"Well, technically, our policy says [x], but..."

You've probably heard that once or twice. Maybe you've even been the one who's said it. But oh, are those words a dangerous, slippery slope. And personally, they drive me absolutely batty. After all, if you're not going to enforce a policy, then why do you have the policy in the first place?

The problem is three-pronged

First, policies are supposed to represent the ideologies and vision of your business. When you have to say something like this, it demonstrates that there's a conflicting set of beliefs that's getting in the way of you holding to what you originally said you stood for or wanted to do. That lack of clarity can be disorienting to your team and have a negative influence on their sense of purpose.

Secondly, internal policy and outside regulation are cozy bedfellows. Skimp on policy adherence and you might be putting yourself at risk for fines or other noncompliance consequences.

But even worse, if you can't hold to what you said on paper, it can open the door to people questioning your integrity. That's not a good thing when integrity is the backbone of the trust that's going to keep your company humming. People need to know they can count on you, and when you're wishy-washy, they can't.

Why saying "Policy is [x], but..." happens

This said, times change. So when adherence to policy slowly erodes, it might be a sign that your company and overall culture has shifted over the long term, and that what worked before no longer is benefitting you.

Another possible scenario is that you've made an egregious mistake in hiring and brought someone onto your team who, because of their own narcissism or egocentric career objectives, believes it's perfectly acceptable to deliberately refuse to comply with whatever doesn't suit them.  This behavior isn't going against the grain for innovation and creativity's sake--it's simply blatant disrespect.

What to do when "but" follows your rules

When you see that there's a policy adherence issue, you have two choices. The first is simply to crack down. This is your best choice when the beliefs and values within the policy truly distinguish your brand and aren't tied to any outside laws. It's easiest to implement when there are just a few violators, but if previous leadership has been lax on regulation, then you might have to dig your heels in and prepare to discipline (with kindness) on a wide scale.

  • Talk with the employee to make sure they are aware of the company policy,
  • Provide respectful verbal and written warnings,
  • Remind the general workforce of the policy, and
  • Act on disciplinary stipulations.

Don't be surprised if violators (and anyone who supports them) push back through these steps. They're in fact likely to do so to a degree, because in their minds, they have a justification for why their behavior is OK or not a huge deal. You have to break down these biases and protective mechanisms and explain why it isn't OK in ways that speak to them, and that you're not just the autonomy-stealing bad guy getting bent out of shape for no good reason.

The second option is to change the policy so that you can be consistent between what's on paper and what you enforce. Here, the question that's most important isn't "Can we change the policy?", which is often true for a leader from an authority standpoint, but rather, "What's holding us back from changing the policy?" The latter question forces you to identify both logistical and cultural elements that need consideration as you rework your rules. If you're going this route, then

  • Feedback for this question should come from every employee at every level.
  • Take your time to ensure that new policies are drafted with clarity, intention and unity of the team.
  • Be transparent about the process and offer rationales for everything you do.

The bottom line is, while there might be some exceptional cases where leniency is appropriate, policies don't exist just to kill trees and make paper look pretty. They exist to ensure that your company stays on track, not just in terms of basics like safety, but also in terms of philosophy. Enforce what you believe, and believe what you enforce.

Published on: May 10, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.