Sunday, March 04, 2012

Ambiguous policies make for confused employees

Occasionally, when I give an assignment to a class, I ask them to execute the assignment in a particular order.

"Choose a target publication for the article you're writing," the assignment might start, "and then study that publication and develop your article specifically for its audience."

Of course, once they've written their articles, I have no real way to tell if they did it in the order I asked. I just set the rules, ask them to follow them and trust that they will.

But my goal is to make sure that they know what my expectations and desires are for the assignment.

In a business setting, when bosses don't make the rules clear, employees might end up either fearing for their jobs because of an unintended rules violation or they might take advantage of the ambiguity to their own favor.

A reader is facing such ambiguity at her workplace.

After a small retail business was sold to new owners, she writes, many of the old-time employees continued to take advantage of a discount in place under the former owners. The old policy allowed only for discounts to employees, not to family or friends.

My reader is a newer employee, although she started before the business changed hands. She believes that the discount given to employees may be being given to members of employees' families without the owner's knowledge.

"All of the other employees take advantage of the discount for their family members as a sort of wink, wink practice," she writes. "I find this practice dishonest."

Her son tells her that she should just keep quiet and let the new owners find out for themselves what is going on.

"This just doesn't seem right," she writes. "But when I think of saying anything to the new owners, I feel really disloyal to the other employees. What should I do?"

My reader is not certain that other employees are extending the employee discount beyond themselves. She strongly suspects that they are, however.

Since the new owners have not made any statement about the status of the employee discount, my reader has a perfect opportunity to address her concern while minimizing the risk of being disloyal to her fellow employees.

The right thing for her to do is to ask the new owners for clarification about the policy for herself. She needn't bring up her suspicions when she asks, but merely can pose the question about the policy and whether it extends to family members as well.

The right thing for the new owners is to make the discount policy clear.

Of course, employees may say they are buying something for themselves when they really are buying them for family members, but unless the owners place a limit of how many discounts you can take in a given time period, there's no real way to police what employees do with the stuff once they buy it. In the best of all worlds, the owners would be clear on the policy and employees would have the integrity to honor the rules.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

For this once, since I usually favor going to the source (new business owner), I favor staying out of what could be something that interfering could get you in trouble. There may be something you do not know about. In these days of difficult times with getting jobs, now is not the time to be a wiseacre and start trouble. Forarmed is is forwarned, I think the old saying is.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Quirkybutsmart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This person could speak to the people she thinks are "cheating"--chances are they will keep doing it even if the policy is stated. yes they will be upset unless she is truly tactful--but that is REALLY the "right thing to do."

Most employees will take advantage of their employer if they feel the employers is taking advantage of them. Conversely, they will all (or almost all( be "team players" if they feel valued-or that they have a stake in the company's well-being. THAT is what the new employers could do if they want c. Most won't.