What’s the point of having pages upon pages of written policy if nobody every references them?

Whether bureaucracy, corpocracy, non-profit, or just-plain business, most organizations have written policies that guide how they do business.  In the Air Force we called them Air Force Instructions (AFIs).  AFI 36-2903, for example, was the official guidance for dress and grooming standards.  Cadets’ favorite tongue-in-cheek choke, whenever getting corrected for being “out-of-regs,” is to ask, “Where’s that in the AFI?” For example,

“Hey man, you’re not allowed to get three piercings and a gauge in one ear.” …”Show me that in the AFI!”

OK, maybe nothing that extreme ever happened…but the point remains: as bureaucrats we always took our written policies very seriously.

Or did we?

No lawyer worth his salt would ever offer a legal opinion without referencing some kind of a legal document or court-precedence.  Right?  Of course. We’d never trust a guy who says, “It’s completely legal to take the gas out of someone else’s car if you’re in desperate need of gas for yourself.” Or, if he did say such a thing, we’d expect him to point to a policy or precedence somewhere that justified his claim.

Yet how many times in our history as leaders have we asked for advice from the Human Resources department, or the Safety specialists, etc., and gotten an answer that didn’t point to any kind of written documentation?  This isn’t to call out or belittle HR or Safety: indeed, we value the jobs they do and appreciate the work they perform. But as I look back on my time in the Air Force, my experience with the Civilian Personnel Office, for example, is littered with examples of half-baked or even conflicting guidance from them.

When I was the Manpower & Personnel Flight Commander at Barksdale Air Force Base, my policy was that my personnel specialists justify any advice they provide by pointing to their justification in the AFI (there’s that word again). What I found in implementing this policy was interesting: first, the recommendations they gave usually were justified by the AFI; second, they never knew where in the AFI they were justified…they were just providing recommendations based off of what their predecessor told them to do, or based off of “common sense.”

Yet common sense can be uncommon at times. A member of HR once recommended that I initiate an investigation into a former subordinate’s alleged fraudulent claims on various issues…Two days later they forgot the initial guidance they gave and asked how the “Letter of Warning” was progressing…”What Letter of Warning are you referencing? What is a Letter of Warning?” I asked.  Which made me peel back the onion, eventually asking that they point to the regulation they’re basing their guidance off of…They couldn’t.  As it turns out, they were just presenting advice based on, well, one guy’s “20 years in the Army” and another gal’s “Memories of how Enron handled things…”  They point is that it was half-baked.  Not based on any guidance.  Just out in la-la land messing with the autonomy of someone’s leadership role.

As HR specialists, when we can’t point to our policy, we aren’t justified in providing guidance. All we’re doing is muddying the waters of leadership.


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