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Avoiding the Policy Black Hole

April 18, 2018  |  Posted By: Pete Ferguson

During due diligence and in-depth engagements, we often hear feedback from client employees that policies either do not exist - or are not followed.

All too often we see policies that are poorly written, difficult for employees to understand or find, and lack clear alignment with the desired outcomes.  Policies are only one part of a successful program - without sound practices, policies alone will not ensure successful outcomes.

Do You Have a Policy …?

Early in my career I was volunteered to be responsible for PCI compliance shortly after eBay purchased PayPal.  I’d heard folklore of auditors at other companies coming in and turning things over with the resulting aftermath leading to people being publicly humiliated or losing their job.  I suddenly felt on the firing line and asking “why me?”

I booked a quick flight to Phoenix to be in town before the auditor arrived and I prepared by walking through our data center and reviewing our written policies.  When I met with the auditor, he looked to be in his early 20s and handed me a business card from a large accounting firm.  I asked him about his background; he was fresh out of college and we were one of his first due diligence assignments.  He pulled out his laptop and opened an Excel spreadsheet and began reading off the list:

  • Do you have cameras?  “Yes,” I replied and pointed to the ceiling in the lobby littered with little black domes.
  • Do you record the cameras?  “Yes,” and I took him into the control room and showed him that we had 90 days of recording.
  • Do you have a security policy?  “Yes,” and I showed him a Word Document starting with “1.1.1 Purpose of This Policy ....”

Several additional questions, and 10 minutes later, we were done.  He and I had both flown some distance so I gave him a tour of the data center and filled him full of facts about square footage and miles of cable and pipes until his eyes glossed over and his feet were tired from walking and off he went.

I was relieved, but let down!  I felt we had a really good program and wanted to see how we measured up under scrutiny.  Subsequent years brought more sophisticated reviews - and reviewers - but the one question I was always waiting to be asked - but never was:

“Is your policy easily accessible, how do employees know about it, and how do you measure their comprehension and compliance?”

My first compliance exercise didn’t seem all that scary after all, it was only a due diligence “check the box” exercise and didn’t dive deeper into how effective our program was and where it needed to be reinforced.

While having a policy for compliance requirements is important, on its own, policy does not guarantee positive outcomes.  Policy must be aligned with day-to-day operations and make sense to employees and customers.


The Traditional Boredom of Policy

Typically policy is written from the auditor’s point of view to ensure compliance to government and industry requirements for public health, anti-corruption, and customer data security standards. 


Image Credit: Imgur.com

Unfortunately, this leads to a very poor user experience wading through the 1.1.1 … 1.1.2 … . Certainly a far deviation from how a good novel or any online news story reads.

I’ve heard companies - both large and small - give great assurances that they have policies and they have shown me the 12pt Times New Roman documents that start with “1.1.1 Purpose of This Policy …” as evidence.

I had to argue the point at a former position that the first way to lose interest with any audience is to start with 1.1.1 … and with Times New Roman font in a Microsoft Word document that was not easy to find.  It was a difficult argument and I was instructed to stick with the approved, and traditional, industry-accepted method.

Fast forward a decade later and our HR Legal team was reviewing policy and invited me to a meeting with the internal communications team.  Before we started talking documents, the Director of Communications asked me if I’d seen the latest safety video for Virgin Atlantic Airlines.  I thought it a strange question, but after she told me how surprised and inspired by it she was, I took a look.

VA thankfully took a required dull and mundane US Federal Aviation Administration ritual and instead saw it as a differentiator of their brand from the pack of other airlines.  Whoever thought a safety demonstration could also be a 4-minute video on why an airline is different and fun?!?  Up until that point, no one!  Certainly not on any flight I had previously flown.

Thankfully, since then, Delta and others have followed their example and made something I and millions of airline crews and passengers had previously dreaded - safety policy and procedure - into a more fun, engaging, and entertaining experience.

While policy needs to comply with regulations and other requirements, for policies to move from the page to practice they need to be presented in a way employees clearly understand what is expected - so in writing policy, put the desired outcome first!  The regulatory document for auditors can be incorporated at the end of each policy or consider a separate document that calls out only the required sections of your employe handbook or where ever your company policies are presented and stored.

Clarifying the Purpose of Your Policy

In her article “Why Policies Don’t Work,” HR Lawyer Heather Bussing boils down the core issue: “There are two main reasons to have employment policies: to educate and to manage risk.  The trouble is that policies don’t do either.”

She further expounds on the problem in her experience:

“ … policies get handed out at a time when no one pays attention to them (first week of employment if not the first day), they are written by people who don’t know how the company really works (usually outside legal counsel), and they have very little to do with what happens.  So much for education.”

As for managing risk, Bussing points out that policies are often at odds with each other, or so broad that they can’t be effectively enforced.

“Unless it is required to be on a poster, or unless you can apply it in every instance without variance, you don’t want policies.  Your at-will policy covers it.  And if you don’t follow your policies to the letter, you will look like a liar in a courtroom.”

