Bully at Work Moody Boss Karma Office Gossip No Picnic Back stabber Plug your Ears Moody Boss

Staff won’t obey rules… I feel like a dictator.

graffiti headline effect by Franke James;  Kip © iStockphoto.com

Dear Office-Politics,

I’m having some trouble getting employees to follow some simple procedures without turning the office into a police state. For example we have a standard email client that was selected for security reasons. Some employees prefer a different email client which has less security and is more prone to viruses.

They will download it and use it regardless of our policy (because they feel it is easier or has better features). I have discussed this with the offenders several times and they say the don’t see why it is such a big deal, but they agree to change (and then don’t follow through). The big deal is that our contracts with our customers require us to maintain this security. I’m at the point where I need to go to a lot of expense to install technology which prohibits them from making any changes to their computers or to initiate some disciplinary actions. My employees are very computer savvy and will view restriction on their downloads as dictatorial.

A second policy that I am having difficulty enforcing is that we ask employees NOT to give customers their personal cell phone numbers, we ask instead that they give out the company customer support phone number so that if that employee is not available for whatever reason, the customer still gets help from someone at the company instead of their personal voicemail (which may or may not get answered in a timely manner). I know they give out cell phone numbers because they don’t want to stay at their desks. I’m very frustrated to find that a customer’s issue did not get resolved for days because that customer has been calling the personal phone of a employee who went on a camping vacation. It is simple to use the call forward feature of your desk phone for the time you will be away from your desk (which shouldn’t be that long).

In general these folks do a good job, they just don’t have a lot of respect for procedures and policies they don’t agree with. However, these policies were developed for the benefit of the customers (and at the request of customers) and because of problems that happened in the past. Do I just need to make an example of someone and fire them over one of these issues? Any ideas would be appreciated.

Dictator in Training

P.S. I sent you a question several months ago and you provided a really helpful answer. I hope a couple of questions a years isn’t too much.

erika andersen

Dear Dictator in Training,

Getting people to change their behavior is tough – especially when they’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time and, from their point of view, it’s working for them. Basically, you’ve got two choices: you can make it more appealing to change, or less appealing to continue to behave in the same way.

Fire any employee who steps out of line!
The extreme version of “making it less appealing,” is – as you say – firing somebody as an example. You could do that… but it would most likely have more bad outcomes than good.

Yes, people would probably start using the standard email client and stop giving out their cell phone numbers – at least that’s what you’d see. Behind your back, people would be finding really inventive ways to get around the rules, and they’d be calling you a tyrant, and making the rules blow up in your face (for instance, if a customer had a frustrating experience at the customer support number, they’d tell the customer they would have given them their cell number; they wanted to help – but you wouldn’t let them.)

Ask your employees how to solve the problem
So, let’s talk about the “making it more appealing” approach. I suspect, given that your employees are technologically savvy, smart and independent, you’d have a much better chance of success by including them in solving the problem.

Rather than just continuing to try enforcing the rules (and/or escalating to the installation of prohibitive technology or firing), how about this: bring together the employees in a meeting.

Lay out the problem honestly and neutrally – say something like: “We have these two rules that aren’t being consistently followed, and it’s creating problems with our customers. And, from what you’ve said, the rules don’t make much sense to you guys. So, here’s our challenge as I see it: How can we keep our agreements about security with our customers, and make sure they can always get to someone immediately to help them with their problems?”

Now, if you go into this conversation open to the possibility that your employees might come up with alternatives to the current rules, that still solve the problems – you might find a happy ending. For example, to solve the second problem, your employees might suggest that the customers be given both the employee’s cell number and the customer support number. That way, the customer could generally keep talking to the person they’ve already been dealing with, and they’ve got a back-up, if that person’s not available.

Keep an Open Mind
The going-into-it-with-an-open-mind part of this is absolutely critical, though. If you act as though you want to include them in solving this problem, but what you really want is for your rules to be followed, it will devolve into an argument, and be frustrating and counter-productive for all concerned. If you decide to go the route I’m suggesting, you might want to prepare yourself by changing your mindset from “What can I do to make them follow the rules?” to “How can we solve these problems in a way that works for the customers and the employees?”

Times have changed
Now, there might be a little voice in your head that’s saying, “Why does it have to work for the employees? They’re my employees – they should just follow the #$%^$# rules!” A few decades ago, that probably would have worked. But times have definitely changed – employees (especially those in their 20s and 30s) are much less likely to simply do what they’re told when it doesn’t make sense to them. The good news is, they’re much more likely than previous generations to have ideas about how to solve a problem creatively, and to then be committed to the solution you come up with together.

I know this might be a different answer than you were hoping for – if you try it out, let us know how it goes. And thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Erika Andersen, Author

Erika Andersen is the author of Growing Great Employees, newly released in paperback, which is a Kirkus Reviews recommended business book for 2007. Erika Andersen and her colleagues at Proteus International, the company she founded in 1990, offer practical approaches for individuals and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for-future. Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on vision and strategy, executive coaching, and culture change. She has served as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and senior executives of corporations like MTV Networks, Molson Coors Brewing, Rainbow Media Holdings, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Comcast Corporation. Erika is an inaugural author of the Penguin Speakers Bureau, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Industry Week, Investors’ Business daily, and Fortune.

