The One Sentence HR Handbook

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the value (or not) of having an employee handbook chock full of policies and procedures that lay out in great detail how an employee should act at work. If you’ve ever read any of my posts, I think you can take a wild guess on how I feel about a policy telling me what I should wear to work!  I understand that certain policies are required by law and need to be in place but in my opinion once you’ve met the legal criteria that should be the end of your handbook.  In its place you only need one simple sentence:

We’ll do what we believe to be best for our business and our employee community.

Rather than having policies in place that we have to stick to in every single circumstance, isn’t it better to make business decisions that are appropriate for the specific situation?  I think it is. Where HR types get in trouble is when they find themselves blindly following policies in the name of treating every employee the same.  Sure, it would be nice if you could treat everyone exactly the same but I have a news flash for you… not everyone necessarily deserves to be treated the same! Imagine if a senior business development executive created a set of policies outlining how they will execute a business deal that followed the process every time.  You can’t imagine it because it would never happen!  For years HR types have been complaining about having a seat at the table and being taken seriously by their executive teams, and I think this is one of the reasons why. They don’t think about what’s in the best interests of the business.

Let’s examine an example that might bring this idea home for you…

Say you have two employees who are under-performing. Both have been with the company for several years. Jenny has been a good solid performer in the past, and is important to the culture but recently has taken a slide.  Judy has always been marginal performer and it’s gotten worse. Plus she’s a real pain in the you know what. My current HR policy book would probably tell me that I need to put both Jenny and Judy on the 12-steps to firing someone program. A verbal warning, a written warning, a note to their mother, followed by a final written warning, blah, blah, blah.  Before you know it several months have passed.  But if I were to act as a businessperson, I would probably come to a different conclusion than the one offered by handy handbook.  In this case, I would keep Jenny and help coach her back to a solid level of performance. I’d also skip all the B.S. and fire Judy. Why?  Because as a businessperson, I believe that Jenny has the ability to contribute to our business and she is also a solid contributor to the community.  With Judy on the other hand, I believe it would be a poor investment to try and improve her performance since she has always been just average. I’m better off taking the risk and simply moving on.  Some may feel that’s “unfair.” But my job isn’t to be fair.  It’s to do what’s in the best interest of the business and the community.

When making decisions to fire, do you do what’s best for your business and the community? Hit me in the comments…

FOT Background Check

Andy Porter
Andy Porter is Chief People Officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA which means he works with some wicked smaaht people. Some days, he indeed does wear short shorts around the office(call it a morale booster) but it really just makes people uncomfortable. Other days, he spits some mad game on cheese. No really – he’s somewhat of a cheese aficionado. But more importantly? At Broad he gets to his small part to help change the world of healthcare.


  1. Rich Vedas says:

    What a great common sense approach to the topic Andy! The reality is this is how most small companies operate anyway and why most owners can’t stand HR…they see policies and procedures getting in the way of what’s best for the business (and I think by nature…most want to do what’s right for the employees). If more HR professionals took this approach in their interactions with executives they would probably find a lot more receptive audience.

  2. The HR Gypsy says:

    I agree that HR has to make decisions in the best interest of the company, but I’m a little concerned that you don’t think your job is to be “fair”. Not treating employees fairly is NOT in the best interest of the company. It’s a fine line we must walk . . .

  3. HR Common Sense says:

    Wow – I couldn’t agree more. I currently work in a policy-intensive environment (government) and all I see are people managing to and by policies. Doesn’t seem to be much “common sense” (or any sense for that matter!). Every question is “what does policy say” and every decision is “this meets policy requirements”. Really boils the environment down to a manual with not much room for thinking in the “gray”. No wonder there is so much frustration! Everyone is so busy trying to do policy cya!

