Devil’s advocate: Breaking the rules

Should HR professionals practise what they preach, or is it OK for them to lapse once in a while? Virginia Matthews investigates.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ may be a convenient shorthand for the double standards that exist in many organisations, but when it comes to HR, is it essential to be whiter than white, or are the rules over lunchtime drinking or internet abuse simply there to be broken? Won’t your image improve if you lapse once in a while?

Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management, believes that being seen to be human is important in terms of maintaining morale ‘on the ground’. “HR can too easily be seen as a department that takes pleasure in beating you around the head with numerous policies designed to make work less fun or interesting. The last thing you want HR to do is stop the team from having a glass of wine on someone’s birthday simply because there’s a rule saying no drinking at lunchtime,” she says.

“It’s worth remembering that most policies cover general intent and behaviour rather than hour-by-hour monitoring of staff and in many cases, intent may be more important than the fine print of any policy.”

Long-term relationships

While being seen not to walk the talk is always a risk, de Valk believes there is also the matter of HR building long-term relationships with other departments to consider, which may mean that certain policy areas are up for discussion.

Lucy McGee, head of marketing at the business psychology consultancy OPP, has a more stringent view. She believes HR professionals will always be part-confessor, part-arbiter and part-judge.

“HR managers are seen as the custodians and guardians of an organisation’s culture and in tougher economic times, when there are restraints around spending and behaviour, it is important that they are seen to model the best behaviour,” she says.

“For HR to be shooting holes in the organisation’s aspirations and goals, particularly when times are hard, suggests that those goals were never well thought-out in the first place and possibly aren’t worth the paper they were written on.”

McGee believes that discretion is the most powerful tool in the HR armoury, but it must be used with caution. “People tell HR a lot of things about their problems, whether that’s around maintaining a decent work-life balance, a problematic office liaison or a personal battle with eating or drinking too much,” she adds.

This is when HR must make a difficult decision between giving feedback to senior management and keeping sensitive information to themselves. “This can make HR feel they are between a rock and a hard place,” says McGee.

Indeed, if HR gets the balance wrong between discretion and information, it could be seen as being in the service of management rather than a channel for reaching management, which could ruin its credibility in the long term.

One area where it is important for HR to set a good example is in battling an organisation’s long-hours culture, believes McGee. “If there’s a hard-work culture that’s fine and HR needs to be seen to work hard too. But if it comes down to sheer presenteeism, HR should step back and feed the problem through to the senior team for further debate and possible policy revision.”

But while there’s room for flexibility, should there be one rule for HR, another for the rest of the organisation?

One set of rules

Not according to Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency. “If they’re the rules, everyone must adhere to them, and if lots of people break them, then there’s something wrong with the rules,” she says.

“There’s a tendency to be draconian and for organisations to have a load of regulations and procedures, but it is important to treat your staff like grown-ups and to trust them.”

Most organisations have clear policies on internet abuse, for example, but what about less clear-cut dilemmas around lunchtime drinking, for example? “When it comes to HR saying ‘don’t have a glass of wine at lunchtime,’ that is a step too far and such a policy is begging for rule-breaking unless there are clear health and safety issues involved,” says O’Connor.

Stevan Rolls, HR director at consultancy firm Deloitte, calls for more common sense in terms of the sheer weight of policies introduced by HR. “The biggest problem is the tendency to legislate for everything nowadays, even common sense. The last thing we should be doing is removing individual accountability or assuming that everyone will behave badly.

“I’ve come across occasions when people have complained that they didn’t realise that a particular type of behaviour was in breach of our code of conduct because it wasn’t explicitly laid out in a policy. But I would argue that the best policy is always one of common sense.”

Rolls has no time for rule-breaking by HR. “If a firm has a set of policies regarding drinking or standards of behaviour, then these should be adhered to by everyone. HR rule-breaks should be treated at least as seriously as rule-flouting by anyone else, if not more so.”

This also goes for HR setting an example on working culture, according to Rolls. “Not taking holidays and working excessive hours are harder to police and we can be more lenient if someone’s got some urgent work to complete. But although we all know there is pressure to deliver, ultimately, HR professionals running themselves into the ground is an important people management issue too,” he says.

Set a good example

It’s also advisable for HR professionals to set a good example when it comes to office relationships. Donna Miller, European HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, learnt early on that her company’s office romance policy was strictly enforced. “When I joined the firm, I was delighted to find that it was full of graduates and many of us saw it as a fantastic dating pool.

“But my managing director explained that there was a‘no fraternisation’ policy covering direct reports and subordinates and I understood that and respected it.

“When I moved into HR, I was told I wouldn’t be able to date anyone in the organisation and although I’ve been tempted many times, I love my job too much to take the risk.”

Miller also has first-hand experience of HR breaking the rules. “Some years ago, we had an annual people policy meeting where we stayed in a hotel for a couple of days. Two of the people there – usually well-behaved and sober – broke into the pool one night after they had been drinking.

“We were all astonished that they had climbed over the fence in the middle of night. There was an uncomfortable meeting with the boss regarding the behaviour expected of staff on company business. They saved their jobs on that occasion and never broke out again.”

This sort of behaviour is rare – few HR professionals believe it is appropriate to be the one who is drunk in a corner at an office party. And while that might make sober reading, doing your best to follow the rules will never harm your career.

What’s the point of policies?

“Policies on work-life balance and combating the long-hours culture sound PC and attractive, but if senior managers inside and outside HR are breaking the spirit of them as a matter of course, then they should be torn up and re-thought,” says Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management.

“Various policies regarding dignity at work and respect for others are to be applauded. But if bullying behaviour is sanctioned inside board meetings – which in my experience is hardly a rarity – then these policies don’t hold water.”

“And lastly, there are the beautifully worded health and safety procedures that forbid staff from lifting boxes or fiddling with the coffee machine. But as long as people continue to shift heavy equipment or attempt DIY repairs on office machines as a matter of course, the policies don’t amount to much.”

Comments are closed.