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Mar 04, 2013

Rules are rules! Aren’t they?

By: Paul Ebeltoft

Human resource professionals often begin their conversations with me by saying, “Why can’t people just follow the rules?” There are many answers to this question. One of them is, “Sometimes people think that the rules don’t apply any more.”

For example, I had a case where my client approached a remote, seldom traveled rural intersection controlled by a stop sign. The stop sign was old, faded, had many bullet holes and was hanging askew. Should my client have stopped? In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, human factors engineers tell us that most people would not honor that stop sign. Why?

Simply put, disorder breeds disregard. Just as children not corrected by their parents for rude behavior will test the limits, becoming more and more unruly; stop signs that are not fixed and straight impliedly permit drivers to test the limits, ignoring them. An article appearing in the March 1982 Atlantic Magazine explains it better than I. “[D]isorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

What does this have to do with Human Resource Professionals?

In the workplace, if you tolerate misconduct it will become the norm for conduct at your workplace. Stated another way, even if you have rules, employees will disregard them if they are outmoded or a low management priority.

Refresh your policies

Follow these steps to minimize disregard of your workplace rules.

• Keep your rules up-to-date. One rule that “no one follows any more” will jeopardize the effectiveness of your entire handbook.
• Make sure your employees know the rules. So many companies give their new employees a handbook, assuming that the employee will study it. Research shows that employees read their handbooks with about the same frequency and attention as they read the owner’s manual in a car; just a bit at first and virtually not at all later. Face-to-face training is expensive and hard to schedule. Keep the rules fresh by sending periodic “did you know” emails that outline a single handbook provision, requiring employees to acknowledge receipt. If you have an internal website, post your handbook with searchable features.
• Educate your management team. Few will follow a rule that the boss does not follow.
• Address the smallest infraction of zero-tolerance policies, like those prohibiting any act of sexual harassment. Do not ignore the first broken window even if it is a “joke” or a misguided comment.
• Make your rules the basis of discipline. If your company cites to chapter and verse in its decisions, employees will know that the rules are real.

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My law firm’s goal is to give understandable information and to foster discussion about real-life issues facing human resource professionals. If we are not achieving that goal or if you would like us to address other employment law issues, please email me at We promise to take your comments and ideas to heart.

(Otherwise known as “the fine print”)

I make a serious effort to be accurate in my writings. These articles are not exhaustive treatises, though, so do not consider them complete or authoritative. Providing this information to you does not create an attorney-client relationship with my firm or me. Do not act upon the contents of this or of any article on our homepage or consider it a replacement for professional advice.

Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the March, 2013 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.