Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | August 7, 2012

HR Concepts: Policies, Procedures, and Creativity

HR Concepts: Policies, Procedures, and Creativity
by Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

HR is too often perceived as the “No” Department. It is sometimes referred to as the Corporate “Police” Department. These and other not so flattering labels often stem from a responsibility to develop, implement, and administer corporate policies. It is a conundrum with no easy answer.

Make no mistake, consistency, ethics, and compliance are core HR responsibilities. Policies are the vehicle that drives them home for an employer. In contrast, however, HR also works tirelessly to build a creative, innovative, and flexible workforce. That talent management goal and the core purpose of most policies can create conflict at best, and paralysis at worst.

The Policy Problem
Policies establish boundaries. They set limits on what people can and cannot do. In fact, many policies do a better job of telling people what not to do than what to do.

Sexual harassment is a prime example. The goal of a sexual harassment policy is to assure that each individual is treated with respect for their professional role in the workplace. You rarely find those words, much less a list of examples of how to achieve it, in a harassment policy. Instead, you find a long list of prohibited behaviors. The policy, and often the law, explains what not to do. As a result, people focus on avoiding bad behaviors rather than on practicing good behaviors. It is a little like your best friend in the third grade telling you, “Don’t step on the crack.”

The World at Work
In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams describe a world-wide movement to break away from traditional organizational structure. Linux, Wikipedia, and numerous other examples point to organizations working outside of traditional lines. They are places where stodgy, “we have always done it that way” approaches are out of place and out line.

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hseih describes a full-fledged commitment to creating a culture at Zappos that maximizes customer service with little reverence for traditional policy and procedure restrictions. It starts with a list of unique values (Google: Zappos Core Values) that tell people what to do to create a culture, brand, and strategic position for Zappos.

In Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes a personal journey through thirty years at Hallmark Cards where he fought the urge to be “normal” in the context of a traditional corporation. He argues that policies rarely retire into the sunset. Rather, they accumulate revisions and iterations that make them ever more complex, confusing, and restricting i.e., hairball).

These are not stories about the future. They are examples of here and now. They are testimony to a gigantic HR challenge to find a balance between setting boundaries and creating creativity. Dr. Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science) reminds us that despite the fervent hopes of many managers (and HR professionals) nothing in life is perfectly aligned. Living organizations move, adjust, and adapt with a frequency that is rarely appreciated or understood.

Creating Creative
“Crazy like a fox” describes a behavior that looks foolish at first glance, yet proves in the end to be quite shrewd. Would Disneyland be what it is today if Walt Disney had hired employees instead of cast members? Would Macintosh have led the way to Apple’s success if Steve Jobs had housed the development team any place other than a building away from headquarters with a pirate’s flag hoisted high above to empower renegade behavior?

The simple challenge for HR is to recognize and support creativity. It is to avoid saying “we can’t do that” and to find ways that will “enable us to do that.” It starts with a basic question:

“Do our HR policies support flexibility, innovation, and creativity?”

The answer must always be yes. Every HR initiative from work station design to leadership development requires a commitment to supporting a living, breathing organization that continuously adapts to market conditions.

We looked at sexual harassment a moment ago. Let’s look at it again. Let’s change the policy to read something like this:

The goal of every interaction in our workplace is to encourage sharing and the free exchange of ideas in an environment where every participant leaves the discussion with a feeling of respect for their professional role.

Consider the goal for a leadership development program that reads something like this:

Participants will leave this training experience equipped to create collaboration on their team that results in finding the best solution from an open, honest discussion about business issues and alternatives.

Think about a performance review policy:

The purpose of our performance review program is to create opportunities for future success by reinforcing successful contributions, collaborating to find solutions to performance deficiencies, and to facilitate the transition through changing work assignments and conditions.

Indeed, policies and procedures are important. In Dr. Wheatley’s terms, they serve as the banks of a river. They keep the water from raging out of control. Within the river banks, however, the water runs, churns, and chops to adjust and adapt to ever changing environmental conditions. HR policies provide the river banks of organizational security and compliance. They must do so without disrupting the eco-system that enables the organization to create, innovate, and adjust.

A strategically driven HR program places creativity creation above all other priorities. It constantly mines the landscape to look at policies and practices that get in the way of an organization adjusting and adapting to an ever changing marketplace.

A Personal Note
All good things eventually come to an end. And so it is with HR Concepts. The first article, Workplace Violence: A Growing Concern, appeared in the August 1995 edition of PIHRAScope. It has been a great honor and an adventure to find and develop a topic for each edition since then. Over the years, many of you have written, called, or stopped by to share a thought or observation about an article. Those moments have made the hours of writing and editing special and worthwhile. I thank you and invite you to stay in touch through The Deblieux Report (

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for first-line supervisors. He facilitates team retreats and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike has written HR Concepts since 1995 to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at


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