  1. 6 Answers to “Staff won’t obey rules… I feel like a dictator.”

  2. Feedback from Dictator in Training

    Dear Franke and Erika,

    Thanks so much for your sage advice. It is good to know that it is not just something that we in particular are doing wrong, but that “people are not likely to change if it is working for them”. Although not all the employees are young I think there is something of a cultural issue. It is both generational and functional culture. Technology folks are just NOT business people.

    I have had a meeting similar to the one that Erika suggested. Perhaps I just wasn’t open minded enough, but the solution the employees advocated was that we explain to the client why the security measures they wanted aren’t necessary.

    If you and Erika think it would be a good idea to retry the meeting with the ground rule that we can’t tell our clients that they are wrong or that we won’t honor what’s already in our contract, I’d be interested to know.

    Currently we have about 30% of our workforce in India. I am under constant pressure from our investors to move rest of software development and customer service offshore (because labor costs would decrease 75%). I haven’t dropped this particular bombshell on the team, but you’d think they could figure it out…and that in the long run if it doesn’t work for the customer, it doesn’t matter if it works employees. I feel like screaming HEY!!!! I GET BEAT UP ON A BIWEEKLY BASIS BY OUR INVESTORS FOR PROTECTING YOUR JOBS!!!! HOW ABOUT A LITTLE COOPERATION!!!!!!! Maybe I should be more forthcoming and explain that they need to justify their higher cost with superior performance.

    I think we should get a copy of Erika’s book. I need to learn how to grow a different kind of employee. I’m sure the employee culture that I am facing it to a large extent of my own making.

    Thanks for all your help

    The Dictator

    By Letter writer on Nov 6, 2007

  3. Reply by Franke James

    Hi Dictator,

    I was laughing as I read your email. You raise many good points and with good cheer. Your security concerns are absolutely well-founded. Why don’t you do a little Google research? Dig up some examples of the fiasco’s that can blow up in a company’s face when clients data is compromised (costing the company millions in lawsuits).

    Then, armed with some horror stories, I think you should try another meeting and this time be more candid about 1. Honoring clients needs 2. the pressure to move offshore.

    Do buy Erika’s book. It is outstanding and an easy read.


    By Franke James on Nov 6, 2007

  4. Reply by Erika Andersen

    Great feedback from the Dictactor – thanks for forwarding.

    I think if she actually starts her meeting with the “how can we” question I suggested (How can we keep our agreements about security with our customers, and make sure they can always get to someone immediately to help them with their problems?) it will keep the conversation on track.

    I had to laugh when she talked about the earlier meeting where the employees suggested they tell the client their security concerns were bogus ! I’ve definitely seen meetings like that! And it’s why I always suggest that, if you’re going to open a topic up for people’s involvement, you have to be really clear about the parameters. I’m a big fan of what’s-the-challenge questions, framed as a “how can we…?”

    I hope this works out for her – what a tough position to be in…



    By Erika Andersen on Nov 6, 2007

  5. “But times have definitely changed – employees (especially those in their 20s and 30s) are much less likely to simply do what they’re told when it doesn’t make sense to them.”

    While I don’t agree that this occurs especially with employees in their 20’s and 30’s (in my experience it’s all over the board – boomers, gen X, gen Y, tall, short, fat, thin!) I whole-heartedly agree that many employees will NOT do what they are told when they do not know the WHY behind the instruction. Knowing the WHY creates engagement. Even if I don’t agree with the boss’s reasons at least I know he has some! 🙂

    By HR Wench on Nov 7, 2007

  6. Fantastic idea! I had a similar problem. Policies not being followed that needed to be followed. At first, I was thinking that I would just lay it out to the employees and then follow up with disciplinary action if necessary. Someone within my organization suggested that I share ownership of the problem with my employees. Am I glad I did! They opened my eyes to some issues I didn’t see or understand. They also came up with some great suggestions that could be used to solve the problems. It worked out great!

    By Bruce on Nov 12, 2007

  7. I read this article and the resulting response with interest. I see this in business and especially in my sons fraternity at college where he is sargent at arms!

    First for the email client…this is your senior IT persons issue. Each computer in your office needs to have a standard image of your deployed computing programs and assets. Then using Windows XP or Vista, LOCK IT DOWN. My company has 500,000 employees and I cant even change the wallpaper on my PC. Im not saying thats good…I have a 5 pc network in my HOUSE. But guaranteed, no rogue programs are going on my corporate machine. That makes this a technical issue not a police state issue. I would throw this STRONGLY at your company CIO.

    Im not sure what the problem is with giving customers cel phone numbers unless again..theres an IT issue with satisfying customer service through your companys phone tree. Again CIO…

    Policies can be enforced a number of ways, but what I see is a group of employess desparately trying to satisfy your customers despite bad management…especially IT management. Some folks might need firing, but start in the IT group…then go look in the mirror.

    By Eric on Nov 12, 2007

What's your advice?

(You can also tweet it to @dearOP)