Trust Among Your Team Trumps Policies

Yes, you could ask employees to prove that they were really out sick or at their grandmother's funeral. Instead, why not treat people like grown-ups?

Dear Liz,

Our company is growing—that's the good news. I joined in '05 when there were 200 employees, and we all knew one another to at least a small degree because we were located in just two facilities in the same city. Now, we have more than 1,000 employees in several locations and the culture is rapidly changing. I am the HR manager, and I'm under pressure from several managers to install policies meant to prevent some kind of abuse or other.

One policy that managers want to change is the Bereavement Leave policy. Right now, we don't ask for any kind of proof of death or a funeral notice, and some of our managers want to begin to do that. Another policy that I'm getting pressure on is the sick-time policy. I've got managers pushing me to create a policy that requires a doctor's note on the second date out of the office with an illness or injury. These don't feel to me like the right policies for us to be implementing, but I need some ammunition to fight the "more policies are better" trend. Any ideas?


Dear Joe,

It's a tough transition for a company to go from the grassroots stage to something bigger. It's not uncommon for some infrastructure to be installed during that phase change, and HR policies are one of the most common elements of infrastructure. Managers may feel a loss of control, and that creates a desire in them for more rules, more laws, more guidelines to keep people in order.

If you can learn more about what's motivating your colleagues to push for more policies, that will help you settle on a course of action. For example, they may feel that before, when everyone knew each other, there was a kind of family—granted, a large, extended family—feeling and that meant people could be trusted. If that's the case, perhaps the emphasis should be on managers creating a culture of trust among their teams rather than crafting policies that would do just the opposite.

A big challenge for many managers, especially less-experienced ones, is the notion of initiating conversations with their employees on sensitive subjects. If a boss has one or two instances of something unexpected and unwelcome happening (an employee comes to work dressed inappropriately, for instance) that boss may lean toward pushing HR to implement a new policy. One new policy means one sticky conversation that the reluctant boss doesn't have to have.

That would explain why, when a manager may have doubted the word of an employee using Bereavement Leave, the manager's first instinct is to ask you to change the policy. If the Bereavement Leave policy requires employees to present written proof that Grandma died (and in fact that Grandma was even still around), one problem is solved. No one can successfully abuse the Bereavement Leave policy—at least not without some real work and ingenuity.

But in dealing with one's manager's problem, you've created a new, bigger one: Now ALL of your employees have gotten the message that your company doesn't trust them not to fabricate relatives' deaths and the existence of the relatives themselves. Do you really want to send such an insulting message to your team?

This is the trickiest—some would say most fun, also—aspect of HR leadership. You're the Culture Minister, and you've got to decide where to draw the lines. I'd advise you to strenuously resist all efforts to infantilize your employees by assuming that if they don't bring you a piece of paper saying that Grandma died, then there is no Grandma or she didn't die. (By the way, plenty of families don't have funerals anymore and/or prefer that no obituary or death notice is published in the paper.)

The same principles apply with your sick-leave policy. You can require employees to trot off to the doctor's office after two days of illness or even one day, but at what cost? Most of us will lie in bed for two days with a common flu rather than spend time and money on a doctor visit, especially since the doctor's advice for flu will be "Get plenty of rest and drink fluids." (And good luck getting to see a doctor on one day's notice.) Why would we as employers want to be so heavy-handed as to require our trusted colleagues to prove to us that they were indeed sick with flu and not malingering?

Instead of putting all our ducks in the "prove it to me" basket, we can initiate conversations with our teammates—at a Town Hall meeting for instance, or via a company blog—that use the group's creativity and life experience to sift through these issues. Such a move will also remind your employees that you value their ideas and rely on them to get your company's work done. In the long run, this approach will net you better results than battening down the policy hatches. You might even appoint an advisory committee, made up of employees from various departments, to meet regularly on policy issues with you and interested managers.

If you can help your fellow managers over the hump that gets them from "my small team who I picked myself is 100% trustworthy" to "no employee can be trusted, and we'll make sure they never get anything over on us" you'll have something to be proud of, and your customers (not to mention employees) will thank you for maintaining an organizational culture that hires only grown-ups and then treats people like grown-ups. (That style of management may be the competitive weapon of the coming decade.)