Why scripts and rulebooks need a bureaucracy bonfire

27 October 2011 -


Don’t fall into the trap of managing your organisation with your weakest staff in mind, writes Nick Huber. Strong workers do better in inspiring environments with strong values, not endless rules

Some managers make the fundamental error of spending most of their time and energy on their weakest staff. Focusing on weak, lazy or high-maintenance staff can mean that stronger staff in an organisation receive less attention, praise or rewards. Unsurprisingly, this can make them feel undervalued, unhappy, unproductive or disloyal.

In some cases, whole businesses can fall into the trap of structuring their rules and regulations to prevent weak staff from misbehaving or causing problems, rather than allowing stronger workers the powers, freedoms and responsibilities they need to do their jobs efficiently and happily.

Kindergarten blues

Guidelines that are too prescriptive can leave staff feeling patronised. Jane Sunley, chief executive of Learnpurple – a consultancy that advises companies on recruitment, management and training – says one of her clients, a hotel, had a staff manual that advised employees to smile when a customer is five metres away; extend their hand when two metres away; and then shake hands and greet the customer, sticking to a rigid script.

“Plenty of employers will treat employees like children,” she says. “They tell them rules and standard operating procedures. But the manuals have normally been written by someone in head office who doesn’t know what happens in an organisation and may have done the job in question 15 years ago.

Huw Hilditch-Roberts, director of membership and business development at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), says: “Company managers tend to home in on the negative behaviour of poor performers rather than examine the fundamental issues that the behaviour may be a result of. For example, they may have personal issues or a lack of training.”

Poor performance and unprofessional behaviour at work need to tackled, of course, but how can organisations avoid designing rules solely for a troublesome minority?

People’s policies

One tip is to write guidelines in partnership with employees – asking for their suggestions and feedback. And rather than concentrating solely on worst-case scenarios and ways to control staff – such as fraud prevention and limits on sick days – rules and guidelines could include positive stuff. For example, incentives to encourage staff to think of new ideas for products or services, or ways to cut costs in parts of an organisation.

Sunley stresses that guidelines should explain an organisation’s key values or “non negotiables”, and what is expected of staff. These are likely to include things such as punctuality, a positive attitude, and treating colleagues and customers with respect – without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.

In Sunley’s company, for example, any written proposal that is important or complex has to be checked by a person who hasn’t written it. “We all work very fast and can make mistakes,” Sunley says.

Which companies have struck the right balance in their staff guidelines? As an example, the train and hotel group Orient Express. She says that, about 18 months ago, she says that the company’s new HR director visited all businesses in the company and spoke to all employees in person about the company’s values and objectives and what it expected from staff.

Quality solution

But no matter how carefully drafted an organisation’s rulebook is, it is often ignored by staff, research suggests. One in four employees surveyed by the CMI said that they had knowingly broken professional guidelines at work. A similar proportion of employees also said they hadn’t read their employer’s or professional body’s code of standards or conduct.

Rather than creating endless rules and expecting staff to read and memorise them, the best approach may be to simply focus on bringing in great staff who are likely to work hard and behave with minimal oversight.

A good recruitment policy can help weed out some if not all weak or lazy staff. Barney Ely, director at recruitment company Hays HR, says: “Employers need to start thinking about inspiring staff at the very start of the employment cycle if they are to be truly successful. This means investing time in the recruitment process to ensure that they attract professionals whose values are aligned to the organisational values, and who are a good cultural fit – and also making sure that they know high performance will be rewarded.

“If employers get this right they are more likely to attract enthusiastic professionals who are motivated by where the organisation is going and who are inspired to succeed.”

INSPIRE or RESTRAIN: Who do you want to be?

A conceptual case study of two companies that, however fictitious, are still true to life…


A family-run, medium-sized retailer in the Midlands, Restrain has a traditional, hierarchical structure and spends less than competitors on staff training. It has a hefty rulebook for employees – ranging from how to talk to customers in the store (a script is provided), to a lengthy section of stipulations on personal use of the Internet at work and maximum time limits for toilet visits.

Restrain has a high staff turnover and staff regularly moan in the local pub about distant managers and not being given the freedom to try new ways of working. Employees take a higher-than-average number of sick days each year. The company’s profits have fallen steadily over the past three years. Meanwhile, Restrain’s rivals are growing faster and launching popular new services amid a tough trading environment.


A start-up company that has grown quickly over the past five years to become a successful mid-sized firm in the North of England, Inspire makes organic vegetarian food for children. It also prides itself on being a fun and rewarding place to work.

It doesn’t have a staff manual. Staff were asked to collectively write a five-sentence summary of the company’s values and what it expects of its staff and submit it to the directors. The approved mission statement is displayed on posters around the business.

Employees are encouraged to take responsibility for managing their workload. Weekly brainstorming sessions attended by all employees regularly produce ideas that are used by the business – for example, a “viral” internet marketing campaign and new products.

Staff turnover is low, and morale is high. Profits are increasing fast, outpacing rivals.

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