- “Consistent application and enforcement of workplace policies is the responsibility of human resources, department supervisors and managers. The consequences of applying workplace policies inconsistently can jeopardize business success. Companies that pick and choose which policies to enforce when are setting themselves up for failure, not to mention exposing themselves to potential liability for employee complaints about unfair treatment. Employers who selectively apply workplace policies eventually risk losing employees to substantial turnover based on low employee morale and overall dissatisfaction.” [i]
The workplace can be a frustrating for leaders and staff alike. One thing that makes each day just a bit easier is the fair and equitable enforcement of workplace policies. Now, I am a big fan of utilizing guidelines when possible; guidelines give you the broad strokes have how things should be done. They allow for flexibility and creativity, empower staff to make decisions when circumstances are not black and white. They are however, not always appropriate, as there are indeed times when black and white policies must be in effect. Policies on non-discrimination, harassment, sick time, and time card procedures don’t leave much room for discussion and are needed. This leads to the problem of todays post: What happens when these policies aren’t equally enforced?
Policies are in place for consistency and accountability. Most organizations have policies about overuse of sick time or excessive tardiness to name a couple. As leaders, we need our staff to be on the floor and ready work when we expect them to be there; not showing up to work as scheduled puts everyone else in a bind, increases their workload, and simply isn’t fair. So, for our first example let us look at sick time. If your organization has a policy in place that allows for 5 sick days a year without consequence great, and if a staff member uses all 5 they shouldn’t be talked to about it, it is your policy. That being said, if the same staff member is absent often, far exceeding that number of 5 in your HR policy and this is not addressed, it leaves the rest of the staff frustrated and even with the attitude of ‘if he can do it, so can I’. How do you then attempt to talk to a different employee about the same issue later on? You can’t! Not evenly applying policies leads room for litigation, “…in Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner v. Kohler Co., in which the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of the employer because the employer failed to enforce its disciplinary policies uniformly.”[ii] That means the employee won in federal court because the management of his company failed to fairly enforce policies and the discipline he received was therefore illegal.
So why do managers sometimes unevenly enforce organizational policies? Perhaps they do it for convenience, a time when letting something go seems easier for them then towing the line. Maybe this policy needs to be revisited, is it really more of a guideline? If you look at a policy and can come up with reasons why you would choose to ignore it, then it probably doesn’t have to a policy of your organization.
Perhaps they do it because their personal workload is too great to be bothered? If this is the case, that manager needs to learn how to either improve their own workflow or delegate some tasks. Simply not doing your job because you can’t keep up isn’t a defensible option. Yes, there is no way you will know of everything that happens everyday, but if you are made aware of the issue, you need to act.
More unfortunate, maybe it’s simply a case of favoritism. Are you not enforcing policies on those who you personally like, or are great employees otherwise? While this is a normal reaction, if this is the why you are not equally enforcing policies you need to take a look in the mirror. Enforcement doesn’t need to mean discipline; this again is a matter of policy and you may have the power to change the wording in your policy manual. It is unfair however, and can lead staff to feeling picked on, or stoke the flames of a hostile work environment claim.
Every workplace needs to have policies in place, but it is advantageous from time to time to look at those policies and see which ones are truly necessary. The application of guidelines allows for flexibility, but shouldn’t be used for disciplinary issues. Managers must equitably enforce the policies of their organization, to do otherwise can lead to chaos and possible legal action in the future.
[i] Mayhew, Ruth. How to Enforce Policies Consistently at Work, Demand Media, Small Business Chronicles – Houston Chronicle, Retrieved on July 14, 2013 from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/enforce-policies-consistently-work-10970.html
[ii] Scroggins, Thomas W., Employers Must Enforce Policies Uniformly, Tanner & Guin, LLC., FindLaw, Retrieved on July 14, 2013 from http://corporate.findlaw.com/human-resources/employers-must-enforce-policies-uniformly.html