It's not what you say, it's how you say it.

Any event that occurs in your business that causes you to lose business, equipment, money or all of them is likely to be met with new policies. They sound like this: “From now on anyone caught (fill in your pet peeve here) will be fired.” We'll put a stop to this kind of activity, you say to yourself. You may even fire someone to show you mean business.

Often these policies are a reaction to some careless actions by one or more employees that you want stopped. When the act occurs, you react by adding a new policy - a stringent policy that states what happens if someone violates it. Isn't that what management is supposed to do? Make policies to prohibit improper behavior? Someone has to put a stop to it, you feel like saying.

As the years go by in your business, many of these policies accumulate. Soon they are posted and written or read at meetings, always disseminated to the employees. In any company the employees learn what they can do and what they can't, which is the point of having policies.

In addition, the employees learn the tone or attitude through which these policies are handed down from top management. And, like it or not, they form opinions of the policies - maybe not the policies themselves so much as the tone of the message.

All of us have seen signs, posters or statements in employee manuals or policy letters that sound very demanding. For example, “Any employees parking in a space assigned to someone else more than twice will be fired.” Another one is “Anyone coming to work late will be discharged on the third occurrence.” Have you ever seen a sign in a company parking lot that says, “Don't park here”?

Though they seem to simply represent company policy, these statements do more. They instill in employees an adversarial attitude: It's “Us” vs. “Them.” Instead of defining employees as members of a successful team, these statements help to separate employees and managers, with managers as the enemy.

Managers who have been disappointed to see employees they've just finished training go to work for the competition may be tempted to charge the employees for their training. The manager may feel taken advantage of, and maybe they were, but that approach will only get the company in trouble.

Unless there is a contractual agreement that specifies that employees will pay for training, and employees voluntarily enter into such an agreement, you can't demand any repayment. These kinds of policies will only bring legal actions and costs far in excess of any benefits you could gain.

Negative Message/Positive Approach

Sure the negative policy statements sound reasonable (more than three late arrivals does indicate a problem). However, there are more effective ways to accomplish the same goals. With all the company policies stated in such threatening or negative terms, you will make employees - even those who always follow the rules - uncomfortable and suspicious of the management.

The rules, when stated in a negative or authoritarian tone, only produce a negative effect. Instead of motivating employees to abide by the rules (and more importantly, work harder for the company), those sorts of negative statements will, instead, encourage employees to do as little as they can to comply with all the rules.

You can maintain standards for employee performance and set clear, narrowly defined guidelines for employees' behavior without the negative tone of “don't do this” and “don't do that.” How you state the policies and how you manage can make a big difference in the results you get from your employees. The old cliché about catching more flies with honey than vinegar rings true in this case.

Employees are very capable of understanding the company's goals. So if you explain what your objectives are in setting a certain policy they will not only better understand it but they will “buy in” to what you're attempting to accomplish.

For example, if your goal is timely attendance by call takers, you'll undoubtedly get better compliance with your policy if you explain that customers will not have anyone to report their problems to if a call taker is late. When the customers' calls are not answered, they will call another business, you can explain. Then your business will suffer or customers will be disappointed. When you give a reasonable explanation for your policies, employees will understand and comply.

Sometimes employees will come up with suggestions to solve some management challenges, such as how to keep the lunchroom clean. It's particularly important to listen to these suggestions - even solicit them - because when employees know they are listened to they will support the policies you set.

You don't have to follow the suggestions, but you will find employee support if you at least listen. You'll be surprised at how often good suggestions will come from the people whose behavior you are trying to regulate.


Employees - no different than anyone else - respond favorably to rewards. For example, your efforts to control absenteeism and tardiness will be more effective if you recognize and reward good attendance records instead of making threats that may apply to those who don't meet attendance standards. Working in an environment of threats and demands would probably be enough to keep some people from wanting to come to work on time, or at all.

Employees like to be recognized; it makes them feel special. So the more occasions you take to acknowledge those employees who meet or exceed company objectives, the more you will motivate quality employees. Others performing at a lower level will look up to those being rewarded and want to meet higher standards, too.

Using the positive approach allows you to maximize compliance with reasonable company performance standards and boost morale at the same time. Another advantage is employee retention.

Good people will stay in an organization where they are respected, listened to and not threatened. That advantage alone would be worth avoiding negative statements or threats in the form of written policies aimed at employees who do not comply with company goals.

It's important for employees to know that the boss is subject to the rules, too. Don't expect employees to keep the lunchroom clean if they see you leave a mess. The same is true about coming in late or leaving early. You, as the leader, set the standard for what you expect from employees. You'll get what you demonstrate the standard really is.

Of course, that doesn't mean you have to do everything the same as employees, but they will be watching and observing. It's tough to ask someone else to do something they don't see you doing.

The critical point to remember about the different ways to inform employees of your company policies is that the standards for performance - attendance, absences, clean-up policies or the work itself - need not be any different. The same policies, if presented in a positive light, will increase motivation and performance.