The ongoing debate about building an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks has, among other things, raised awareness of an important principle, one that can be applied in lots of situations: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
We'll refrain from weighing in specifically on the mosque debate, but instead aim this principle at something that's more in our wheelhouse - the workplace. Just because the clock says it's "quittin' time", is it OK to go home when your colleagues are burning the midnight oil to get a special job done? And just because you have the right to enforce a particular requirement on your workers, is it necessarily wise to do so?
A reader recently emailed us to say that after working a pretty flexible schedule for ten years, his new boss had changed the rules, suddenly, and without explanation, insisting that all workers come in and leave on a specified schedule (specified by the boss), and take the same sixty minutes each day for their unpaid lunch break. Any changes to the specified pattern would require 48 hours written notice.
The reader's question was, "Is this legal? Can he do this?"
With the admonition that neither of us attended law school nor slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night, our reply was, "yes, it's probably legal." But is it smart? Maybe. But maybe not.
As we've said before, the law is hardly a lofty standard. There's no law against being a self-absorbed, unfriendly, immature jerk, or taking the last donut in the breakroom. But actions always have consequences. That is particularly the case for those of us whose job involves leadership. While lawmakers and judges get all wrapped up trying to define what is illegal, we have yet to see, for example, a bullying or self-absorbed boss get more Discretionary Effort from a worker than a caring, authentic leader. And no, we're not concluding that the manager in this example is a bully boss. Our point still stands.
With things like institutional loyalty and job security off the table, today workers make frequent, rapid fire "worth-its" decisions in which they decide whether or not to give their manager or the organization the benefit of the doubt, and a morsel of their Discretionary Effort.
If our reader's boss had asked our advice (which he didn't), we would have made these suggestions:
1. If there's a productivity issue, provide clear expectations and feedback to the ones whose results are coming up short. Take constructive action with those workers, but don't penalize or get overly officious with others. Translation - don't hunt hummingbirds with a howitzer.
2. If there's a good reason for changing the rules, explain it to those affected, in simple language. Don't hide behind others. Tell them why YOU think the change makes sense. If it's plausible, they'll likely understand and go along.
3. Ask if anyone has another idea on achieving the same objective. If suggestions are offered, give them good faith consideration.
We've rarely seen morale, productivity, and team synergy increase by the institution of more rules. Better leadership, yes. But not more rules. We're also noticing, and we'll bet you are, too, that today's workers are less inspired by and attracted to rules and restrictions than those who've come before them.
When conditions reach the point that employees are asking questions about the law, hoping to "nail" the boss on some infraction, we almost always find a leadership issue in play, not a problem with legislation. This is why unions survive in some environments, and why labor lawyers have job security. Workers will always seek an advocate. If you're a manager, why not be that advocate, and see how much good work everybody can get done?