When Rules Go Bad: An Example

I’ll be continuing off and on for the next few weeks our discussion of rules, and why they should be minimized. Let me give an example from personal experience.

This is the story of the time a cashier would not sell me Gatorade, even though I was in dire need, because of a rule.

The Story

I like to go biking quite a bit. The Twin Cities metro area is a fantastic place for this, because there are trails all over the place. These trails go a long ways, and it feels like I can just go out my door, get on a trail, and end up on the other side of the city.

A few summers ago I was on one of my long bike rides. It was hot out and I wanted to get a bit of a tan, so I didn’t wear a shirt. (I admit that may be the biggest mistake right there!) Usually I at least bring a shirt along, but for some reason this time I actually forgot it entirely.

Now, I’m not very professional about these bike rides. For example, I usually don’t bring water along, either. I just bring some money so that I can stop at a gas station or something and get something to drink when I’m thirsty. And I often find (and perhaps this is not very healthy) that as long as my ride is around an hour, I tend not to need a drink until I’m done.

Well, about an hour into this particular bike ride, while I was still very far from home, I found myself very thirsty. So I stopped at a gas station and to buy some Gatorade.

But the cashier would not sell it to me.

Why? Because I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the rule was “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Now, that’s not a bad policy in itself. And I fully admit that it was a big mistake not to bring along my shirt, and that I don’t put enough priority on certain “logistical” things like bringing along water.

However, those failures didn’t change the fact that here we had a very thirsty individual, far away from any other options, who needed something to drink. Yet the person who had it in their power to provide the drink, would not do so. Because of a rule.

My mind immediately started thinking along the lines of all the instances in the Gospels where the Pharisees sought to enforce their rules to the detriment of others. I realize that it’s not the exact same situation (she did not have ill intent), but the principle is the same: What’s really important is the person, not first the rule, and so the priority needs to be on serving people — asking “what does this person need? — and not first on a regulation.

Rules exist for the sake of people, and so when a person genuinely needs something, that generally takes priority over the rule — provided that the rule is not a matter of genuine right or wrong.

But I also realized that if this person didn’t want to sell me the Gatorade, it would be futile to resist. My first response was to make sure I really understood, and to express a bit of disbelieve. “Are you serious?”

She said she was. So I continued, “But I’m really thirsty, I’m on a bike ride, and I forgot my shirt. Is there any way you can make an exception this one time? I’m already here in the store — if you sell it to me, I’ll only be here an extra 30 seconds.”

That’s when this became a lesson in management. Her response was: “I can’t — if I sell this to you, I could get fired.”

Realizing there was no way to change this without coming across wrong, I left, and this stuck in my mind ever since.

The Management Lessons

First, it just might be more likely that her boss would have a greater problem with her refusing to help a customer in need. Granted, the customer should have known better, and it was his fault (and quite ridiculous). But, so what. The customer needed something to drink.

Second, yes, they have every right to have this policy and enforce it to the letter. And if she was told by her manager, “Look, we mean literally no exceptions here — even if someone is really thirsty, and they forgot their shirt, as long as it isn’t life or death, don’t sell the Gatorade,” well, in that case she wouldn’t have much choice. (Although in that case the smart thing to do would be to buy the Gatorade for the person and then given it to them, thus upholding the rule and meeting the need.)

But really, I think the intention of the policy was something else here. The intent of “no shirt, no service” is probably not “never, ever, ever sell to anyone in here without a shirt.” The intent of the policy is probably this: “In general, we want people in here to be presentable. This means, when possible (and it usually is), wear a shirt. Especially if you stop by here every day, it is in your power to do this, and there isn’t any reason not to. But this doesn’t mean that we will turn away a person with a pressing need (hydration) who does not have it in his power to obtain a shirt, even if it was pretty dumb of him to forget it in the first place, and we do have the right to refuse service to anyone.”

So that is probably the intent of the policy. But that is not what was implemented. Why? Because of an over-focus on rules. Because of a mindset that performance is judged by conformity to rules rather than taking initiative to meet real needs.

But, third, this is not her fault. This is ultimately a management failure. The real issue here is not the cashier’s decision, but management’s apparent failure to clearly empower their employees with real decision-making latitude for the purpose of providing great customer service and meeting needs. They evidently did not give to this person — or clearly teach them that they had — responsibility to serve the customer and its twin, judgment. Instead, they allowed the impression to exist that employees are just there to follow some procedures, rather than to use good judgment to actually accomplish the intent of the procedures.

Which is the problem with too many rules — the result is that rules tend to take the place of good judgment. And the result is that the real mission of the organization — which, in general, has at its heart to “serve the customer” — is often sacrificed. So, instead of creating a rule-based ethic, instead establish broad principles, and equip the employees to use their judgment to ensure that the customer is served in the best possible way, within the broader framework and high-level standards that are important to the company.

Fourth and finally, the statement “I can’t do this or I’ll get fired” represents an even deeper management failure. It represents an ethos that seeks (whether intentional or not) to motivate employees on the basis of their need to keep their job, rather than on the meaning to be found in serving the customer and the purpose of the organization.

I’m not talking here about ethical issues — in that case, there are three things that set up a firewall: “this is wrong, this is against our policies of right and wrong, and this is against my values.” But so often the “I might get fired” mentality exists as motivation for making sure to achieve certain levels of performance and avoid other levels of non-performance.

In those cases, that is a simply an extrinsic, and thus relatively weak, motivation. If that is your primary motivation, you will not be able to find your work meaningful and you probably won’t serve your organization very well. It’s how clock-watchers talk, rather than people who are there to make a meaningful contribution.

The people who make a difference don’t perform so that they can “keep their job.” They perform because it is in their nature to take initiative, grow in responsibility, and exercise judgment for the mission of the organization. This is a critical component of what brings significance to one’s work, and therefore it is along these lines that management should primarily seek to motivate people. An abundance of rules gets in the way of this almost of necessity.

  • http://www.theinvisibleGod.com Chris

    One rule that really bothered me lately (more than it should have probably) was Michael’s policy of not taking coupons on books. I picked up a craft kit that came packed on top of a spiral bound book of instructions. The only difference between the craft kits they were selling in boxes and the craft kit that I bought was that the instruction book was inside a box on the others.

    I don’t have a problem with them not taking coupons on books, but to me, the item I was buying was not a book. They were adamant, though.

  • http://facebook.com/jjstables Jeffrey J. Stables

    I wonder if she would have sold you a shirt.

    Also, it’s possible that her motivation wasn’t to avoid being fired for breaking that rule, but that was simply the most concise and final way to explain to you that she wasn’t going to break the rule.

  • Steve Wilson

    Ha ha,

    This reminds me of the time I went to a hotel on the beach in Costa Rica. The sign over the front desk said, “No shirt, no shoes..” and I started thinking, oh no, more rules. But the last words were, “no problem.”

  • http://christophermisiano.blogspot.com/ Christopher Misiano

    Great post- there are so many helpful nuggets in here. I enjoy it when you write these longer posts- thank you.