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The Spirit vs the Letter of the Law in Handbook Policies

| James Riley |

Often, we work with our clients to help write IT policies for their Employee Handbook. I have mixed feelings doing this as part of me wants to write out every detail of the policies while another part of me wants to scream and just say “do the right thing!” This exemplifies the different approaches to writing handbook policies. One approach is to detail every single possible element while the other is to provide an overriding vision for what is considered right and wrong and expect people to fill in the gaps with common sense.

My oldest daughter is a competitive CrossFit athlete and this tension on standards came up this past week in the CrossFit world. In the spring, a worldwide competition, called the CrossFit Open, runs over 5 weeks. Each week, a specified workout is published, along with defined standards on the performance of that workout. In the first workout, the athletes had to perform a “bar over burpee”. Part of the movement is to jump over a bar, loaded with weights. In almost every case, you do this with a bar that is loaded with standard-sized plates. However, one group looked at the rules and thought they might be able to get a competitive edge by putting smaller plates on the bar so it wouldn’t be as high off of the ground. Approval was received from a regional CrossFit Director but their policies state that approval must be received from CrossFit Headquarters. As it stands now, CrossFit Headquarters has said that the modification was not allowable and violated the standards because it unfairly modified the range of motion the athlete must go through. As a result, CrossFit has assessed a severe penalty on all athletes in the group.

On social media, there is a firestorm over this CrossFit “controversy” with people feeling strongly on one side or the other. The interesting thing, however, is that both sides are right. On the one side, the athletes followed the letter of the law and sought and received approval from someone they reasonably believed had the authority to approve their request. On the other side, approval was not received from the proper person and the standard was modified beyond the spirit of the standard.

I say all of this to point out that, as leaders, we can tend to live on one side of the fence or the other. Either we detail exactly how we want something done or we just tell someone to “get it done” or “do the right thing”. It seems that both approaches leave quite a bit of room for well-meaning misunderstanding. When we respect this, we can seek to find a way to convey our intentions while also providing adequate detail in the policies we write ensuring that our intentions are understood at both the detailed and conceptual levels.