Don’t let your online policy repository feel like a suppository - focus on what you want to accomplish! 

Small and fast-growing companies typically have little need for formalized policies because people trust each other and can work things out.  But as they grow it has been my experience that often the trust and holding people accountable - which sets fast growing companies apart as a cool place to work - get replaced with bureaucratic rituals cemented in place as more and more executives migrate from larger, bureaucratic behemoths.  If the way policy is presented is the litmus test for the true company culture, a lot of companies are in trouble!

Policy must be closely aligned to the shared outcomes of the company and interwoven into company culture.  Otherwise they are a bureaucratic distraction and will only be adopted or sustained with a lot of uphill effort.  In short, if people do not understand how a policy helps them do their job more easily, they are going to fight it. 


Adapting Policy To Your Audience

In the early days of eBay, the culture was very much about collectables, and walking through the workspace many employees displayed their collections of trading cards, Legos, and comic books.  When it came time to publish our security policies, we hired Foxnoggin - a professional marketing strategy company - and took the time to get to understand our culture and then organized a comprehensive campaign to include contests, print and online material, and other collateral. 

They helped formulate an awareness campaign to educate employees and measure the effectiveness of policy through surveys and monitoring employee behavior.

To break away from the usual email method of communication, we got and held employee attention with a series of comic books which included superheroes and supervillains in a variety of scenarios highlighting our policies.

An unintended consequence from our collector employees was that they didn’t want to open their comic books and instead kept them sealed in plastic.  To combat this, we provided extra copies (not sealed in plastic) in break rooms and other common areas and future editions were provided without the bags.  The messages were reinforced with large movie-style posters displayed throughout the work area. 

This approach was wildly popular among employees located at the customer support and developer sites and surveys showed that security was becoming a top of mind topic for employees.  Unfortunately, this approach was not as popular with Europeans - who felt we were talking down to them - and by the executives coming from more stodgy and formal companies like Bain & Company or GE and particularly unpopular with execs from the financial industry after the purchase of PayPal.

Intertwining policy into the culture of your organization makes compliance natural and part of daily operations.

Make Sure Your Message Matches Your Audience

President and CEO of Lead From Within Lolly Daskal writes on Inc.com:

“... sometimes the dumbest rules can drive away the best employees … too many workplaces create rule-driven cultures that may keep management feeling like things are under control, but they squelch creativity and reinforce the ordinary.”

Be creative and look at the company culture and how to interweave policies.  Policies need to be part of the story you tell your employees to reinforce why they should want to work for you.

Nathan Christensen writes in his Fast Company article: How to Create An Employee Handbook People Will Actually Want to Read, “let’s face it, most handbooks aren’t exactly page-turners. They’re documents designed to play defense or, worse yet, a catalog of past workplace problems.”

Christensen recommends “presenting” policies in a readable and attractive manner.  It must be an opportunity to excite people in meeting a greater group purpose and cause.

Your policies need to match your company culture, be in language they use and and understand, and the ask for compliance needs to be easily enough for a new employee to be able to explain to anyone.

Writing Content Your Audience Will Actually Read and Understand

According to the Center for Plain Language - which has the goal to help organizations “write so clearly that their intended audience understands what they are saying the first time they read or hear it” - there are five steps to plain language:

  1. Identify and describe the target audience: “The audience definition works when you know who you are and are not designing for, what they want to do, and what they know and need to learn.”
  2. Structure the content to guide the reader through it: “The structure works when readers can quickly and confidently find the information they are looking for.”
  3. Write the content in plain language: “Use a conversational, rather than legal our bureaucratic tone … pick strong verbs in the active voice and use words the audience knows.”
  4. Use information design to help readers see and understand: Font choice, line spacing, and use of graphics help break up long sections of text and increase the readability score.
  5. Work with target user groups to test design and content: Ask readers to describe the content and have them show you where they would find relevant content.

As an illustration, here is a before and after comparison of the AARP Financial policy on giving and receiving gifts:

In reading the “before” example, my eyes immediately glazed over and my mind began to wander until the mention of “courtesies of a de minimus ... “ Did the guy who wrote that go home that night to his family and instruct his kids, “you will need to consume a courtesise of a de minimus amount of broccoli if you want videogame time after dinner”?  I sure hope not!

On the “after” example, notice the change in line spacing, switching of font and use of bullet points.  Overall the presentation is a lot more conversational and less formal.  It also has a call to action in the title starting with two verbs “give and accept …”

I’d add as the 6th step to remember K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid!  You get a few seconds to grab your audience’s attention and only a few more minutes to keep it. 

As a content editor, I was feeling proud of myself when I distilled 146 pages of confusing policies, procedures and “how to” down to 14 pages over the course of several weeks.  But when I mentioned this to my wife, she said “you are going to make them read 14 pages?!?” 

So I looked at it a few days later with fresh eyes and realized I could condense it down again to two pages by making it more of a table of contents with a brief description of each bullet point and then include links after each section if employees wanted to learn more, and I was able to retain a font size of 14 and plenty of white space.

