Policy Conflict

June 30, 2021 | Peter Cronin

‘Thanks for meeting with me, I hope it all works out well’ you comment to wrap up the meeting as you click END on the zoom call. Another meeting, with another manager, about another policy. Or more accurately; why the policy shouldn’t apply to them in their particular case. If this sounds familiar, I won’t speculate on your job position, however, whatever your position description says, your main role is probably maintenance, education, and defence of corporate policies.

Those you’re defending the policies from are the managers who should know better. Every one of them agrees that each team is there for the overall benefit of the business, and also knows the policies are there for the same reason. In fact, many of them will agree that the policies are necessary and mostly make sense, it’s just that they shouldn’t apply to them, in their specific cases.

On the other hand, the idea of a policy being able to fit every possible scenario that the business (and the people in it) face is probably a bit of a stretch.

The problem is that often managers do not consider the policy when coming up with the reasons why it doesn’t apply to them, instead they focus on justifying their position. When you clarify why the policy exists, and ask them about their situation, they aren’t listening but they’re sure to explain that you just don’t understand their position.

The future we need is one where both parties can clearly see, and understand, both the purpose of the policy and the need for the policy break. This is done in two steps:

  1. Ask them what their need is and jot it down next to their proposed policy break. (optional to share your screen when you do this, or just make your own notes)
  2. Clarify the purpose of the policy to them.

Note: you must do the steps in the exact order above, i.e.; starting with their needs and wants. If you start with your side of the argument, they will probably not listen to you.

Once you’re both clear on the situation, you need to think of a solution. Often they may not even realise the purpose of the policy and once you make that clear their response may be, ‘oh, yeah ok, I didn’t realise that – I’ll do X instead’.

Note: It may be you who has a lightbulb realisation after hearing their need…

If neither of you has this lightbulb moment, you’ll need to move on to working together to establish either;

  1. ‘A ring-fenced policy break’; a deviation that may break the letter of the policy but maintains the original purpose of the policy.
    1. Ring-fenced meaning it only applies under very specific conditions. This is critical, as we must document the policy break as an addendum to the policy.
  2. A completely new way to meet the need the manager has, one which does not breach the policy.

The reason we end up in the deadlock described earlier is because we don’t have the key pieces of information in front of us to discuss the conflict. Instead, both parties end up pushing their side of the argument and spending meeting after meeting describing and explaining how important their side is. When we put our heads together on the problem, looking at the deadlock for what it is, we can often come up with a solution both quickly, and amicably for both parties.


Let’s work through a couple of examples.

You’re the HR manager and this Zoom call is once again all too familiar; the Ops team manager wants to give one of his team extra leave. She’s a great team member and has been instrumental in the team tracking ahead on the project. She also has a big family trip coming up and has miscounted her leave when booking it. The manager is happy to give her a few days extra leave, in fact, you suspect they have already told her that.

You sit down with your tea and imagine how the meeting will go – the Ops team manager will probably spend most of the time justifying how incredible this person is, how the team will manage just fine, and perhaps a touch of how we have to be human and can’t be slaves to policy (perhaps not in such direct wording).

You’ll spend most of the time reinforcing the importance of the policy, and the problems that occur with giving one-off special cases to individuals. You just hope this can be resolved in one meeting and doesn’t turn into a saga.

But, what if this meeting was different, what if we tried the steps above?

Quickly you scribble down, The purpose of the leave policy is to keep employee costs under control; because if we give more leave to one person we need to give it to everyone.

I won’t bore you with the small talk that happens at the start of the zoom call, ‘I’m doing well, all things considered’, ‘Crazy year’, ‘Which vaccine are you getting?’, ‘do you think we’ll ever go back into the office’, ‘etc’

Once you get to the real discussion it is exactly what you predicted, however, you’re ready for them. After the first salvo you jump in with, ‘ok, so I need to make sure I understand, you want to give Sabrina the extra leave because she’s earned it?’

They counter with some explanation of the team’s work being under control. After a little back and forth (far less than usual) you get to the real need of the manager, ‘it’s about recognising that we support our best people’. While this is similar to what you said, it’s key to use their own words. You scribble that down.

Your turn to clarify that the purpose of the leave policy is to keep employee costs under control; because if we give more leave to one person we need to give it to everyone. You continue, we’re stuck because while we want to both – recognise that we support our best people and keep overall staffing costs down – we can’t both ‘give extra leave’, and ‘have equal leave’.

‘Well, yes.’

Wow. A huge step forward. 15 minutes in and you’re actually in agreement on the deadlock.

Now the nuance of your policy, team, culture, etc will mean you would have your own discussion and custom solution here. In this case, after a little discussion, the manager says, ‘well, people have different agreements, can’t this be considered a bonus?’ To which you agree it could if it was written up as such and offered to all others in the same role (another policy). The manager agrees that’s fine and asks for your help with the wording. Sounds too easy, but I’ve been present at more than one meeting using this approach where the menace of a policy-breaking manager has offered compliance with another policy as a solution.

It’s not always about the alternative solution either. Sometimes just the clarification of the situation is enough.

I was recently involved with HR having to deal with an absolute favourite of HR everywhere, a manager coming with a, ‘I need to get rid of an underperformer in my team, how do I go through the process to do that?’ To cut to the detail here, our technique clarified that the manager needed to ‘get rid of them’ to stop hindering team focus (we suspected ‘make life easier for the manager’ was more accurate, but proceeded with their wording). On the policy side, HR clarified that the performance management process was not in fact there to tick government or bureaucratic boxes like many assume, it was there to give people an opportunity to change because in many cases the severity of the situation had not been made properly clear to them.

The manager admitted that other than a few comments, he had not made clear how severe the underperformance was to the individual and it was only fair that at least that first step is conducted.

In that case, it turned out the individual in question had no idea they were underperforming and had been thrown into a busy team without clear objectives and targets to hit. They approached their role in a way they had in previous jobs. Once their objectives were clear to them they started hitting targets with the rest of the team.

The technique is more subtle here, you could have got there by just telling the manager why the policy is there. But if that was the case you possibly wouldn’t be this deep in this article, right? The assumption is that telling people the policy makes them immediately comply (it doesn’t) or they wouldn’t listen to your clarification because they don’t think you understand their situation (and maybe you don’t). The magic here is in the mutual understanding of the needs for the policy and the policy break, putting you both on the same team against the dilemma, getting to that understanding as quickly as possible before the emotion and resentment builds.