Knowing what you or your business can be liable for is powerful information. Employees who understand the consequences of their decisions are able to make better choices. Better knowledge leads to better risk assessment. Better risk assessment leads to more efficiency, higher yields and better overall business performance.
So why is it so hard for businesses to implement effective policies?
Think about it a minute. When was the last time you read your company’s business policies? Are they easy reading? Or are the choked with legalese? Do the policies make sense? Are they easy to follow?
Policies should be roadmaps that establish healthy boundaries for acceptable behavior. But unfortunately, they are often viewed as roadblocks and ignored.
Maybe it’s because the connection between policy guidance, legal liabilities, and the decisions that trigger the liabilities are not always evident. We don’t fear the consequences because we don’t make the connection.
It reminds me of an article I recently read by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. The subject was animal predators and was full of statistics, for example, about how many people die from lion attacks and crocodile attacks. Yet she points out that “next to the figures for viruses and other infectious agents, deaths caused by predators are barely worth mentioning.” In other words, we should fear the things we can’t see more.
She suspects that our brain’s hardwiring may have something to do with why we fear the things we can’t see. More specifically, she says:
It is harder, I suspect, to evolve fear of a mosquito because the deadly fever it brings does not happen straight after the bite. Instead, there is a time delay of days, weeks or years. In fact, the connection between mosquito bites and malarial fever is so obscure that we weren’t sure of it until 1897. But our forebears have been making connections between predators and death for ages.
Legal liabilities tend to work the same way. In organizations where decision making is highly specialized and fragmented, legal risk is often not evident until it evolves into a claim, a lawsuit, or a regulatory enforcement proceeding and then the documents, including e-mails, show who contributed to the mess.
According to organizational learning expert Peter Senge, “we learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.” It’s precisely because we don’t directly experience the consequences of our decisions that the organization needs to protect itself by connecting the dots for us. It does that by crafting well written policies AND by effectively communicating them with all employees through training does more than hands out the documents or loads them on an intranet.
Effectively communicating the policies also requires explaining why they are important and how they will help employees do the right thing. Without the proper context, policies are meaningless and meaningless policies get ignored. They’re a breeding ground for mosquitoes.