How Many of Your Company’s Rules Need to Be Overruled?

As someone who was raised in a household with few to no rules, it’s strange being in the workplace, where there are so many rules. Most of them don’t make sense, and some are even offensive.

Liz Ryan, a contributing writer to Forbes, must have been feeling the same way. She contributed a piece last week, Six Workplace Rules Your Employees Hate, on the topic of useless rules. I’d go further and say that not only are the rules she points out, and many others, useless; they actually do damage by showing a lack of trust and respect for employees.

The majority of rules Ryan cites are based on not believing in your employees’ sense of responsibility and judgment. For instance, she notes a common “anti-moonlighting policy” that prohibits employees from holding part-time jobs outside their full-time job. If you’ve put employees through a thorough job interview process, and carefully considered them for employment, then you would think you would have enough faith in them to trust their ability to manage their time—to not take any other jobs that would hinder their full-time job with you. Like so many workplace rules, whether they moonlight or not, or spend 12 hours a day in the office, is beside the point. What matters is if they successfully meet their obligations to your company. Regardless of what they have, or haven’t been, doing, you would have to dismiss an employee who didn’t fulfill the job requirements. And if they’ve been moonlighting, but nonetheless have been doing a great job, it would be foolish to dismiss them, wouldn’t it?

A doctor’s note policy is another rule Ryan points out as irritating. I’ve never worked at a company that forced me to bring in a doctor’s note when I was sick, but I can imagine how angry it would make me. For one thing, most stay-at-home sicknesses don’t require a visit to the doctor. Who goes to the doctor with the common cold? Or a minor, yet briefly incapacitating, stomach virus? This is one rule I’m sure many doctors’ offices hate as much as employees. If you’re so concerned with malingering, then maybe your workforce isn’t filled with the kind of people you should have hired in the first place. A rule like this reduces adult employees to children under suspicion of making up stories to their parents to stay home from school.

Notes requiring proof of a loved one’s death for an employee to take bereavement leave, which Ryan also points out, are equally insulting. When my mother died, I can’t imagine also—on top of all my grief—having to produce death certificates for review. It’s almost a gruesome thing to ask of a person who has just experienced a loss.

The next one on Ryan’s list, the no-reference policy, is cruel. It would be more reasonable to institute a no-negative reference policy so that managers who are mostly critical, rather than complimentary, of a former employee, would be required to simply decline to serve as a reference. Not allowing a former manager to speak on behalf of a strong former employee makes it hard for that employee to grow in her professional life since nearly all professional jobs require just that—a reference, and preferably one from the applicant’s last full-time job.

The common no-transfer policy that some companies have, which is also on Ryan’s list, is a hard one for me to think of without resentment. As far as I know, my current company doesn’t have such a policy, yet I can easily imagine what it’s like to be hemmed in by a rule like that. I’ve tried to move to another publication my company owns two times, and strongly suspect I was held in place because my company has a tacit and undocumented rule that people who are considered valuable, and doing a good job in their current role, should not be moved to another role. This policy isn’t just unfair to employees; it’s dumb. If you have a star performer, wouldn’t you rather lose her to another business unit under your roof than to another company altogether? Such a policy makes the mistake of presuming an employee who would rather work for another business unit will decide to stay indefinitely anyway. What makes companies with a no-transfer policy think the employee won’t just look outside for another job with a new employer? And it will be much worse that way—no gradual, controlled transition between departments, in which the transferring employee can train his replacement. It will just be two weeks’ notice, and nothing further.

The last rule Ryan notes is one I didn’t even know existed at any company—that employees are not allowed to discuss their salaries with one another. I’m surprised this rule is still legal. If you can’t compare salaries, then how can you know if you’re being paid fairly? With women still making less money than men, it’s more important than ever for everyone’s salary to be known. At the very least, there should be public salary parameters published on your intranet for each position, including guidance on how much the salary should be when the employee starts, and how much it is reasonable to expect that it increase given the number of years an employee is with the company, and given the strength of his or her performance reviews.

“Rules are rules,” or so the expression goes. But why are they rules in the first place?

What rules does your company have that you’re thinking of updating, or doing away with altogether? What purpose do detailed rules have in a corporate environment? Are they often counter-productive, or still valuable to a company’s success?

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