Sex is only allowed in the dark in Budapest.

Any man carrying onions in Paris must be given right of way in the streets.

In Switzerland, it is illegal to flush the toilet after 10 PM, if you live in an apartment.

In Kentucky you cannot dye a duckling blue and offer it for sale – unless more than six are for sale at once.

Crazy laws – of which the above are real examples -are a popular feature on reddit threads and social posts. They give us more than just a decent giggle – they also give us a pretty enjoyable flight of imagination into wondering what the laws tell us about the culture of that place, and what the heck actually happened in that jurisdiction to cause legislators to pass that law!

Did someone’s onions rot in Paris because the farmer was held up in the sun due to a road blockage? Was that solo blue duckling made fun of? Who was repeatedly flushing their loo late at night in Basel?

What about a little closer to home though – in the business world are we all much more even-tempered when it comes to the rules we put in place in our own little kingdoms?

This area gets a lot less social media coverage, but some noteworthy stories of unusual rules in workplaces still manage to percolate through.

A Canadian handbag firm made a rule saying their employees may eat whatever they want during their lunch breaks, as long as whatever they eat ‘never had eyes or a mother’.

Employers at a Scottish offshore oil and gas services company based in Scotland, sent a memo to their staff in 2013, informing them that milk, while still permitted on the premises, could no longer be used in cereal. “The milk purchased by the company is for use with tea or coffee,” the memo read. “The use of this milk for cereal is to cease with immediate effect.”

A UK Financial services firm banned all food, drink and personal effects from employees desks in 2016, even for staff members with fixed desks, only to recant on this slightly a year later by changing the rule to being that personal effects could only be displayed ‘whilst an employee was at their desk and must be cleared away at the end of each working day’ and ‘food and drink with no odour may be consumed at your desk’.

In the same way as we wonder what kind of a local culture exists in a city that has a rule like ‘women must have permission from their husbands to buy a set of dentures’ (Vermont!), current and potential employees have similar musings when it comes to the cultural indicators a firm’s HR policies provide.

The sad truth is that daft HR policies & people practices are pretty endemic and, like the crazy laws at the start of this article, the foundation of many needless workplace policies & practices is often the concept of ‘whilst we expect most people will behave well, we want to legislate for the one or two who might be jerks’.

Four of the most common and most frustrating HR policies & practices I’ve come across in companies are:

  1. Treating illness and accidents as a Key Performance Indicator. There are still companies in the UK today that have a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule on sick absence – rack up one too many ‘instances’ of sickness and you will be dragged into an investigation meeting ‘because that’s company policy’. Honestly. I’ve even seen people undergoing cancer treatment being called in for a ‘discussion’ on how instances of absence can be better managed. What does it say about a company, or their faith in the team they have hired, if sickness needs to be managed as a KPI? If you want to tell your employees you trust them and plan to treat them as the adults they are then scrap any concept of unplanned absence as a standard trigger for disciplinary investigation. Assume most people are inherently hardworking and honest – and treat absences sensitively.
  2. Policies allowing department managers to approve or deny their team members’ applications for internal transfers and promotions. Again this one is scarily common. It sometimes takes a slightly different form in department managers needing to approve the application rather than the appointment- but essentially it’s just the same thing. You have a terrible manager, you’re unhappy in your team? Bad luck, because this policy tells you that the company doesn’t have your back. Companies who operate as meritocracies and with freedom of movement for their team members retain and grow their staff. Good companies don’t put blockers in the way of that growth. Train your line managers in their responsibility to encourage rather than filter their team member’s interest in new opportunities.
  3. The practice of Anonymous 360-Degree feedback. “We’re going to ask a bunch of people to anonymously give you arbitrary scores with no 2-way dialogue or need for accountability because we think this will make you a better person.” This is the worst nightmare for any employee who suffers from anxiety. Even for those who don’t, how much can you really learn from fragmented feedback and no opportunity for discussion with the person giving it? This HR practice kills trust in teams. The Orwellian ‘big brother is watching you’ ethos looms large in its creation. Strong companies are built on honest and open dialogue between team members at all levels – spend your time and money investing in support and approaches which encourage that instead.
  4. Hiring process veto. This is a new entrant into the top four and one of the craziest concepts out there. Scarily though it continues to gain popularity in some circles! At the end of every hiring process a manager who has little to no connection to the role or to the hiring manager’s department is asked to do a final ‘culture fit’ interview. Alone. They get to veto the hiring of the chosen candidate if they don’t think they are a good fit. Wowzers. So you have a candidate who has beaten all the other applicants on technical capability, who the hiring manager thinks will be a great fit into their team, and another manager gets to take that all way. Supporters of this approach claim it is a ‘bar raiser’, but in reality it’s damaging. It undermines the hiring manager, sets up a clear path for both conspiracies to subvert your policy and damage to relationships across your management community, and it’s a head wrecker for your candidates & recruiters. Worst of all – the purpose of this is to resolve a perceived problem that any one of a bunch of scientifically valid culture fit assessment tools could fix much more effectively. Rather than creating red tape and strife, spend your time and energy in really engaging your management community how special your culture is and their role in helping to grow and shape it, and give them the right tools to help them in the hiring decision.

Think hard about the rules and practices you want to set up. It really helps to focus on the outcome you need to drive as your starting point. Challenge yourself on whether what you are planning really is the best way to both get that outcome and to protect your team & your culture.

Remember “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Make sure the culture you build – accidentally or on purpose – is really the one your company needs to be able to thrive!