Roger Parrott: Employee policies are for cowards

We need both grace and law to handle difficult situations with employees.

Ministries often create complex and cumbersome personnel policies to handle the small number of difficult employees who challenge, stretch, or cheat the system. These policies don’t even protect us from confrontation, because the very people we seek to avoid are often the ones who will not change without direct correction.

Broad sweeping policies, aimed at only a few workers, slow the grind of the entire ministry. They spawn new and complex issues, drain precious energy from the mission, and provide irritable employees a framework from which they can legitimately attack the system and hurt morale.

Employee policies are often necessary. But Christian organizations often are most prone to misuse them. Biblically-centered leaders take seriously the command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1–5). Those are serious words that should bring us to our knees before dealing with any employee difficulty.

So rather than address a sticky personnel issue head on, we tend to create policies that will “hold us all accountable” without specifically judging the actions of another. But that option is neither theologically sound nor appropriate when it comes to leadership. We must judge at times. We can’t create one-size-fits-all absolutes to guide us.

In any good working environment, there will be shades of gray. Exceptions for time schedules, workload, pay scale, and even online shopping will be part of a leader’s life. Prayerfully being a good and gracious judge, rather than creating sweeping employee policies, will best solve these personnel issues.

Jesus taught us how to judge, balancing the law with grace. But I find that leaders tend to lean one way over the other rather than find the equilibrium Christ demonstrated. I know many good leaders whose style exhibits a strong bias toward grace and just as many others who operate with a stronger hand on the law. We need both.

As someone who tends to lean toward grace over law, I find in my personnel decisions I especially value my advisors who focus a bit more on the law to help me find Christ’s equilibrium. Evaluation without a standard is ultimately ineffective, and judgments that don’t look past the law are ultimately inadequate. Judgment alone can cause us to miss some of our greatest moments for ministry with our colleagues.

Our desire to build harmony in the body of Christ is our high calling. Sometimes achieving that end requires us to deal directly with sticky personnel situations. Then we must not hide sheepishly behind a policy, but must rather serve as grace-filled judges. This checklist may help you resist the temptation of creating cumbersome employee policies:

1. Does the policy serve your good employees?

Nearly every policy is created in reaction to a very specific problem. Seeking to prevent a reoccurrence of the same difficulty from the same person must not be the only measure of a policy’s worth. Before the policy is implemented, also think specifically of the 96% of your team who don’t need correction. Go through some of them by name. If it stands up as appropriate for them, and not just the person who triggered the problem, then it may be a valuable policy.

2. Are those closest to the problem involved in creating the policy?

Not only are end-users more creative in their solutions, but they also became the policy’s most important advocates. Every new policy must be stretched and punched by end-users if it has any hope of bringing about genuine organizational change.

3. Have you imagined what new problems the policy will create?

Every new policy will trigger a reaction, for good or bad. A good leader must be able to anticipate issues that could develop. Leaders should never move ahead with a policy until they have thoroughly envisioned all the possible unintended ramifications of the change.

4. Will you personally live by the policy?

Why should leaders require policies they are not personally willing to live under? If you can’t live with it, your people shouldn’t have to either.

Roger Parrott is President of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of "The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders" (David C. Cook).