Solomon Carter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a compliance professional and corporate trainer specializing in curricula development and an executive at All Power In His Hands Christian Mission in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Policies and procedures are the single greatest doorway to legal liability and risk for an organization. And within that, every single thing you’re taught, formally or informally, is in fact a policy the second someone does it. And quite frankly, even if they don’t.
The first way to mitigate a risk-tolerant culture is to apply a three-pronged litmus test to your policies and procedures. Each of the three prongs, though dynamic in their own right, when brought together collectively, will offer your organization the kind of synergy that provides the risk insulation needed for ethics, compliance, and performance excellence.
The first prong: Policies and procedures should be written
The first prong is short and sweet. Ensure that there are comprehensive written policies and procedures to address every single operational and administrative function of your organization. Don’t take anything that’s been normalized for granted. If you can think of something that you routinely do in the course of your work day that’s not written, then you are potentially exposing yourself to undue legal liability and risk. And if it’s something “so simple and routine,” then that’s even more reason why you should take two minutes to write it down and document it as a written policy!
Policies should be written as if everyone well acquainted with the system will be transferred, fired, or resign tomorrow without briefing your new staff. It should be a point-and-click kind of thing. If you have to explain how something is done after a new employee reads a policy, then it needs to be rewritten for better functionality and lower risk. Remember, policies and procedures = insulation.
The second prong: Do what’s written
The second prong is to ensure that there is no separation between what’s written and what’s done. A failure to grasp and comply with this standard is a huge cultural phenomenon in organizations of all statures and can have a pernicious effect on a brand, performance, and your risk matrix. It’s an issue I find myself talking about a lot because it’s something that I see quite often.
To be clear, if there is even one person in your organization who’s responsible for leading/training staff, or even worse, someone without such a title but who actively trains and influences others, and you’ve heard them say, “This is what the policy says, but let me tell you how it’s really done,” then you are being exposed to severe liability and risk. Like many paths that lead to a dark place, this employee will be convinced that they’re doing the company a favor by circumventing policy when in fact, it’s the exact opposite.
In many instances, I’ve found that organizations that allow this kind of behavior do it because they lack the wisdom, expertise, and prowess to devise functional policies and procedures that speak directly to insulating the firm, insulating staff, and equally allowing employees to excel at the tasks placed before them. But it’s still no excuse, because the smartest people I know are always quick to seek counsel in the multitude of others. Not knowing how to balance risk and performance objectives isn’t a crime, but failing to have the wisdom to seek counsel on how to achieve it is.
The days of it being an open secret that it’s impossible for staff to do what’s asked of them if they follow the written policies will go the way of the dodo—particularly when evaluating the litigious options afforded to employees who are wrongfully disciplined and terminated for violating a written policy that everyone knows was impossible to follow, in order to get a decent evaluation, achieve a bonus, and remain employed. From a performance standpoint, that kind of environment will never yield the kind of excellence and employee loyalty needed to be the best of anything anyway. Any success an organization has in that model is fleeting at best.
The only remedy
If you have a written policy that would make it impossible for employees to succeed, if your team were to follow it word for word, then you need to sit down with the stakeholders and figure out how to:
Reconcile the policy with what’s done,
Reconcile what’s done with the policy, or
Put the kibosh on the policy and do a complete rewrite.
But whatever you do, don’t ignore it and allow the misalignment to continue. Having policies and procedures that everyone knows have nothing to do with how things are really done is bait for liability and risk.