If only I were in charge… Thoughts for Rule Makers

Like some other legislative bodies have done, the Ontario provincial government has committed to raising minimum wage over the next two years. There are hotly debated issues behind this policy, but perhaps that many can agree the intent is understandable: increasing income to those working low-wage jobs is a noble pursuit. Not surprisingly, an Executive from Metro, a large chain of grocery stores in Canada, announced that the business will respond by curtailing operating hours, specifically by reducing some of their 24 hour stores operations.

For many commentators on social media, this is akin to prodding the bucking bronco right before the rodeo ride.

See? Greedy businesses always screw the employees.

See? Nothing changed! Just a higher hourly rate and fewer hours! Dumb Government!

See? [Some joke referring to the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and a Left-Wing Economist]

It is a daunting task to try to balance wealth distribution in a society with earnings pressures on large corporations and with the quality of life of employees (e.g. some may be happy that they no longer have to work the graveyard shift!), among other hot-button issues. Hopefully, frustration results from ineffective policy because such a reaction would suggest that there is indeed a noble purpose rather than a desire to simply differentiate politically so as to gain support from part of the electorate. I am not an expert in public policy, so let me drop this concept into my area of expertise.

In a business organization, leaders are the equivalent of legislators who can and do use rules to further their agendas. Far too often rules are reactionary with a focus on clearer/tighter rules or better enforcement.

Here are some examples that I have seen of rules going wrong:

  1. A well intended drive to encourage employees in a health care environment to get the annual flu shot saw the creation of a lottery. Get your flu shot and get one entry in Friday’s draw! (Underlying rule: no shot = no entry) The draw quickly became a joke because people who could not get the flu shot for medical reasons (e.g. allergies to eggs) did not want to be excluded. OK, sounds fair. Well what about people who hate needles, or are too busy, or are on holidays that week.
  2. A company has a Casual Friday policy until someone crosses the line where casual ceases to intersect with appropriate or professional on someone’s mental Venn Diagram. This usually coincides with a Friday visit from an important client or out-of-town executive. The response can equate to a repeal and replace effort that either scraps the whole thing or becomes ridiculously prescriptive (e.g. Smart denim is tolerable but not encouraged. Smart denim has: no noticeable rips or tears, does not have excessive wear, by which we mean…)
  3. In an effort to encourage work-life balance, a company prohibits non-super-urgent e-mail between Friday at 8PM and Monday at 7AM. The intention being do your work at work; use your weekend to rest up; and comeback to work on Monday refreshed and energized. One obvious consequence for this is the floodgates releasing on Monday morning. Another is the thirst for clear distinctions of what exactly constitutes non-super-urgent.

Rules and constraints have huge potential for positively contributing to very noble intentions. As frustrating as it can be to work with ERP systems, the rigour of getting all relevant information input before triggering a next step forces the kind of compliance that fosters productivity and effectiveness by disallowing haste making waste. There can also be some elegance to imposing such constraints. I have heard that the work design of school buses is to have drivers only able to fully lock the bus from the backdoor. This forces the driver to go all the way to the back of the bus before locking it up for the night and guards against a sleeping or sneaky student from getting locked in. Whether for safety concerns (e.g. freezing to death in the winter) or for property protection, the constraint is effective.

The intersection of the formal organization and the informal organization is a fascinating forum for seeing how it really works. Are people gaming the system? Have they gotten the wrong end of the stick? Do we need to look at better enforcement? To harken back to the earlier example of encouraging work-life balance, I can imagine a rich conversation about whether or what policies to introduce or change. Dealing with people as adults, we could simply say, “We expect you to return from weekends and holidays refreshed and ready to go. Please act accordingly.” (Note: That statement still offers a wrong end of the stick to grab.)

As guiding principles for such rules and policies, I would share the following:

  1. Fewer rules often beats more rules (Sometimes no rule is the best rule.)
  2. Minimize (or scrap) the obviously unenforceable rules (There presence reduces the currency of the good ones!)
  3. Be ready to be transparent about the spirit of the rule (This means #ThinkItThrough and be ready to explain the intent, noble or not.)
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