Lessons from government on petty rule-making

HR and managers need to recognise that overly controlling instructions without fair and effective enforcement are pointless, says Martin Tiplady

Lessons from government on petty rule-making

I am not especially a critic of the government and their handling of the pandemic. They were thrown into this and, in most part, have done their best to lead us through it. We can question and wonder why a particular thing – masks, for example – didn’t happen earlier. But we have no real basis to suggest that any of us could do any better. In common with most, I have admired the calmness and fact-based assertions offered by professor Chris Whitty and co. They have given the assurance that most of the modern limits placed on our lives are science driven and appropriate. He and his colleagues have been much more impressive and assured than the ministers speaking out. Until now...

Throughout lockdown, I have had an image in my head of a room in deepest Westminster with a plaque on the door that says RULES. And I have a further picture of a bank of desks with Ebenezer Scrooge-type figures behind them, rubbing their hands with glee as they devise the latest directive to control our thinking and way we live our lives. This image has come to me more and more as I read the latest rules and controls – whether they be about air tunnels, social bubbles, meetings with more than one household, sporting and arts events, schools reopening, the return to offices, safe travel, parking, holidays and even on whether I can sing or play my tuba. (Anyone who knows about brass instruments will know the air you pump into a trumpet does not come out of the other end as air. It comes out as sound. But try telling that to the rule-makers in the rule room.)

In HR, we are beginning to witness a few managers demonstrate a new micro-managing style in devising their own petty rules about home working and the return after the lockdown. Based on a premise of mistrust, they work on the principle of: ‘You are not working unless you are in front of your screen. All day. Every day. And I must be able to witness your work.’ Yikes.

It seems that these managers have been waiting for the day when their Dickensian-style management can be exercised. Up to the last few days I was blissfully unaware of this, but during the last week or so I have heard of managers monitoring online time, cold calling their staff, requiring logon and log off times for coffee and loo breaks and daily updates on tasks performed. I am all for monitoring to some degree... but please, this is 2020.

Most of us will accept rules without too much question unless they are unreasonable or until we see that people who do not observe them can get away with it. And then we all misbehave – for we do not, as a nation, like rules and react badly to them. 

What’s the point of all this? Simply, the daily rules now being devised are not helping. There are too many. The more rules there are and the fewer controls, the more they become silly and an object of ridicule. We are at that point. Many rules are pointless. Most are not thought through. Some are plain daft. Many are not explained logically and we are unsure why they need to exist. And there are important lessons here for HR (still famed in some circles after all for an historic love of rules – though hopefully this has now shifted for many) and for managers.

We may be accepting of the need to constrain our lives, but we should not be told what not to do by a misguided civil servant – or a manager on a power kick who is being left unchecked by seniors. Rules without fair and effective enforcement are limp. And the more rules there are, the more there are to break and be ignored.

So can someone please get hold of the key to the rule room, lock it and – if it’s not too much of a stretch to put a room into a room – consign it to Room 101. And at the same time, place any managers devising their own rules during this period in there too.

Martin Tiplady is managing director of Chameleon People Solutions and former HR director