How Many Rules are too Many?

I had the opportunity not too long ago to review an Employee Manual for a company that is owned by a friend of mine. It wasn’t a particularly large company but it was a rather large Employee Manual. 

Some people would call it a handbook, guidebook, employee regulations book, or whatever. These things are designed to help an organization’s employees know what is expected of them, to know what’s right and what’s wrong. 

I highly recommend that every business have one, and that it is clear and unambiguous. I’m no lawyer or HR expert but generally speaking if it’s not in writing you could have problems holding someone accountable for either doing or not doing something.

I also highly, highly, highly recommend that it be as concise as possible. 

The manual I reviewed was nearly 100 pages in length, that just happened to be about one page for every employee. But it wasn’t only the length that surprised me, it was what was written at the bottom of every single page…

Failure to fully comply with each and every rule, policy or regulation above will be grounds for immediate termination. 


These guys had rules for their rules. Every policy had a policy on when and how to apply the policy. There was so much bureaucracy in that one little book that I thought for a moment I was looking at a government document.

None of it was designed to limit the growth of the organization’s people. Not a single page was designed to hinder the creativity of the organization. Not one word was intended to cause fear among the employees for whom the book was written. 

But it scared the heck out of the people, it stunted their creativity and stopped their growth. 

There were just too many rules and the consequences for not completely following each and every one were far too severe. 

Rules play a vital role in the successful management of any organization. Rules keep the people and departments of an organization aligned and focused. Every organization needs rules!

Every organization should also constantly be looking for reasons, valid reasons, to break their rules whenever breaking a rule is called for. No one in an organization should be threatened with termination for breaking a rule that when broken, benefits the organization, it’s people and it’s stakeholders. In fact, they should be rewarded. 

Now, before you rule breakers out there get the wrong idea read this next sentence. If you break an important rule solely for the benefit of yourself then you should expect to be shown the door. I’ll even volunteer to walk you out. 

So, how many rules are too many? Well even if you only have one rule and there is not a truly valid reason for the rule then you have one rule too many. 

Your rule, guide, employee (or whatever you call it) book should be under near constant review to get rid of outdated rules and make sure you’re not missing some that need to be there in the always changing world in which you do business. For example, if you have an employee handbook that doesn’t have a Social Media policy for employees then you have an employee handbook with a really big hole in it. If you have a rule on where employees can tie up their horse that may be a bit outdated. (Yes, I know that’s extreme but I wanted to make a point)

If you’re making rules for the sake of making rules or your making a rule where a suggestion would do, then you’re making it harder for your people to prosper. 

That limits the growth of your organization and I’m betting that’s not your goal. 

Any rule that isn’t absolutely necessary is a rule that you don’t need.

Ask Why When Considering a Policy

“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”  – Thomas Jefferson

I’m going to give everyone who ever made or implemented a policy a break. I’m going to say that every policy-maker had the very best of intentions when they created whatever policy it was that they created.

The policy or in some cases rule, was intended to prevent a current or potential problem. Maybe every policy has prevented a problem but there are a whole lot of policies that fixed one problem and created seven more.

Too often policy-makers consider only the consequences of NOT creating a policy and pay little attention to the consequences of creating one. What’s more, they almost never consider the consequences of the consequences of creating policy upon policy.

Just so we’re clear, I’m a big believer in the need for policies and processes and measurements.  Organizations need to have guidelines and those guidelines should absolutely be followed whenever possible.

When an organization’s policies are based on principles they should be rock solid, they should not flex. If they are really based on principles there can and should be no exceptions to the policy.

When policies are based on opinion, on trends, and on convenience, they should be incredibly flexible. 

Sometimes an organization’s policies will have “been on the books” for so long that no one remembers why the policy was even created. The “need” for that policy may be long gone but the policy persists, blindly enforced by those who have survived the need.

Things change, markets changes, people change, circumstances arise. When “stuff happens” organizations must be nimble enough to adjust their policies on the fly. Employees must be empowered, really truly empowered, to make a snap decision to adjust a policy. That empowerment is even more critical for customer-facing employees. 

Too many well intended policies have the effect of building walls between a business and their customers. Some well intended policies even make it harder for customers to do business with a company. The company’s policy-maker just couldn’t see things from a customer’s viewpoint and as a result, a wall-building policy was developed. 

When a policy is created by someone who will not be directly affected by the policy the odds are overwhelming that the outcome will be less than desirable. 

When a well-meaning employee of that business tells a customer, “unfortunately, our policy says….” you can bet that interaction will end badly for the customer. Organizations that find a way to make their policies work for the business AND the customer are the organizations that thrive.

Policies that separate an organization from their customers will eventually separate the organization from their profits. 

Policies need to be revisited from time to time. Some need to be reaffirmed while others need to go away. Just adding new policies every year is a poor business practice. Here’s an idea: cap the number of policies allowed to exist in your organization. Before anyone is allowed to add a new one, find one that no longer applies and send it to the trash heap of bad business bureaucracy. 

Remember, the more policies you have in place the more paralyzing your environment becomes for your people who have, or had, a bias for action. Never allow a policy to be implemented without asking WHY the policy is needed. After you’ve asked why, ask why again. If there is no absolute need for the policy then there is no need for the policy at all. Policies are great but like everything else in life and business, moderation is a key to success.