In reading the two pages, people would understand what was expected of them and could easily learn more - but only if they were interested.

Write policy in language a new employee will quickly understand and be thoughtful in how much you present to employees on their first day, week, and month.


Document Readability is How You Show Your People Love - And Soon To Be the Law In the EU

Speaking more in terms of content marketing, VisibleThread author “Fergle” quotes Neil Patel, columnist for Forbes, Inc, as stating “content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing.”  Yet, as Fergle points out, “a lot of content being created is not the stuff people love. Or read.”

“Content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing.”

Writing content with the aim of it being easy to read as something people love may seem a bit altruistic.  But for information regarding data privacy, it is also soon to be the law - at least in the EU and for any international policy which would reach an EU resident.  On May 28th of 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect.  From the GDPR :

“The principle of transparency requires that any information and communication relating to the processing of those personal data be easily accessible and easy to understand, and that clear and plain language be used.”

There are a number of ways to measure readability ease and grade level of your content, and a good communications expert will be able to help you identify the proper tools.

Scores are a good benchmark, but don’t forget the most important resource for feedback - your potential audience! 

Buy them lunch, have them come and review your plan and provide their feedback.  Bring them back in later when you have content to review and provide an environment where they can be brutally honest - again a communications expert outside of your department will help provide a bit of a buffer and allow your audience to be open, honest, and direct.

But don’t just write policy to comply with due diligence or for policy’s sake - be sure it is part of the company culture, easy to search, and placed where and when your employees or customers will need it.  When there are shared outcomes between compliance and how employees operate, policy is integrated and effective. 

Timing is Important

Think of ways to break down your policy content not just by audience, but by timing and when the information will actually be relevant.

In retail, the term “point of sale” refers to the checkout process - when taxes, final cost and payment are all settled.  The placement of “last minute items” at the POS is very carefully, and competitively assigned only to items with a high ROI measured by the amount of inches each item takes up on the limited shelf space.  This careful placement has also been adopted to the online marketplace when you add an item to your shopping cart and a prompt arises to add additional items others have also purchased with your item.

This same methodology in thinking should be applied to where - and when - you introduce your policies to your audience.

We made the mistake for years of pushing our travel safety program and policies for everyone during new hire orientation when only about half of the population traveled and most of them wouldn’t be traveling for several weeks or months.  It made a lot more sense to move the travel policies to the travel booking page.

If you only give out corporate credit cards to Directors and above, there is no sense pushing policies on spend limits to the global population.  It makes a lot more sense to push the policy when someone is applying for the card and as a reminder each time their credit card expires and they are being issued a new one.

Your audience will appreciate only being told what they need to know when they need the information and will be more likely to not only retain the information, but to comply!


    For similar content on our Growth Blog, click here


Know How You Will Measure Successful Outcomes

Perhaps the most important question to ask when designing policy is “how we will know we are successful?” 

Having good policy written in a clear and concise manner and stored in an easy to find location is still a very passive approach.  Good policy should evolve as your company evolves and should be flexible and realistic to business, customer, and employee needs.  It must be modeled by company leadership and hold true to the daily actions of your company.

Tests at the end of annual compliance training are only a “check the box” measure of compliance.  Think back to how much you actually learned - or, better yet, retained - the last time you were subjected to hours of compliance training!

If metrics cannot support that your policies are known and followed, then you need to re-evaluate the purpose of your policies and if they are contributing to the benefit of your employees and customers or just ticking compliance boxes.

While compliance is important, compliance alone does not make for better business practices or a competitive edge.  Effective, measurable compliance protects your employees and provides value to your customers.

Getting Started

Subject-matter experts are often too close to the policies to be objective.  A little tough love is needed and it is best to bring in experts in marketing and communications who will not be biased to the content, but biased to the reader who is the intended audience. 

A good communications plan will cover the following:

  • Be clear on the desired behavior the policy is to encourage and enforce - and that behavior is streamlined with the overall company purpose
  • Identify the target audiences and each of their self-interests
  • Outline which channels each audience is receptive to (email/print/video, etc.)
  • Identify the inside jargon and language styles needed
  • Decide when and where each audience will want to find relevant information
  • Plan how often policies will be reviewed - and include as many stakeholders as possible in the review process
  • Decide how implementation of policies and compliance to the policies will be measured

Only AFTER the communications plan is agreed upon - with plenty of input from representatives of the target audiences - should the content review begin.  Otherwise the temptation from subject-matter experts will be to tell people everything they know.


Pulling it All Together

Poorly written policies that are difficult for employees to search or find do little to meet the mission of policy: to provide a consistent approach to how your company does business and satisfies regulatory compliance.  Policies on their own do not make for good operations or guarantee overall success.  Remember the true test of policies is not whether they exist, but if they are tightly aligned and incorporated into daily operations, how they contribute to the success of your employees and customers, and if their effectiveness can be measured in a tangible way.

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