Skip to Content

The Problem With Overly Rigid Human Resource Policies

Many human resources policies and regulations are useful, to be sure. Someone has to set a company-wide vacation policy and establish the window for when employees may choose their healthcare provider and 401k contribution. Someone has to establish personnel policies overall.

But what if the policies become overly prescriptive and rigid? What if the rigidity has unintended negative consequences for employees, managers, and company goals? How should managers negotiate these waters?

A recent Harvard Business Review gives several stunning examples of counterproductive HR policies.

Example 1: A star employee was spending hours in a long commute. Her request to start the work day an hour earlier to cut down on commute time was met with a ‘no’ because HR believed the company ran the risk of everyone wanting to do it.

Example 2: A home improvement company terminating an employee who had called 911 to catch a shoplifter rather than alerting company security personnel. The grounds for firing? The employee hadn’t followed company policy, which was to go through security.

Example 3: A healthcare system made it a rule that employees smile within a certain number of feet of a customer.

Although these examples can all be grouped broadly under “too rigid rules,” the reasons they aren’t good business strategy vary slightly.

Growing companies may need top performers more than they need rigid rules.

Driving Out Top Performers

In the first instance, the employee was a top-performing salesperson.

  • First, a case could be made that her hours spent commuting, if lessened, could have directly contributed toward the company’s revenue.
  • Second, – and perhaps more important to her manager – top-performing salespeople are usually well able to negotiate for a more accommodating workplace.

That is precisely what happened in this instance. Her company lost her contribution entirely.

Should top performers be able to bend rules? Perhaps it’s necessary to reframe the conversation. As a contributor to a Forbes forum points out, holding back a top performer can have negative consequences just because of their ability to negotiate.

If company policy is to not promote until a year has passed, for example, a stellar performer may be able to negotiate an offer from a competitor after six months and leave.

If it’s an issue of company goals (revenue objectives, to be precise) over following the rulebook, perhaps the rulebook needs flexible revision to obtain the more macro goal.

Fostering a Negative Environment Rather than a Positive One

The second two examples illustrate a different set of issues.

Overly prescriptive rules (like the smiling edict) or overly zealous enforcement of a rule (the 911) tend to set a negative tone rather than a positive one. They focus on what you must do rather than fostering an overall commitment to company goals.

The smiling rule, for example, was undoubtedly undertaken as a customer service measure. But a smile, after all, is only one small aspect of good and welcoming customer service. A training program emphasizing friendliness and empathy might have been ultimately more productive than an enforcement of micro-behavior.

The 911 incident was undoubtedly meant to enforce compliance with the company rules. But stopping theft and reducing pilferage are also very likely company goals. In that case, two sets of goals were in conflict. Theft reduction would seem to be the more macro goal. Perhaps emphasizing that to employees would have helped.

Although HR policies are necessary, they can be overly rigid in ways that can drive out top performers and set a negative tone rather than a positive one. A focus on flexible rules is the better road to go down.