Back in 1982, I sat in a lecture room at Wits Business School during the run-up to my MBA finals. Lecturer Andy Andrews was giving us the low-down on business policy. Halfway through the lecture, a big red-headed rugger-bugger type stood up at the back of the room to contradict a point that Andy had made.

"Speaking as a Nestlé man ..." this self-opinionated wunderkind sprouted.

His opening phrase taught me a lesson. In fact, it was one of the few things I learnt of any significance at Wits. I can't remember rooikop's question. I just remember thinking: "What an unbelievable twit. Does this bloke really have to hide behind the glitzy veneer of a big company to make his point?"

Thinking about the incident in retrospect, rooikop had taken the right route if he wanted the business to fail.

If you want to drive the business to wherever bad businesses go to die, hide behind the mantle of a large corporation and its bible of rules, regulations and procedures.

You want to know the easiest way of losing money and sending the business on a one-way ride to never-never land? Simply alienate customers by countering every request with: "It isn't company policy".

Corporate policy disguises a whole range of sins. When things go wrong, it allows you to give awkward customers and suppliers the brush-off without accepting the blame. Perhaps corporate policy was one of the reasons that ABSA floundered around under the "leadership" of Piet Badenhorst. It seemed that whenever I needed United to do anything, I was turned down with the words: "I'm sorry, we can't do that. That's our policy."

This little cameo paints the bleak picture:

At a time of need, I wandered into my neighbourhood branch of United Bank and asked the manager for a short-term loan of R10 000,00.

"I'm sorry I can't give it to you," he said.
"Why not?" I asked.
"That's our policy." End of story.

Essentially, restoring to company policy is a well-tried method of passing the buck. It's much favoured by corporate bureaucrats who delight in binding everything with red tape. It's wielded by the type of person who, when clearing out the bumf in his filing cabinet, makes a copy of each document before throwing the originals away. Although usually associated with civil servants, you find company policy adherents lurking in most large businesses, particularly those that are vertically structured in the traditional hierarchical manner.

I heard of a company which insisted that you fill in three forms and return the stub of your old pencil before the stationery manager would issue a new one. Forms play major role in organisations which avidly implement company policy concepts. Everything must be meticulously recorded in triplicate on a variety of forms before any decisions can be taken. Visit any Post Office to see the concept at work in slow-motion.

The company policy syndrome also plays a major role in camouflaging the antics of ill-trained and unhelpful employees.

I recently embarked on a shopping trip through a supermarket. I pushed my trolley up and down the aisles in a vain search for Marmite. So I stopped an employee sporting a dustcoat in the chain's colours. "Please steer me in the direction of the Marmite," I said.

"Marmite?" He shook his head. "I'm new here. I don't know where anything is."

I wandered over to the bakery section. The woman behind the counter looked at me like I'd just crawled out of the cheese. "I only know what's behind my counter. Over there," she said flicking her head at the butcher section.

"I only serve meat," he said "Why don't you ask the manager?"

I walked out of the store, never to return.

Here's another example of corporate policy madness aggravated by computer technology. I know someone called S W Cunningham. His name is unusual because he doesn't have a first or middle name, only initials. He's known among his friends simply as S W. The problem arose when he went to work for a company strong on rules, regulations and procedures - many of them dictated by the corporate computer.

On the official job application form he carefully entered his name as "S (only) W (only) Cunningham".

Predictably, his first pay cheque was made out in favour of "Sonly Wonly Cunningham".

So, speaking as a corporate man, you can mortally damage the business by:


Treating all customers and suppliers with disdain - as necessary evils.

Being employees to reams of rules, regulations and procedures, many of them unnecessary.

Reducing customer service staff levels to a minimum to ensure lousy service.

Structuring a rigid corporate hierarchy that reinforces a "we've always done it this way" attitude.

Building as many tiers of partial control as possible, forcing everyone to pass the buck since no one is empowered to make final decisions.

Designing your business structure so that decision-making bounces up and down the hierarchy like a yo-yo.

Encouraging slow response by unfriendly personnel to boost customer dissatisfaction and alienation.

Developing an emotional employee attachment to unnecessary form-filling.

Adopting the stance that the customer is always wrong as a matter of company policy.

Insisting that nothing can ever be done about anything unless it goes through "the proper channels," which must never be dredged.

1. I thought I made it clear
2. Let's not rock the boat
3. We tried that once before
4. Who cares? It's the company time after all
5. I'm the boss. Do as I say
6. I can't stand change
7. We made the cuts, now lets get back to work
8. I'll do it as soon as possible
9. I prefer to work alone
10. Speaking as a Nestlé man
11. Get him on the line!
12. I've got 20 years experience
13. Let's keep it confidential
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