Major crises affecting the work cultures of tech behemoths like Google and Uber this year share at least one common root: Policies and procedures thought to be crystal clear proved much more subjective and open to interpretation than human resource execs might’ve hoped. Among other factors, those hidden gray areas have a tendency to invite conflict.
Years ago, I worked for a financial services company in the Southwest that was facing a sexual harassment scandal. The company hadn’t evolved far enough from its entrepreneurial roots in the ’70s and ’80s as a boys’ club. Since then, sexual harassment policies had been desultorily circulated by the HR team, but those policies were vague and left room for leaders who were used to getting around the rules to continue behaving badly.
Not that the company thought this was the case. Definitive-sounding phrases like “will not be tolerated,” “unwelcome conduct,” and “an offensive environment” peppered the official protocol. But those expressions are a lot, well, fuzzier than many employers typically think. Here’s how to “defuzzify” some of that language before it wrecks your company’s work culture.
Use This Script To Get Super Specific
Dr. Robert Mager, whose work on human performance informs the consultancy where I’m a partner, outlines a relatively simple process for translating this kind of undetected vagueness into clear, observable behaviors to write workplace policies around. Boiled down into a straightforward conversation between an HR exec and somebody in the Devil’s advocate seat, who you can think of as the designated “defuzzifier,” that process might go something like this:
Boss: “There will be no unwelcome conduct!”
Defuzzifier: “Well said. When you observe ‘unwelcome conduct,’ what actions are you observing?”
Boss: “Well, no one should tell jokes that the listeners consider to be inappropriate for the workplace.”
Defuzzifier: “Fair enough. What else?”
Boss: “There should be no pictures on display that people consider to be sexually oriented.”
Defuzzifier: “Got it. What else?”
The “what elses” continue until you’ve got a clear outline of specific types of observable actions or situations that constitute “unwelcome conduct.” This can feel tedious, but it’s essential. The process needs to extend to every written policy and communication dealing with a given issue. So on our sexual harassment example, that means taking this approach to clarify how the company handles each of the following:
- educating people on the subject
- reporting violations
- addressing reports of violations
- taking disciplinary actions
- protocol for reviewing and revising the existing policies
Each of these processes is composed of its own set of steps mean to achieve a fair, transparent outcome. In addition to defining each one as specifically as possible, you should probe for any gaps in the process, too.
Calling this a “simple” process doesn’t mean it’s easy. Once you’ve clarified the policies themselves, you then need to replicate this “defuzzifying” process in team meetings, too, so your whole staff knows what your policies actually are. This way they’ll have a chance to think more concretely these sensitive issues and how the company handles them in its own workplace. It takes a lot of effort and can be uncomfortable, but the process isn’t really all that complex.
The Danger Of Interpretations
Sexual harassment is an obvious example, but this applies to a wide range of cultural descriptions that may sound a lot less fraught, like “high-performance team,” “a great place to work,” or “an inclusive culture.”
The problem with each of these expressions is that it puts managers in the tenuous position of being the judge. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don’t want unclear work processes to cause them to make subjective, inconsistent, and potentially biased decisions on what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. That opens each situation to potential conflict, not to mention legal liabilities.
So yes, when you sit down to reexamine your workplace policies, start with your values and what compliance with the law demands. But don’t stop there. Drill down to specifics. Think about what each of your positions on a given issue might mean in practice. How might a scenario unfold? How else might it unfold?
Keep digging deeper, and you’ll find that at the root of most workplace conflict is disagreement over a subjective policy or process–something left open to interpretation that really shouldn’t be. After all, even a good boss will find it difficult to be effective when they’re trying to defend subjective processes and systems.
Rex Conner is the author of What If Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? and lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium, where’s spent three decades helping more than 50 companies in dozens of industries address common workplace issues.