Dear Bob,

As a new manager, I am interested in any publications or references that are available with sample policies — for example, sample backup policies, helpdesk policies, data retention policies, etc. I’ve searched many libraries and found few actual “templates” from which I can glean knowledge, and, if it was an excellent template, copy shamelessly from. I’m hoping you could point me in the right direction to do more research.

– Managing in Manhattan

Dear Managing,

I’m definitely the wrong guy to ask. One of my missions in life is preventing the creation of policies whenever possible.

I know there are times when they’re necessary, but in my experience it’s just one step from a policy manual to a bureaucracy, and it’s a short step at that. Any time you have a policy, you make employees responsible for memorizing someone else’s thought process instead of using their own. Be careful what you ask for.

Once you form the habit of creating policies, it won’t be too many months before you find yourself moving all of your policies from a 2-inch 3-ring binder to a 3-incher because the 2-incher won’t close anymore. You’ll have turned yourself from a leader into a policy-meister — an awful thing to do.

Another downside to policy creation is that you turn your employees into jail-house lawyers. Your policies will turn into excuses for not getting the job done. They’ll turn into reasons to turn down reasonable requests from customers. And your most innovative employees will waste potentially productive time searching for loopholes, which they’ll then take great glee in publicly exploiting.

Worst of all, your policy book will become a source of disgruntlement, because employees will use the thickness of your policy manual as a direct measure of your lack of faith in their judgment. That’s the only attention most will pay to it, too: The more policies you publish, the less impact any one policy has. The advantage to having a very thin policy manual is that it’s clear to everyone the issues they address really are important.

Anyway, if you copy someone else’s policy, you’re copying someone else’s solution instead of creating one that fits your situation. The reason to create your own policies is that it forces you to think through the issue thoroughly enough to understand the ramifications. Once you’ve thought matters through, you’ll usually conclude you need nothing more than a guideline, or nothing at all — you’re trying to fix a one-time event, which, since it’s already occurred, doesn’t need more fixing.

So always write your own policies. The problem with pre-written templates is that they make the whole process too easy.

The exceptions are compliance issues … insider trading or data retention are examples … or when it’s important to declare a company position on a subject (sexual harassment comes to mind). Under these circumstances you need not just a policy, but one that will hold up in court. Don’t mess around with these — go to either HR or Legal, go directly to HR or Legal, don’t pass Go, and don’t collect $200 either. For that matter, always run any policy you do decide to draft past HR and legal — you never know when your policy crosses some invisible line that can land your employer in court.

Avoid policies whenever you can, and consider: “policy” and “police” have a common etymology.

– Bob