employment

No bathroom breaks! Stupid office rules and how to fight them

Aug. 3, 2012 at 7:20 AM ET

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Bad, or badly trained, managers are often the cause of dumb edicts.

There was the boss who wouldn’t let people eat at their desks and the retailer who informed employees that they could not leave any reading materials in the break room.

And then there was the human resources department who informed an employee she could only take three bathroom breaks a day, instead of her usual five or six.

Alison Green has heard a lot of crazy stories about random workplace policies in the course of writing her blog, Ask a Manager.

And, she and other experts expect, such rules have become even more common in recent years, as both employees and their bosses have come under pressure to do more and more work with fewer resources.

The culprit, many say: Bad, or badly trained, managers.

“We don’t know how to deal with (problems) so we create these arbitrary rules,” said Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant who writes the blog The Cynical Girl.

 

Green notes that most managers don’t sit around thinking about what kind of draconian policy they can implement that will annoy and frustrate their workers.

Often, she said, these strange policies are a ham-handed attempt to solve a real problem, such as an employee who acts inappropriately or one who is slacking off on the job.

The better thing to do would be to deal with that employee, and that problem, directly. But Green said employers are sometimes afraid to confront an employee directly about their bad performance, or are warned by employment lawyers that they might be open to a bias claim if they single one person out.

“Rather than dealing with it in a smart, thoughtful way, they deal with it with a blanket policy,” she said.

In some cases, the policy can be a passive-aggressive way of trying to get their employees to work harder or do a better job. When Ruettimann worked in human resources at Pfizer, she said two married employees asked their managers separately if they could have a flexible schedule so they could coach soccer.

One got approval, and one didn’t. Ruettimann said the employee who wasn’t awarded the flexible schedule wasn’t thought to be doing a good enough job to deserve it. But instead of checking with the employee regularly about his performance, he was denied the perk.

Rather than implementing random rules -- such as no checking e-mail at work or no chatting with your co-workers – Ruettimann said managers should be regularly telling their employees whether they are doing a good job and how they could be doing better.

As an HR manager, Ruettimann said she also was sometimes approached by employees who wanted her to create a blanket policy to solve a specific problem, such as banning music at work because one employee was playing music too loudly.

Her response was always to tell the offended party to deal with the bad behavior directly, rather than going through HR.

“I don’t want to be a mom and that’s not why I got into human resources,” she said. “I can do that on my own time.”

If you unlucky enough to receive an all-company e-mail outlining some strange new policy, Green suggests trying to figure out what caused the policy to be implemented in the first place.

It may not result in the policy going away, but at least you’ll understand why you suddenly are being told you can’t do something that you find perfectly reasonable.

“Doing that can really help your quality of life just because you’ll stop fuming,” she said.

It may also turn out that your boss is willing to give you some wiggle room on the policy. But if you do get a verbal OK to break the rules, she suggests following up with a casual e-mail verifying that you have come to that side agreement.

As for the bosses out there, you may want to take the advice author Lisa Bodell offered in a recent Wall Street Journal article. She suggested holding a meeting and asking your employees to tell you what stupid rules are making it tough for them to do their jobs. Then, she said, get rid of the worst ones.

Readers, what’s the stupidest workplace rule or policy you’ve ever encountered? Share your stories below or on our Facebook page.

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