Personnel e.bulletin – February 2012

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Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.

What would your company look like if there weren’t any rules around expectations and workplace behavior?  Imagine having to decide which employees get paid leave on a case by case basis every holiday. Or deciding what constitutes grounds for drug testing in the middle of an incident. While a lack of policies might not cause total chaos, it certainly requires more management time. It also leaves employees confused about what to expect from you and what is expected of them. But having policies and either not following them or applying them inconsistently can cause the same or even a worse work environment.

In our October 2011 article, we discussed why it’s important to have a good handbook to help you manage your business. The handbook establishes procedures, defines the roles and responsibilities of both the organization and the employee, and sets expectation for how business is conducted at your company. Even the best written handbook is dependent on how it is implemented and whether employees believe you follow the spirit of your policies.

Live it or Leave it Out
First and foremost, if you aren’t prepared to actually abide by the policy, it might be better to leave it out. A policy-on-paper-only, if not adhered to, actually does more harm than good. Regardless of disclaimers stating handbooks are not contracts, courts have held a similar obligation is established between employer and employees. If you say you are going to do something like an annual performance review, you need to follow through. In the case of policies like illegal harassment and privacy issues, failure to follow the policy gives plaintiffs’ attorneys a chance to argue that the company knew better because it had a good policy on paper and deliberately chose to ignore the policy.

Be Consistent
The second key is it ensure policies are administered consistently. There are both legal implications as well as employee morale reasons to stick to the policies. This does not mean you can’t have different policies that reflect the requirements for specific roles. For example, you might have a different holiday policy for office administrators than field staff. The key is to be sure the policy makes sense for the group and the work they do, and then is applied evenly to all employees in the group.

If you decide to not enforce a policy for one employee but insist on it for another, it can be perceived as discriminatory. If there are other factors such as differences between the two employees’ race, age, gender, etc., you might be in legal hot water. Regardless, if there is a legal challenge, you’ll be asked what did you do in a similar situation in the past and why didn’t you make the same decision this time?

The employee morale aspect is perhaps less tangible but nonetheless real. People have an innate sense of fair play and expect it at work.  If everyone in the office knows one co-worker is abusing the leave policy and getting away with it, at first they grumble about it being unfair, and then they start to question why they bother following the policy themselves. This can snowball and the frequency of unscheduled absences for all employees rises. When you finally lower the boom for all employees, it can actually worsen the work environment because now the abusers have punished the entire team. And that’s not fair!

Good policies are based on a need, whether it is legal compliance or business operations. They are also written in support of your company’s values. So it should be easy to be even handed in administering the policies, right? But the fact is there are often competing interests that don’t make it that simple.

Making Exceptions Leads to Problems
A common dilemma is when a top performer is also an offender. It is tempting to justify letting a policy violation slide because all in all, the superstar brings so much value. It would take a lot before you would consider letting him or her go. In the short run, there might not be an impact. However, by allowing the top performer to get away with it, you have lowered the bar for all employees. If and when you finally address it with the offender, you can expect a more volatile or emotional situation. After all, the top performer hasn’t done anything different; you have by finally raising the issue.  And if you apply the policy to coworkers while the superstar is exempt, it is likely to be seen as favoritism and create poor workplace relations.

It can be tempting to want to bend the policies to fit specific situations. One employee needs a flexible work schedule due to child care so you don’t enforce the attendance policy. Another employee needs to travel internationally to visit family so you allow an exception to the vacation usage policy.  You are trying to do the right thing and address the individual needs of your team, but to other employees it appears unfair.

Unfortunately, one of the most common exceptions to policies is made by the owner or managers. You work hard and keep long hours and at times, you want the freedom to do what you want to do.  You’re too busy or too tired to head outside and instead smoke a cigarette in your office even though there is a no smoking policy. You have the nondiscrimination and harassment policy but don’t see the harm in telling a racy joke now and then.  You use the company internet to do some personal shopping. Remember, good policies are based on the values of the company. If you don’t follow the rules, why should your employees? You have to lead by example.

Be Professional & Fair
Avoiding legal issues and reinforcing the company’s values aren’t the only reason you need to follow the rules; it directly impacts your company’s success. Your authority as the leader of the company will be diminished if you are perceived as playing favorites or are undependable because policies are administered inconsistently. It can also be interpreted as you are reluctant to do the heavy lifting as a manager and deal with offenders. You might lose a great employee who becomes disgruntled because they see the company as being poorly managed or the work environment as unfair. Your reputation as an employer in your community can impact your ability to attract new employees. Ultimately, your customers might be impacted if you lose the best employees or have a disgruntled workforce representing you.

When you establish policies for your employees, be sure to ask yourself if you personally would want to adhere to the rule. If it doesn’t fit, or if it can’t be applied consistently or be applicable to all, reconsider whether you need the policy at all.

PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. ( Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of January 2012. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional.

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The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a contribution at



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