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Contracts and covenants: The roles of radical policy in bigger and smaller organisations

This is part of an ongoing discussion we’re having about the roles of bigger voluntary organisations and charities using RadHR. It’s something we actually have some differing perspectives on within the team, and wanted to share them so that others could chime in. This is Liam’s view.

This is part of an ongoing discussion we’re having about the roles of bigger voluntary organisations and charities using RadHR. It’s something we actually have some differing perspectives on within the team, and wanted to share them so that others could chime in. This is Liam’s view.

I remember three things about the organisational policies I got to know, the last time I worked in a large voluntary organisation, more than a decade ago:

  1. They were quite generous, as far as pay, leave and other terms of employment,
  2. If I really trawled through some of them, I could occasionally find a clause I might be able to use to challenge my managers, in an ongoing set of grievances and disciplinary procedures we were taking back and forth against each other, and
  3. Even when I found those clauses, they rarely – if ever – seemed to lead to any improvements in my feelings about that job (in spite of the generous Ts&Cs).

Years later, having read, drafted and adapted many dozens of internal organisational policies from much smaller activist and community groups, I’ve noticed some significant differences in the roles that these documents play in differently-sized organisations – particularly between those with more explicit hierarchies, and those that are attempting to work against them. While there are definitely exceptions, I think the differences are actually quite fundamental.

In smaller groups (let’s say, crudely, up to 10 or 15 people), if those involved broadly know and trust each other, a policy can serve as a reminder of how we’ve chosen to practice our values together. It can be a touchstone for us to point to when we feel like one of our own has lost sight of a deeply held agreement. It can be a covenant for our collectives and organisations to turn to when the waters get choppy – when money is short, when tensions are high, when things happen that make it harder to stick to the vision that brought us together.

In larger – particularly very hierarchical – organisations, without the relationships, the trust, or the chance to establish shared values, a policy is a stick used to ensure contractual compliance. Who the compliance applies to and who sets the terms will be in constant tension – some paragraphs will reinforce the contractual compliance of management over workers, whereas others will be the result of worker (and trade union) power, to ensure bosses cannot exploit their staff.

This dynamic makes intuitive sense when applied to a profit-driven business, but it is easier to gloss over when we’re talking about bigger charities and NGOs. Yet the policies in place hold the same contractual agreements in which two sides find an uncomfortable compromise, and then both work to pull that compromise further towards their respective interests.

In short, policies in bigger hierarchical institutions – even when progressively-minded – are tools of power, rather than agreements for shared understanding. As they should be, to avoid the power of management going unchecked!

I do think there are exceptions. Some larger organisations will enable a local neighbourhood office to have the autonomy to develop its own policies for how the half-dozen part-time staff there choose to work together, defining their own pay structures and leave policies to meet local contexts and preferences. More commonly, there can be teams in bigger institutions that take the initiative to establish consensus decision making processes for decisions that are limited to their team’s remit. Heads of these teams often end up serving as a ‘shit umbrella’ to those that they manage, preventing the worst aspects of senior management filtering their ways down to those doing the day-to-day work.

In both of these situations, some policies can be co-developed and grounded in trusting relationships and shared values. There are always likely to be limits to how far these policies can go, before they fall afoul of their wider institutional frameworks, but they can make a real difference to the experiences of those working and organising within them.

More broadly though, what is the significance of an internal policy doc across scale? Between a small community meal project and a large food recycling programme? A local nature conservation group and a massive environmental NGO? I suspect fairly little. If you’re writing something to encapsulate deep shared commitments, or if you’re writing something to police one another with, your docs will turn out very differently (even if their themes overlap).

This can have real consequences if policies are carried across different organisational scales. A large NGO’s 60-page compliance-based grievance policy can be a Trojan Horse, instilling an untrusting culture in a smaller group, and handing power to the (often) most privileged members of that group, who often feel more-comfortable navigating massive legal documents. This is a core reason that RadHR exists, as the default policy templates you’ll find on the ACAS website, or get from so many employment lawyers, tend to be of this variety and they have very real negative impacts on how many groups operate, as a result.

Conversely though, bringing a collective, trust-based policy into a larger institution may leave the most vulnerable folks open to further exploitation by management. Encouraging ‘a more informal approach’ than a collective bargaining process, for example, when there are clearly different interests at play for folks in different parts of the hierarchy, tends to work in favour of those at the top. I’ve definitely had some concerns about what might happen if the employer I started this blog describing, decided to adopt a ‘more trusting’ approach (without actually addressing the power dynamics embedded in its size and structure).

What is important to write down if you’re coming from a place of mutual trust, is very different from what is important to write down if you are looking to ensure compliance. The former is about the spirit of the law, the latter is about the letter of it.

This is part of why mainstream HR is littered with individual policies sprawling dozens and dozens of pages. They need text to address every eventuality – every possible way that management might screw over workers, or that workers might avoid responsibility – across a vast array of different people and contexts. They are also usually written by management, in part to preserve its power, but also because writing documents that long and complex is incredibly specialist work that most of us would struggle to make sense of. These documents become a form of power, unto themselves, even when a strong union has helped shape them in the interests of their workers. In many institutions, policies are impenetrable to the workers they represent, creating a level of hierarchy amongst more privileged members or the workforce, or the union organisers that negotiate those policies.

Most (but not all) policies in the RadHR policy library are fairly brief, because they are not trying to have an answer to every possible question. Instead, they are trying to outline the steps a group will take to practice its agreed values in a particular area, whether that be pay, conflict, care leave or recruitment.

In many ways, shorter policies are more accessible policies, as massive text documents are often much more digestible to people with more formal education, those with English as a first language and neurotypical folks. That’s why this Class Work Project approach to conflict and this Voice of Youth safeguarding policy are so powerful – because they can be read and used by almost anyone in their respective groups and they reiterate a bunch of core ideas that these groups have collectively agreed and chosen to practice together. Rarely can the same be said of larger institutional HR policies, no matter how progressively-minded they might be.

So it’s not that RadHR can’t be of use to folks in larger organisations – we hope it will at least spark some conversations and help to carve out pockets where different ways of organising are possible! But I think it’s also fair to say that part of being radical is about moving away from policing one another’s behaviours in groups and towards capturing the things we care about, in as accessible a way as possible, so more of us can understand and continue to reshape the ways we work together.

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