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Friday, March 20, 2015

The Elegance of the Fourth Rule

Many years ago, I went camping with my family, and I recall seeing the camp rules posted up on a wooden board as we drove into the camp.  They went something like this:

1. No swimming in the lake after dark

2. Clean up your garbage before you leave the camp

3. Be courteous to your neighbours

4. Don’t make us make another rule

Really, I might have mis-remembered the first three rules, but that last one has stuck in my head – so many companies have pages and pages of documents.  I suppose sometimes it’s necessary – when I helped a company I worked for register under ISO 27001 we had to document every single process.  But looking back, I bet I could have cut our 15 lb. policy binder down by at least 5 lbs. by creating the rule “Don’t make us make another rule”.

When we started our company at Kingston Data and Credit, I thought long and hard about what had worked and what hadn’t at previous companies I had worked with, or I had observed from working with colleagues.  And really, there are lots of ways to avoid making endless policies.

Trust Everyone and Think The Best of Them

If your company has a policy for how to store food in the corporate fridge, odds are you don’t trust folks to act like responsible adults – its likely someone proved to you in the past that they couldn’t handle the responsibility of taking food home at the end of the day or work week, and the Avacado and Ham Sandwich Incident of 2005 still haunts your halls and is a hushed story of legend.  But really, do you need to kill half a tree in documenting a policy?

Don’t Expect Your Manuals To Manage People

So let’s say you have someone who isn’t dressing professionally, or offhandedly says inappropriate comments – do you hide in your office and create a set of rules, hoping it will fix the problem?  Or do you talk to your co-workers and ask them to fix problems or understand expectations?  Even better, do you build a company culture that allows your team members to sort things out on their own and solve problems without the intrusive hand of ‘management’?

Honestly, if you have 197 good employees and 3 less-than-good employees, you can try to correct the behaviours of the minority by creating stifling rules, and harming the majority of the people who work with you that could thrive in a more open, accepting environment, or you can deal directly with the issues at hand?  Ultimately, if a small handful of people are being disruptive to your company’s workflow, they need to clearly understand what’s reasonable, or understand that they can’t stay in the company.  That doesn’t mean being cruel, it does mean having honest conversations.

What Do You Really Need To Document

So, if your person responsible for daily reconciliations gets hit by a bus – does someone know how to step into their role and do their job while they recover in the hospital?  Better yet, do you have a step-by-step instruction manual written out to walk someone only moderately familiar with the task through the process?  That’s more important than an abstract HR policy that might not be followed.

If you find a rule that isn’t being followed, or isn’t understood by the majority of your co-workers, or is at odds with how you want to operate, it might be time to consider the fourth rule, and remove it, if you can.

Nothing Is Set In Stone

The other thing to keep in mind is that your rules, set down years ago, might be out of date – they might be irrelevant.  They might even be outright wrong.  Whatever rules and policies you do have should be reviewed, and someone should be the caretaker of the ‘company bible’.  That means keeping the rules up to date, and in line with HR laws in your province or state, but it also means curating the tone and reflecting the culture that you want to promote and maintain.


The reason I’m writing this is that we have a new staff member starting next week, and as I read through our employee manual, I see things out of date, things that we believe in that aren’t written down, and some blatant examples of corporate passive-language mumbo-jumbo that desperately need rewriting into plain English.  

It’s important to constantly evaluate the rules you do need, and make sure they are a living document that is updated as your company grows and evolves – but try to keep the page count to a minimum.

Here are some of my favourite employee manuals … you will notice there isn’t a fridge policy to be found here:

If anyone has questions about company policies and procedures, and how it affects your company’s culture, I’m very interested to talk if you would like – feel free to drop me an email or call.

Thanks kindly,

Blair DeMarco-Wettlaufer
KINGSTON Data and Credit
Cambridge, Ontario

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