360° Answers: Should Managers Ignore Minor Offenses?

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

As a manager, I know how to handle big performance issues; people need to be warned, given time to improve, and then either shape up or ship out. I’m wondering, though, about less severe issues and how to properly handle them.

One of my biggest day-to-day headaches are the minor transgressions, those behaviors that technically violate policy or slightly inconvenience employees, but are far from a fireable offense. For example, our company doesn’t allow sneakers as part of the dress code. We have an employee who walks to work, so he wears sneakers to come in and keeps a pair of appropriate shoes at his desk. This would be fine, but he often forgets to change and will spend the majority of the day violating the dress code. Generally he forgets because he jumps right in and focuses on something more important: his job! I don’t feel like I can sit this guy down and tell him that he’s violated our shoe policy and he’ll need to remember to change or he’ll be fired. That just seems silly.

Another example is an employee who doesn’t check our message board and won’t set up email reminders. She doesn’t want the email clutter, but also doesn’t want to take the time out of her schedule to check in for important messages every now and then. So if we need something like a health insurance form filled out, I need to hunt her down to get it completed. Obviously this example DOES affect my job, but am I to threaten the job of one of our top performers over it?

These ARE policies and requirements we’ve set though, and I don’t want to give the impression that our policies (small or large) can be violated without consequence. There are many examples of minor transgressions at the office. Each one adds up to drain more of my time/energy, and I do see signs of other employees following suit. Without consequences, there is no motivation to change.

Answer from Alison Green:

First, find out why someone isn’t following a policy. There might be a reason that you don’t know about, and that might change your stance.

Second, ask yourself why the policy is important. If the answer is “it’s just our rule,” then it’s probably the policy needs to change, not the employees. And it really is crucial to ensure that you don’t have unnecessarily rigid policies – because you want a culture that stresses results over bureaucracy, and if you don’t provide that type of culture, high-performing employees will eventually leave.

But if there’s a good reason for the policy, then you need to explain that reason to the repeat-violator. If it’s truly a legitimate reason, a great employee is going to understand that.

It’s very rare to find stellar employees who absolutely refuse to follow sensible policies when the reasons for those policies are explained to them. If you do encounter an employee like that, I’d say to take a closer look at them. That kind of behavior usually signals arrogance and entitlement that poses problems in more substantive areas too – and that would be your real problem, much more than someone wearing tennis shoes.

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

I definitely understand your desire not to sweat the small stuff.  After all, if you needle your employees about every little thing, they will not take you seriously when there is a genuine issue.  However, I think there is a happy medium.  Obviously, you can’t something slide if A) it is preventing you from doing your job as a manager efficiently, or B) the employee risks being fired or reprimanded by a higher-up due to company policy that you know is routinely enforced.

After an employee has committed a transgression that falls into these categories twice or more, I would sit down with him/her and say something to the effect of:  “Look, I want to be clear that you’re doing a phenomenal job, and it’s because you are such an important member of our team that I’m bringing this to your attention.  We’ve talked about following X policy and I’m still noticing problems.  This is mandatory, and the next time it’s violated, I will have to make a note in your file.  I would hate to have to do this, but these transgressions really do affect the team’s productivity, and I can’t allow that to happen.   I also don’t want a senior leader approaching you about the policy as that makes both you and me look bad.”

You can alter the consequence to suit how things are done at your company.  The point is, you have tried to be nice and accommodating, and they are walking all over you.  It’s time to re-establish your authority while also demonstrating that you value your employees’ contributions.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

I think you have to ask yourself if these minor transgressions are affecting your company’s ability to complete its mission. If the employee wearing tennis shoes, for example, offends a customer who then leaves, then that probably affects the mission because the company may have lost a sale. It should then be explained to the employee why that rule exists, not just that you decided one day he can’t wear Nikes to the office. If an employee refuses to set email alerts to remind herself of important dates, however, then that means she’s going to miss deadlines – and that’s a performance issue that should be addressed formally.

If you feel you have been given the leeway to run your department as you see fit, then I don’t think you need to enforce every little rule like you’re a second-grade teacher. This not only makes you feel resentful, but can quickly demoralize and disengage a workforce.

Ask yourself if the rule you’re going to enforce will keep an employee safe. Or is it critical for the company’s success or it is important for ethical reasons? If not, I think you can let much of this go as it does little to make you more productive or your company successful.

As Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says: “Businesses often forget about the culture, and ultimately, they suffer for it because you can’t deliver good service from unhappy employees.”

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

To have a policy that is not enforced (or enforced based on what might appear to others as favoritism) is definitely asking for trouble. But to stringently enforce a rulebook without consideration to the circumstances isn’t fair either. It could be said that the purpose of a company policy is to create an environment that allows for collaboration and enables high performance in your workplace. Do your policies do that? If there is any hesitation there, it might be a good time to revisit the requirements you have set.

Another consideration is that some policies are and should be no-tolerance (sexual harassment, stealing, etc.) and merit setting an example. Others, however, may warrant more leniency. To your dress code example; does the choice of shoes inhibit the employee from performing his job well or safely? I’ve seen moderate enforcement work very well in several companies; a dress code is specified, but it is understood by all employees that if there is no client interaction that requires a specific presence, they will not be sent home to change so long as they exercise good judgment.

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  • OP

    Thank you so much for your responses! Eva’s last sentence is exactly what we’ve moved to on the dress code issues, since we do have a number of days where we don’t have anyone in the office but employees. I think points about having reasons for policies were very key. Even though we do have good reasons for our policies and communicate those reasons, that doesn’t mean the employees agree or even fully understand. Having an open dialogue like those suggested will probably save me a lot of headaches, instead of address each transgression on its own. I especially love the idea of pulling myself into the situation, by mentioning that senior leadership is looking at us both (or even the team as a whole). I work with some great people, and we all really care about each other as a team. Throwing in that they are affecting everyone, not just how they look on a individual basis, could really make an impact. Thanks again for the great feedback!

    • alexandralevit

       @OP, so glad you found the responses helpful.  Feel free to write in anytime.

  • I agree that the shoe problem should be let go (as the OP says it has) and that the employee who misses important deadlines because she can’t be bothered needs to have her problems formally addressed. It comes down, as everyone said, to how it affects performance. The guy who forgets to change his shoes should just get warnings and be asked to remember – maybe setting up a daily shoe check (on his own) with an office buddy just to remember to switch shoes. The employee who won’t stay abreast of important deadlines needs to be formally disciplined since that is obviously affecting the company and the OP.

    • alexandralevit

       @Thanks for your comment, Caroline.  I think it all comes down to picking your battles.  In a way, it’s like having children!

  • Nicole

    This is only tangentially related to the post, but I had a manager- a CFO- who enforced a no jeans and sneakers code and made us pay attention to the calendar in a very savvy way. For one meeting when the Board was present, she asked us to “dress up.” After that meeting, she told the department as a group that we were all dressed beautifully and that when senior management was present that is the standard she expected of us but that on days without management we were free to use our good judgement. The presence or absence of the Board was directly linked to our deadlines in Finance. Because our office used to be casual before her arrival, we then would check the calendar to see who was in and whether or not we could “get away” with jeans or not and on big days we always looked good as a team, which then reflected on her.  

    One thing I would say about the sneakers guy: I have an injury to my foot which isn’t obvious but which qualifies as a disability. Is the OP sure he doesn’t have something else going on? Also, there are sneakers and sneakers.  Although I would love to wear a big pair of asics or something, I have black leather sneakers on most days, which with long slacks passes generally unnoticed. If he has some sort of foot problem, could “nicer” sneakers be an appropriate compromise for someone who forgets to change shoes? My bosses have been extremely accommodating once they had the full picture but in return i made sure everything else was on point- nice clothes, nice makeup, nice hair etc. Which leads me to the point that most sneakers don’t go with most work outfits, so is the rest of his attire also taking casual Friday too far every day? I think that is easier to address as a point than the shoes.

  • Alexandra Stanovska

    I am not an expert on corporate culture, but are some of those rules really needed in first place? If it is just for the reason that our culture = the written rules set in stone and we must stick to it because … Why exactly?

    The guy wearing tennis shoes should be given huge appraisal because he is WALKING to work. Not polluting nature and occupying parking slots. Make a shiny example of him on how company values environment and healthy lifestyle. For example start making one-two days a week where people are allowed to dress less formally if they walk, bike or use public transport to go to work. Make a statement of it, start movement, use it as benefit for recruiting and such! Refresh rigid culture a bit, it may benefit in the long run.

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