  4. Add shareholders for a public company, and I’m so there!

  5. Ben says:

    I love the sentimet, but offer a caution. I’ve seen large, bureaucratic organizations (Deloitte) fall down on important strategic people decisions because they couldn’t escape the shackles of policy in order to make a smart one-off business decision. So I think your sentiments are spot-on about the importance of maintaining flexibility. I’ve also seen a mid-sized company (to remain nameless) get burried by inconsistent, and therefore perceived unfair, one-off HR decisions that took way too much time and added far too much complexity to people management. I believe the ideal is the flexible one-off business-decision model you outline above, but I also believe that’s a luxury only afforded to companies smaller than ~500 people, ideally in one country. Once you start introducing the complexities of a dozen countries, a thousand employees, and an HR team spread increasingly thin, I think it becomes the wise business decision to standardize at least some of the HR decisions and sacrifice the benefits of a one-off for the efficiencies of policy. Until you get to that point, though, I love your notion of a one-sentence employee handbook! And when you get to that point, I love your caution to minimize the number of decisions that become automated by policy, even if you have to automate a few of them.

  6. While I love this concept, I fear it’s not entirely feasible, at least all the time. With so many employment laws and regulations, attempting to manage our human resources, and comply at the same time, would be quite difficult without at least guidelines for how to approach various situations.

  7. Mark D. Tyszka, SPHR says:

    I still think we need policies, but your point is well-taken, Andy. I was taught long ago that fair does not mean equal. Treating every employee and employee situation “equally” can wreak havoc with ADA, FMLA and many other laws and HR practices. Great post!

  8. Yet Another Evil HR Director says:

    As Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan til you get punched in the face”…. well, Andy’s “just do what’s good for business and the people” is fine until Judy trots down to the EEOC office and files a complaint ’cause she’s in a protected class ….. the punch in the face is when you get your legal counsel’s bill for defending against the action……that’s why you “12 steps to firing” both parties….one gets well – one gets down the highway. And if your Judy gets well…..Hell, that’s bonus play, isn’t it?…. Your treatment of Judy reminds me that I don’t need to wonder why unions can still get traction in the US – you just gave them a great spokesperson – Judy: the put upon marginal performer.

  9. Emelie Saccomano says:

    I heard another great one line handbook years ago:

    “Ladies and gentlemen servicing ladies and gentlemen”

  10. Andy Porter says:

    @HR Gypsy – I should clarify my “fairness” point. I do see that part of HR’s role is to treat employee’s fairly. My caution is often the fairness card trumps the best interests of the business card. Picture the line manager who really needs a stellar performer in a particular role – it’s crucial to the business but HR bogs him down in red tape. The opportunity cost is huge. So, not saying never be fair, just be careful…

    @Ben – I agree that in certain cases size does matter and more process/policies isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    @Yet Another Evil HR Director – way to bring Mike Tyson to the table! The situation you describe is a real concern. In my opinion, there’s a difference between fair and legal. If a company is truly treating an employee illegally they should pay for it. And guess what? Plenty of companies with handbooks the size of encyclopedias (they still make those, right?) get sued all the time! I agree it’s a fine line but in my example as long as I’m not treating Judy illegally, I’d rather pay to fight the claim.

  11. Sara Rose says:

    I like the idea, but that won’t work in Ohio. For example, to defend against payment of compensation in a workers’ comp claim, an employer can win if it shows that a person is off work because they were terminated for violation of a written work rule (as opposed to a flare-up of an injury which conveniently occurred on the day they were fired). One recent decision found that an employee was entitled to compensation after being fired for sleeping on the job three times – because there was no written rule saying an employee would be fired for sleeping at work. Unemployment decisions are similar. Unless and until the courts and other adjudicative bodies start using more common sense, employers (at least in Ohio) are practically forced to write lengthy, detailed rules and handbooks.

  12. Mike Spinale says:

    Great post Andy! I just went through the exercise of re-writing our entire handbook! I totally agree with the sentiment of your post. As HR professionals we need to loosen up, be flexible, and think about what’s best for the business (within the constraints of the law) when developing our policies.

    Constricting ourselves to what you refer to as “12-steps to firing” is a great way to distract the business, disengage high performers, piss off management, and perpetuate the reputation that HR often has as a roadblock to operational efficiency.

    Thanks for sharing!

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