We love our rules, don’t we? They’re important to us because we feel that by regulating the behavior of others, we are safer, healthier and richer. After all, isn’t civilization simply a system of rules and consequences?
So, we apply the same thinking to the workplace. There are rules about what time to show up, how long lunch can last, where to park. Some workplaces have dress codes, and restrictions on office supplies. Some companies even require employees to pay for damaged or stolen equipment, so they “learn a lesson” about taking care of their tools.
Rules and consequences are supposed to be deterrents, preventing abuse and scaring everyone into compliance.
And when we discover our rules don’t work, what do we do? We make them more severe. Because we believe that once the consequences are the right amount of harsh, it will finally make everyone get in line.
Just hit ‘em harder until they cooperate.
Someone arrives two minutes late? Make ‘em take an hour of PTO!
Spending too much time in the bathroom? Take away a break!
Still spending too much time in the bathroom? Take both breaks!
You need to keep those unruly, cheating employees in line, so hit ’em harder!
But there’s a big problem with that theory: It doesn’t work.
Hitting people harder only makes them resist. Defiance is a natural, human reaction to unreasonable punishment. And if your policies are creating defiant employees, they’re backfiring.
There’s another problem: by focusing on rules, you produce an atmosphere of distrust. If you start with the belief that employees will try to get away with whatever they can, they will believe the same about you. And you’ll have an unhappy, corrosive work environment.
Are All Your Rules Necessary?
People are generally good. You are, right? Then why do you expect your employees to be any different? In a healthy workplace, as in a healthy society, most people do the right things. And they influence each other to do the same.
Too many rules, and the wrong kinds of rules, can inspire employees to break or evade them, sometimes just for sport. They make employees resentful and angry.
Before creating a new rule and its corresponding penalty, ask yourself who benefits from it? An individual (or a small group, like the exec team) or the company? If it’s an individual, and it’s not designed to foster inclusion or equality, the rule should probably go.
If the company benefits from the rule, what is the benefit exactly? Does it make the product better or the customers happier? Is it worth the cost of enforcement and damage to the employee relationship?
A rule that requires employees to replace stolen equipment (or buy their own uniforms or office supplies) may appear to save money, but it’s a likely tiny fraction of the company’s revenues. That same amount coming out of an employee’s pocket represents a much larger percentage of their income. If you put a price on ill-will and reputational damage (which you should because they cost actual money), policies like these don’t make financial sense.
Ask yourself whether you are solving a real problem. Is something happening that you need to stop? Or are you creating a rule because you’re afraid a problem might one day develop? When you make a rule for problems that do not exist, you end up creating those problems yourself, as employees defy your dumb rule.
You want your employees to be ambassadors for the company. You need them to take the company’s mission seriously, to do their part to move the business forward. Your employees should be engaged with the company, not conspiring against it. Hitting ’em harder with punitive, unfair rules prevents that engagement.
The fewer rules you have, the greater the likelihood that you’ll have a productive, engaged workforce.
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