More benefits to non-smoking staff, ‘hangover leave’ and encouraging staff to upgrade their cars. What are the knock-on effects of company policies?
You don’t conduct quarterly performance management reviews with your significant other. You don’t put your children on a performance improvement plan when they’ve failed to clean up their toys. And you don’t feel the need to take minutes when meeting your friends for an afternoon drink on the weekend.
It would be ridiculous if you did, right? Nobody wants to make their private life more like work. But work often wants to change your private life, with many employers implementing specific policies designed to influence their employees’ time off the clock.
With our work and personal lives are becoming more entwined, is it time we started undoing some of the more troublesome knots? These three examples show how workplace policies can impact an organisation’s culture.
Just butt out
A training and solutions agency in the UK has recently made headlines for offering an extra four days of annual leave to non-smoking staff. The managing director, Don Bryden, says he was struck by just how long staff cigarette breaks were dragging on for and felt the need to balance the scales for those who weren’t smoking but instead “always on the phones, typing away and trying to do their work,” Bryden told The Sun.
Bryden’s decision seems prejudicially reactive, and chained to a belief that productivity is the same as time in the office.
It doesn’t take much to show that his policy is flawed. Who is to say those ‘diligent’ non-smokers are actually getting any work done. According to a GlobalWebIndex report, 45 per cent of the world’s population spent an average of 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on social media platforms last year.
So will Bryden start offering more annual leave for those who don’t have an Instagram account?
Or as Suzanne Gavrilovic, a senior HR consultant at Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah), questions, should we also shame coffee drinkers who spend ten minutes at a time, multiple times a day, waiting in line for a caffeine hit?
“It’s sad that in our current environment of workplace flexibility we’re still judging peoples’ contributions by how much time they spend at their desks. It should be about outcomes against their KPIs,” says Gavrilovic.
“Someone sitting at their desk could be reading the news or something. Whereas someone going for a walk and spending ten minutes outside could go into deep thought and have some of their most inspired ideas at that time.”
There are plenty of unintended consequences that could come from implementing a policy like this in your workforce. Firstly, it intentionally divides your workforce into favoured and unfavoured groups. Those in the ‘smoker’ category, Gavrilovic says, could feel judged by their managers and peers.
“I think it would make some of the people in your organisation feel like second class citizens. We should be trying to make people feel included, not find reason to make people feel different.”
Creating a culture where some people feel excluded – and likely disengaged because of it – could harm productivity far more than cigarette breaks.
Secondly, Gavrilovic warns a policy like this could increase an organisation’s levels of conflict. By explicitly favouring some above others, it could encourage bullying and harassment in the workplace, as one ‘side’ might gang up on the other.
“You could see a contagion of that type of behaviour spread through the organisation. Other people in the organisation might start to treat those people [smokers] differently. If you are going to offer different benefits to staff, these should be based on performance, measured by outcomes, not on a superficial view of contribution.”
None of your business
It’s fair for organisations to have a dress code policy, especially for those working in a customer or client-facing role. However, is it reasonable for your employer to concern itself with the condition of your car?
This tweet purports to show an anonymous message from an employer to an employee regarding the state of the latter’s car. There is little context around the employee’s role, the company they work for or if it’s even real. But a reddit thread connected with the tweet suggests the car was a 2005 Camry that was “not wrecked, just old [with] fading paint”. Apparently, the car wasn’t used in the employee’s job either, it was “literally just another car in the garage”.
We don’t know much more, but can assume they’re operating within US labor laws, as the Tweeter goes on to say the employee is in a right-to-work state and therefore would find it hard to fight back against this employer.
The crux of the letter is an employer that is concerned that an employee’s car looks janky.
The organisation’s HR department writes, “Since of course your salary is known to us and a newer and more appropriate looking vehicle should be within your financial reach, it is our concern that perhaps you are having a difficult time financially”.
Further down, it’s even more blunt. “To be even more frank, it just looks bad”.
One reddit user provided an amusing response to the letter.
But this response isn’t a joke, Gavrilovic agrees.
“If the car was important to the company’s image, they should be providing a company car.”
“We all make choices on how we spend our money, cars are very unimportant to a lot of people. Someone could drive a ‘crappy’ car and have their money invested in shares instead. Those kinds of judgments are just bizarre.”
Gavrilovic says while concerns around financial risk, such fraud or theft, are legitimate concerns for a company to have, this is an example of managing that risk completely ineffectively.
“They should be asking, ‘what’s the risk we’re trying to manage?’ And then think about the appropriate mitigants to put in place, such as having reporting in place and controls on people’s expense accounts.”
On the other end of the scale
Even though it’s dangerous territory to be impeding on staff private matters with ‘the best of intentions’ it can be even more damaging when workplaces are actually encouraging questionable behaviour.
While offering staff a Friday afternoon drink is standard in a lot of workplaces, creating an entire policy that encourages staff to engage get drunk is another thing.
As reported by BBC News late last year, marketing company (again, UK-based) The Audit Lab has offered ‘hangover leave’ to its staff. “The policy allows employees to work from home if they are feeling a little worse for wear, and the only proviso is they can’t be taken too often, staff need to be able to work remotely using their laptop, and important meetings can’t be cancelled.”
Apparently, the policy was created in a bid to cater to their millennial workforce who “typically go out midweek and do the pub quiz” or for those who are expected to wine and dine clients. It’s flexible work for non-parents.
Co-founder and director Claire Crompton argues this policy is a way to encourage transparency. However, it’s possible to be encouraging of honesty and party-going behaviour at the same time. Does one negate the other? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
On one level the company is just dressing up a working from home policy to get suckers like me to write stories about it – and I fell for it, okay?! But there are risks here.
For example, employees could feel pressured to stay out later at company events and drink more than they usually would, because everyone else is and the company, whether meaning to or not, has made it an expectation.
There are also legal risks. If a staff member were to claim that they have damaged their mental health through drinking – or even become addicted to alcohol – they would have a stronger argument that your company shoulders some of the blame.
Employer don’t preach
While the examples in this article are quite extreme, and pertain to specific workplaces, the notion of employer intervention into your personal life is common. There are workplaces that encourage staff to eat vegan food and others that mandate a ‘sports hour’ during work. You could argue these initiatives are also blurring the boundaries.
Gavrilovic says enforced policies around health and wellbeing can feel like judgements about someone’s diet or exercise regime.
It’s not that we shouldn’t be having conversations about health and wellbeing in the workplace, it’s just important we think about how we’re doing this. HR professionals and managers aren’t medical professionals, says Gavrilovic, so if they’d like to encourage healthy behaviours they should take an educative approach that’s led by experts.
Inform staff, don’t preach to them. Provide everyone with credible information and resources and leave them to take it up in their own way.
“Work is intruding into our personal lives because of technology. But we also have more flexibility available in the workplace. So as long as it’s a ‘give and take’ thing and employers and employees can reach a good balance, I think that’s a good thing. But does that mean we should be intruding into employees’ personal lives? I don’t think so.”
Bad policies are often caused by leaders implementing ideas without realising the potential consequences. In this two day Internal HR Consulting course you’ll learn how to guide decision making so that policy outcomes match intentions.