March 30, 2023
Policy vs. guidance: Why it matters to know the difference
How carriers can benefit from cleaning up their rulebooks
There’s no getting around one thing: Every motor carrier needs safety policies.
If those policies have ever backfired at your company, as they inevitably have at some point for many, have you considered that it shouldn’t be a policy at all?
“You have those occasions where the policy [gets] broken, but you never have any other issue with this driver. Do [you] have to fire him? According to the policy, yes, you do,” said Brian Runnels, VP of safety at Reliance Partners, a trucking insurance and safety consultancy agency, during a mid-March WHAT THE TRUCK!?! interview.
Runnels was referring to one of two kinds of rules that motor carriers set for their drivers: policy, which is required, and guidance, which is suggested.
Depending on what the subject is, your company might be creating unnecessary burden by enforcing a policy, and being forced to let a good driver go, when you would be better off with creating guidance around that topic.
A good rule of thumb is this advice from Runnels: “If an issue is directly related to FMCSRs [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations], then it probably requires a company policy with direct consequences.”
Policies usually leave no wiggle room for interpretation. Either you follow the stated hours of service rules or you don’t, for example. Clear consequences for noncompliance are baked into the policy: whether it be a coaching, written warning, termination or another specific disciplinary action.
Where companies go wrong, Runnels said, and what he’s done in the past, is by making everything a policy — from random drug and alcohol testing procedures to time off procedures and everything in between.
In the worst-case scenario, in court a plaintiff’s attorney could go after a carrier for breaking a policy, Runnels warned. This could happen in a case in which a driver violates a company policy that the plaintiff’s attorney believes could have contributed to an accident, for instance.
Guidance is a best practice that drivers should adhere to, not mandatory in the way policies are. The stated consequences for broken guidance usually contain language that makes it clear the suggested disciplinary action, but not required, and leaves room for some flexibility and case-by-case handling.
Guidance can be applied to subjects that aren’t covered in the FMCSRs, like when drivers should and shouldn’t drive during adverse weather.
In some situations, guidance can also go above and beyond the FMCSRs. This could look like a carrier putting into place the best practice of taking photographs of any defects to their vehicle during pretrip inspections.
As a safety consultant, Runnels interacts with all types and sizes of carriers across the country. More and more, he’s been seeing carriers implement processes for their drivers as guidance instead of policies. This allows a carrier to still make a tangible rule that gives it a stance on something without being pushed into a corner the way it would with a policy.
Still, there are many cases where there are policies on the books that would be better off as guidance. Runnels suggests carriers review their policies and guidance once per year.
“When we go out to customers or prospects and we look at their safety policy manual and it’s as thick as the FMCSRs, you definitely know that there are some things that aren’t being followed in there. Either they’re old [and] they don’t apply anymore or just forgotten,” Runnels noted.
So many policies can also place extra pressure on drivers on top of an already stressful job, making them feel like every misstep could land them in trouble with management.
It’s easier to get a buy-in from drivers for new guidance than policies, Runnels explained. Carriers can sell drivers on a new process or procedure for the betterment of the organization rather than saying it must be followed or they will experience consequences for noncompliance.
However, guidance still requires communication and follow-through between the safety department, operations and drivers to be effective.
“Guidances are something built on communication, and there [needs to be] some consistency when you have a guidance — that whether it is a corrective action or retraining, or however it’s handled after the fact,” Runnels said.