Blog Post / Jan. 13, 2020

Try a New Approach to Codifying Workplace Rules

Written by Claudia Williams

Employee handbooks are a must, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mary Barra, CEO at General Motors, has some interesting thoughts. Consider the workplace dress code she implemented when she became vice president of global human resources for GM in 2009: “Dress appropriately.” (Check out the article by Leah Fessler at She brought an end to the list of inappropriate clothing items and decided to rely on the good judgment of employees and leaders. What a novel idea.

An employee handbook is usually given to employees on or before their first day of work. Most handbooks are tens or even hundreds of pages, containing a rule for every possible workplace scenario and the consequences that will accompany each rule violation. The result is a book of punishments that cater to the lowest common denominator rather than a welcoming introduction to the company that empowers leaders and excites employees. And let’s face it — who really reads an entire handbook besides the human resources team and their attorneys?

As a former attorney, I understand how we got here. For example, when fighting an unemployment compensation claim, the employer usually must prove that it had a policy in place, the employee was aware of the policy, and the employee violated the policy. Plus, state and federal laws require employers to have certain policies in place.

But maybe it’s time to think differently. I have spent countless hours over the course of my career talking about dress code policies. What exactly is a flip-flop? What does “casual Friday” mean? I remember working at a law firm where open-toed shoes were prohibited. We wore them all summer long anyway, so that rule was pointless. It makes a leader’s job easier, some say, to have a detailed policy. Does it? Perhaps an overly detailed policy actually stifles a leader’s ability to lead.

At GM, for example, a senior leader objected to the simple dress code, explaining that some members of his team needed to meet with government officials with little or no notice. “Why don’t you talk to your team,” Barra asked. He did. They decided to keep a pair of dress pants in their lockers. “Problem solved,” Barra said.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and this goes well beyond a dress code. It’s worth looking at your policies and asking why you have that policy in the first place. Is it because someone did something 10 years ago, so you decided to put a policy in place to make sure no one else does the same thing? If so, maybe it’s time to get rid of that policy. Maybe there are other policies that are 10 pages long that can be condensed into a couple of simple paragraphs.

You can also think outside of the box. Just because it’s a handbook, it doesn’t mean it has to be a boring word document. Zappos put a committee of employees together to work with human resources to build policies for employees by employees. The handbook is styled to look like a comic book and shares with vivid imagery the company’s history, mission and values. The policies and procedures section is written in story form, with a grandmother telling her grandson “how to play nice.” Some companies convey policies and behavior expectations in a series of witty videos.

The point is, we all want our employees to do the same things: work hard, treat others with respect, help wherever and whenever you can, take care of yourself and others, and work safely. We can set the expectations without sucking the air of the room on day one.

I challenge leaders, especially human resources leaders, to look at their handbooks and ask themselves what messages they are sending to employees. Are you creating a best-in-class employee experience? Or are you ensuring you are best-in-cost? Which would you rather be?