Feb 012011

In the middle of a list of various employer types I find myself repeating  policy as a determining factor of whether a job will suit you or not. It seems more sensible to investigate it rather than just list it repeatedly, since the policy level of your working environment determines your level of satisfaction as much as anything.

POLICY:  management or procedure based primarily on material interest (Webster’s Online Dictionary).

For our purpose, policy is ‘written policy” as in your employee manual or the company mission statement. Of course you have policies of your own, such as using no brown edged lettuce or thanking the dishwasher, but official policy is different. Official policy is written in stone and followed precisely by the businesses that employ it. It determines, for instance, that all purchasing decisions must be run by the GM or that specials must be tested by the owner before they are put on the menu, or that no chef jacket can be worn outside.

Policy is not intended to bring the best out of each member of the team, but rather to prevent the one idiot in the group from doing the worst. It thus hamstrings the creative and insults the responsible. Most of us dislike policy, because it limits our liberty to act in what we perceive to be the best and most productive manner.

Small restaurants rarely have a great deal of written policy. With fewer employees, they find it possible to oversee the actions and ward of tragedy before some fool sets anything on fire or brings a sexual harassment suit. (Small restaurants also find themselves disproportionately before the Labor Board.)  By the time a business employs eighty or two hundred individuals, however, policies creep in to take on controls that individual managers may  not be able to oversee. Once a restaurant has several units, policies are nearly inevitable.

There is a valid argument against policy: It is the cheap replacement for good managers and good manager training. If every restaurant (cyclotron, airport, broadcasting company) had and trained competent, alert, intelligent and humane managers with the duty to bring the best out of any and all employees while recognizing and dealing with the worst of the pack, policy would be unnecessary. I agree completely,  with the caveat that there are not nearly enough of these great managers to go around.  Ergo your corporate rules and employee handbook.

Policy, in absence of brilliant management, protects staff and owners from idiots and sociopaths, genres not lacking in our industry. It shields the business both from losses due to crackpot decisions or thoughtless acts and liability. Call it CYA, if you prefer. All successful restaurant groups professional restaurants have instituted some level of policy to guarantee standards.

The downside of policy is that it removes crucial decision making from the human competence to a set of rules.  Once written it needs to be universally applied with no exceptions. since once policy is broken for one employee, regardless of the reason, the business cannot use it to discipline another.  It can’t just be resorted to for acts with bad outcome and put aside if the same action has no impact or even raging success. Because this blind application is so challenging, more and more companies these days are paying compliance experts not only to write their policies and train their management to carry them out, but to assure compliance without personal prejudice.

Since policy in its intent to prevent the worst outcome often causes the collateral damage of preventing the best, it creates for you, the professional artisan seeking the perfect fit, a serious conflict. On the one hand, operations which employ a high degree of policy tend to be more stable, more professional and less chaotic than those run on good faith and belief in people. They know what works and that’s what they want done. On the other, policies clip wings and tie hands. They are insulting, because they suggest to us all that we are not intelligent enough to make the right decisions, even if only intended to target the inept or unprincipled few.

Of course, policy need not be the enemy of  quality. It can be the codification of high standards rather than simply mindless, petty wonkery. The Four Seasons group, one of the most highly regarded hotel groups for quality and professionalism, is also one of the country’s high policy employers. So is Restaurant Gary Danko. Bonne Appetit’s policies require among other things that most of the product served must be local and sustainable. Of course, that’s not really policy. It’s codified quality standards. On the whole, the more professional operations tend to have a higher level of policy, but not necessarily.

When seeking your place in the business, you need to determine what you can live with in terms of policy vs. entrepreneurial autonomy. Good luck with that.