(a) Rules are rules…period.
(b) Rules are meant to be broken.
(c) It depends.
(d) All of the above.
(e) None of the above.
While there is no one “right” answer to the above question, the way you respond says a lot about you. The way you think and feel about rules in general will influence the decisions you make and the actions you take in different situations.
Let me tell you about two controversial, thought-provoking, and emotional incidents that occurred in the past week – both of which involved “following the rules” – and see what you think:
While playing softball in Central Park the other night, our manager noticed that one of the players on the other team was wearing baseball cleats with metal spikes which, according to league rules, are not allowed (as someone could potentially get hurt). The player claimed that he didn’t know about this rule, immediately apologized, and went back to the bench to change into his sneakers.
But not so fast! In the opinion of my team’s manager, this opposing player’s blatant and flagrant violation of league rules was too egregious to overlook or forgive. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. And what if he had spiked somebody and they got hurt? To our manager, there was no option but to go strictly by the book and demand that the umpire immediately throw him out of the game.
The fact that it was a minor and inadvertent oversight, that the player apologized for his mistake, that no one got hurt, that a number of the guys on our own team pleaded, “Forget about it, just let him change his shoes and play,” (and that we were already losing 10-2 in the 4th inning) all didn’t seem to matter. According to our manager, “Rules are rules.” No discussion. No debate. No warning. No second chances. One strike and you’re out.
Following the letter of the law, the umpire (sympathetically, apologetically, hesitantly, and incredulously) proceeded to inform the violator that he was sorry but, based on our manager’s demand, there was no choice but to ban him from the rest of the game.
Oh. And in case you were wondering, we went on to lose 20-2 as the angry opposing team, in the spirit of retribution, proceeded to pour it on and make us pay.
Someone posted the following question on a LinkedIn HR discussion group the other day: “I have a team member who is a good worker, but he does not report to the office on time. When I talk to him, he promises to be on time, but that does not last more than 2 or 3 days. Any suggestions?”
The responses came pouring in: “Write him up!”; “Dock his pay”; “Demote him!”; “Put it on his permanent record!”; “Give him a final warning!”; “Show him who’s boss!”; and “Don’t give him any more chances. Fire him immediately. This kind of insubordinate behavior simply cannot be tolerated! He’s got to be made an example of and taught to obey the rules!”
Yup, rules are rules. Or are they?
Let me start by saying that, yes, rules are important. Whether we call them policies, operating procedures, guiding principles, or ground rules, every organization needs to have processes and structure in place or else there would be chaos. Rules enable organizations to be organized. And they let the people within an organization (or a community or society) know what is allowed, and what is expected.
But, reflecting on the two incidents described above, my question is this: might there be times when “The Rules” should be overruled by common sense?
Now, just for clarification, and before instigating any kind of legal backlash, I’m talking about “rules,” not “laws” – which are a separate and more specific (though thematically related) issue. And I’m not talking about safety violations or ethical lapses. I’m talking about situations in which mindlessly and unquestioningly following certain edicts may not necessarily be the best or the right decision.
For example, in the softball incident, did the player on the other team “break the rules?” Yes, officially he did. But two key questions that should be asked are: (1) Was the rule violation intentional or accidental – and does that matter; and (2) how serious a rule violation was it, i.e., was any advantage received or any damage done as a result?
Keeping things in perspective, we’re not talking about a major league player caught taking steroids; we’re talking about a guy playing a fun league game in the park who was discovered to be wearing the wrong kind of shoes.
It was clear and obvious to everyone (including my manager and the umpire) that is was an accidental oversight, there was no intent to deceive, to defraud, or to reap any competitive advantage, and no harm of any kind was done. So, with that being the case, did the punishment (banishment from the game) fit the crime of wearing unsanctioned footwear or might it have been a tad excessive under the circumstances? Was my manager “wrong?” No. But was he “right”? I’ll let you play umpire and make that call.
And in the second example (good performer comes in late, with 90% of the HR mob demanding immediate and severe punishment), there are again two questions that come to mind: (1) What is the context; and (2) What are the specific details?
What jumped out at me and really pushed me over the edge was that everyone’s calling for this guy’s head without having ANY of the information!
From what we know, has this employee been guilty of breaking the rule of “everyone should get to work ‘on time’?” Apparently so. But do we know anything else? No, absolutely nothing!
What type of job are we talking about? Is he a salaried or hourly worker? What exactly does “on time” mean anyway? Is he expected to get there at 9:00am and is showing up at 9:05am, or is it 10:05am? Is he “late” once a week or every single day? How long has this been going on? Two weeks, two months, two years? And what is the reason for, and the impact of, his lateness?
Most importantly, before reporting him to HR and putting him on a disciplinary plan (remember, he has been described as a “good worker”), has the employee’s manager actually sat down and spoken to him one-on-one and heart-to-heart to find out what is going on with him – asking and listening, discussing expectations, making him aware of the business impact of the lateness (e.g., on customers, team members, the organization, and on the manager himself), and exploring possible solutions?
Years ago when I worked for one of the TV networks out in L.A., I was a high performer who had always gotten to work on time — until I hit a week of major car problems that resulted in my being about 30-45 minutes late three days in a row. How did my tyrannical boss address this issue? By saying (and I quote): “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you lately, but I’m sick of your marching in here late. If you can’t start getting here on time, you better start looking for another job.” Wow. So, you can see why I may be a little sensitive and overly empathetic when it comes to this particular example.
But the bottom line is that I was really amazed, and incredibly disappointed, to see how many of the LinkedIn discussion responses were about “policy, policy, policy.” Sad to say, but that’s one of the problems with the HR mentality in many companies, and why so many people (sorry to have to say it) hate HR.
As an honorary HR person who works in the learning and development field, I have seen too many Human Resources professionals who have lost sight of the fact that what we do is supposed to be all about engaging PEOPLE and helping them maximize their performance, productivity and potential – and not simply about setting and enforcing THE RULES, and focusing primarily on policies, processes, and procedures.
The first initial of “HR” stands for “Human,” and we need to deal with people more humanely. The root of the word “policy” is the same as that of “police,” so if HR people want to be viewed as something more than just the company police, perhaps companies need to rethink how we view, deal with, and find a gentle balance between the Rules and our People. Sometimes we need to go by the book; other times we need to go by “common sense.” But, unfortunately, as the saying goes, common sense is not always common practice.
And from a management and leadership perspective, this classic saying by legendary management guru Peter Drucker comes to mind: “Management is about doing things right, leadership is about doing the right thing.”
So when it comes to “The Rules” and the Drucker quote, perhaps we need fewer bureaucrats who rule “by the book,” and more people acting as leaders who are willing to make the tough but fair — and right — call, even if it results in some bending of the rules.
For me, as you may have guessed by now, my answer to the initial question about rules is: “it depends.” And among the multiple things that it may depend on, one of the main things is intent and the ability to wisely distinguish between “the spirit of the rule” and “the letter of the law.”
So the big question is: do “The Rules” rule, or do YOU?
*Two book recommendations on re-thinking “the rules”:
First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently
(by Marcus Buckingham)
The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World
(by Chris Guillebeau)