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

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 year isn’t too much.


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