Writing a Set of RulesWednesday, February 9th, 2011
Rule books can so easily become out of date. The work environment changes, standards change, and perhaps nobody has ever really noticed that many of the rules are now redundant or inappropriate. There have been cases where employees have had disciplinary sanctions overturned because the rule book did not make clear that what they had done was wrong. Rules are not, or certainly should not be, repressive. Their purpose is to set boundaries for behaviour and to make employees fully aware of what they can and cannot do. This in turn gives your employees security and confidence. So, if you consider that your rule book requires a complete rewrite, this is the way to go about it.
Recognise at the outset that, if your rules are to be accepted by your whole workforce, then everyone needs to feel that their views and concerns have been taken into account. For this reason form a small group of employees who between them represent the main sections of the workforce, for example managers, team leaders, administrative staff, assembly staff, thus covering the people who will be bound by the rules and those who will be responsible for applying them. Explain to this group the purpose of the exercise, which is to produce a set of rules that leaves everybody knowing where they stand and indicates the limits of managers’ enforcement authority.
Begin by insisting that nobody at this stage refers to other employers’ handbooks, ones that they may have retained from previous employment. What you are going to produce is something that is unique to your organisation and that is to be tailored to meet its needs. Set up a flip-chart and ask the team members to call out topics that need to be covered by rules. Insist on one word only such as “alcohol”, “gambling”, “lateness”. Write everything down without discussion at this stage. When the topics stop coming in, then – but only then – allow team members to bring out their old rulebooks or other literature to see if there is anything in them that may be useful. There may be some merit in ending the meeting at that point, but asking at the beginning of the next if anyone meanwhile has thought of anything to add, perhaps as a result of talking to colleagues.
The next task is to examine each topic in turn and decide what exactly needs to be controlled. Taking the previous examples, someone may suggest that alcohol be banned from the site. Another may point out that that presents a problem because the chief executive gives a glass of sherry to retiring employees and the sales director serves wine over lunch to important customers. Yet another may say that she does her weekly shop on Friday morning, brings her bags into the cloakroom and they include a six-pack of lager. Clearly there is conflict here that demands discussion and resolution. However urge team members not to try to express their solution to the problem as a rule, but rather as what precisely they feel needs to be controlled, such as “We don’t want people drinking alcohol unless somebody senior says it is OK”. Gambling might produce views that playing cards for money is certainly not on, but there is no harm surely in selling raffle tickets for charity. In that case you may finish up with a statement that “No form of gambling should take place without permission of the department head, though he or she is likely to allow a limited number of raffles for charity”. The topic of lateness is likely to result in discussion and a number of statements covering the problems that lateness causes, how many times an employee is allowed to be late before disciplinary action is taken, what reasons for lateness might be acceptable, what should an employee do if he or she seems likely to be late. This really is the most important part of the whole exercise and is likely to require more than one session so that brains do not become over-tired. Certainly when the job appears to be done, a further meeting should be arranged to go over everything and check that all is clear. The aim is to get agreement on each issue or at least acceptance that management really does have to control it in a certain way. Usually, if the exercise is given enough time, full agreement is reached on everything because employers and employees all require the security of a structure, boundaries that each recognises and respects.
These statements now need to be translated into rules and really this is a job for one person and not a committee – remember the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Pick someone who can write simple, clear English. Perhaps someone who writes your advertising copy or edits your house magazine because they will understand the importance of saying all that needs to be said in few words. If you find yourself landed with this job, put aside the flowing phrases of The Times or The Guardian and instead have a look at the leader in The Sun. Short paragraphs, short sentences, short words, yet full of meaning. Express your rules in that way. Write such that an employee who struggles to read can understand what you have written. The greatest intellect in the organisation will also understand and will not criticise you for writing too simply.
Finally consider how you will publish your rules. The traditional and perhaps still best way is to produce a handbook that is issued to every employee who will then be able to consult it at home. Producing it in loose-leaf form, though perhaps more expensive initially, will enable you to issue amendments easily. A reference copy should also be held in central places or perhaps displayed on notice boards. Consider also how to get your rules across to people who cannot deal easily with a printed book. You may find it prudent to engage a special trainer to teach the rules to someone who has difficulty learning. You may choose to have it produced in Braille if some of your employees read that way. And you may have to find someone to translate the rules into a foreign language if you employ people whose first language is not English.
Your rules are the structure within which people work. If they are relevant and clear, everyone – managers and the managed – know their rights and you are likely to enjoy a well behaved workforce.