Job rules are important but compassion needed, too

Dear Joan:
I have some reservations regarding your biased response to, "The Boss is a Horror," which appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Journal. You chose to castigate a supervisor solely on the comments of one employee. Unless you were privy to more detailed information than was contained in the letter, it hardly seems fair to accept the "professional's" complaint carte blanche.

In all fairness, you could have pointed out that regulations under Wisconsin's Fair Employment Act prohibit, under penalty of fine and back pay, an employer to allow an employee to perform work to the benefit of the employer, prior to the start of his scheduled shift, without compensation.

I question also the comment, "The boss makes a big deal about every possible rule." In any environment, order must be maintained. I venture to say that organizations function with rules and regulations to prevent chaos, duplication of effort, achievement of the primary functions, progress, unnecessary absenteeism, etc.

Although it did provide you a forum to expound upon the worst traits and sins of supervisory personnel, I can't help but feel that you have placed the supervisor in a most untenable position. You have encouraged, albeit with good intentions, the "professional" to rationalize any shortcomings as a direct result of the supervisor's management style.

You're absolutely right. I missed a golden opportunity to clarify a basic point. As another reader put it, "Management gets enough bad raps which are deserved, without getting it for simply complying with federal law," Although the employees who arrived early and wanted to work are well meaning, working "free" prior to their scheduled shift is putting their organization at risk.

The law is designed to protect employees, not punish them, which is a point the boss in question never explained. Instead, she made them feel she was imposing the new rule to keep them from sneaking in some overtime. She also forced them to punch a time clock because she didn't trust them - even though there was no evidence to the contrary and no company wide policy to do so.

Indeed, some of the details of the letter were omitted in an attempt to protect the writer's confidentiality, In retrospect, it was necessary to paint a clearer picture of this supervisor's treatment of her work team.

Your comment about rules being a necessary part of an organization is right on target. Without them, employees - and their supervisors - would be in an uproar over unequal treatment.

Supervisors who manage strictly by the book, however, are hiding behind the rules and avoiding the responsibility of their jobs. Although some rules are unbendable, others are often guidelines that can and should be applied with judgment. For example, in the case to which you refer, an employee took the day off to care for a sick child. The boss' comment, "What's more important, your job or your family? You'd better decide!" is unfair unless this employee had had a long history of poor attendance.

This boss also was highly suspicious of anyone who called in sick. This lack of basic trust, without good reason, is a sure-fire way to kill ambition and breed resentment. When there is no long-term pattern of poor attendance, a supervisor owes his or her employees the benefit of the doubt.

Another reader pointed out, the flip side of supervision "by-the-book" is the supervisor who relaxes all the rules in an attempt to create a free, motivational climate. Inevitably, an employee or two will take advantage of the freedom. These bosses are usually burned and soon become cynical. The boss is then in the unpleasant position of having to reprimand the employee who pushed it too far and take back the freedoms from everyone.

Clearly, being too rigid or too lax is not the answer.

The challenge of supervision is not to be a rule enforcer but a firm and fair communicator and guideline interpreter. This takes tremendous insight and skill. In the case of attendance and performance standard, a boss needs to take a "tough love" position. Barring unusual circumstances, the employee must be on the job and performing up to the good standards of that job in order for the business to run. But when a good employee with a solid track record is faced with special circumstances, it's wise to give a little. Most employees will be grateful for the trust and will repay the kindness with twice the effort.

For example, do you stick the funeral leave policy when a mother's only child is tragically killed? Do you fire a good employee for missing a production target when he or she is going through a divorce or is a year from retirement?

Deciding when to tighten and when to loosen is the art of supervision. Except for situations such fighting, stealing and gross insubordination, most circumstances are not black and white. Supervisors need to talk with their employees and understand the shades of gray. However, at the same time, bosses need to remind employees of the standards. Employees who continually push the limits and need tighter control; employees who respect the limits deserve to be treated with trust.

Policies are made to keep order and consistency among a group or across a company. The boss who communicates the reasons for the policy, is willing to apply them with judgment and enforce them with consistency and reason comes out the winner.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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