be true business partners in helping resolve issues.
    To your question: Create a policy when existing policies and practices are either in conflict with the businesses needs, or inadequate for the potential of a situation that is likely to re-occur. And think about a policies like clothes in a full closet. If something comes in, is there something you aren’t likely to wear again that you can get rid of?

  2. Laurel

    The words “can we make a policy for this?” make me so anxious. And somehow my response of “that’s really more of a coaching point” don’t seem to break through to some people.
    Honestly, it is my biggest pet peeve in HR right now.

    1. Ben Post author

      @Laurel I’d give you a pat on the back for that one, but it’s a long reach. Settle for an enthusiastic nod of agreement. :-)
      @Introvert That’s an amazing response and I really love the last metaphor about clothes. Something new comes in? Something old has to go out. Appreciate the comment!
      @Alison Great one! Thanks for that. Love 37signals but hadn’t seen that post.

  3. Lyn Hoyt

    Thanks for this post Ben. It is speaking to ME! I am hyper aware sometimes about trying to set in pieces of organization as we grow so when we finally hire a REAL HR pro (rather than calling the consultant when I am in a bind), we look like we have our ducks in a row. My biggest fear is that we will make the call we need a PRO when something legal comes in to play and it is a reactive rather than pro-active. I want to be pro-active by setting precedent, not necessarily policy. Thanks for the commenters too. Organically growing HR organizational decisions and not forcing bureaucracy on my small group of employees is good advice. I actually want to feel like I am really growing a job function for my “one day” HR manager, rather than spinning policy for my employees.

  4. Ben Post author

    @Lyn I really like the “organic growth” phrase, and thanks for emphasizing being proactive over reactive. I’ve talked on that before, but I didn’t think about it when it came to this post.

    Fantastic comment!

  5. Sophie Lemieux

    Hi Ben,
    I’ve been working for a small company for a year now. And I was the first HR to be hired so no policies had been written yet…yeah!! I totally appreciate this and make a point of trying to keep it that way as long as possible. And the big question is: When is a good time to create a policy? I think it’s when the time comes where you need more structure to keep things fair and business wise. But before that times comes, judgment is the best rule of all!

  6. Ben Post author

    @Sophie Love it! Stay small as long as you can. I guess when it becomes too much to coach people one-on-one and give them the personal touch every time is when a policy or something formal becomes necessary. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  7. Leon Noone

    G’Day Ben,

    I reckon Sophie’s got it right. The role of HR people is to help managers and their staff to make a bigger and better contribution to the success of the business. That’s the only way you’re going to get manager’s professional respect and co-operation.

    Sorry if that sounds like heresy from an old dog from Down Under. But I learnt that eventually.
    Years ago I had the good fortune to be headhunted into a wonderful Training Manager job. Shortly after I’d started, the CEO said to me that he saw my role as ensuring that everyone was fully trained to do their jobs . I replied; “No; it’s my job to see that every manager understands that it’s their job to see that every one’s fully trained and my job is to ensure they have the resources to do that.”

    Yes, it’s quite extraordinary what you can get away with when you’re headhunted. But I’d say the same thing today.

    To loosely paraphrase JFK “Ask first what you can do for your company.” Don’t waste time and money grinding out policies that most people will probably ignore the moment that they perceive don’t help them get what they want.

    And, of course, make sure you have fun.



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