Don’t be cruel, tell me your rules


The day Elvis died, John’s fate was sealed. He made the mistake of singing Elvis hits off and on through the workday.

John had a good voice and his co-workers (including me) enjoyed the musical interludes in our day. He sang tunes he knew we liked and stopped the moment we heard footsteps in the office hallway. On the whole he was a fun, helpful and popular employee.

When John received a poor performance evaluation and read his supervisor’s comment that he was a poor team player, he was confused and a bit angry. It didn’t make sense, and he just couldn’t seem to get on the right side of his supervisor.

John found and accepted a job elsewhere. That’s when his former supervisor told us what made her turn against him — she was offended by his singing Elvis songs on the day Elvis died. Her love of Elvis was deep and to be respected.

Maryann always arrived at work at the last second — she wasn’t late but she cut it close. She saw no reason to worry because she was rarely absent and wasn’t tardy.

Her supervisor hated her habit of working her schedule and not a minute more. He focused on her “inflexibility” in her performance review. The rest of us saw her as helpful and flexible.

Holding people to unwritten rules or allowing a personal bias to outweigh actual job performance is one of the reasons so many performance appraisals aren’t credible. It is never good when policy and work-rule infractions (or a supervisor’s personal dislikes) loom large and overshadow actual work results.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that policies and work rules aren’t important. I love work rules — the more explicit and detailed, the better I like them. Every business needs some rules, consistently applied. Employees need to know what is expected of them.

Policies should guide and keep management decisions as fair and unbiased as possible and prevent favoritism. The policy may be that performance appraisals are based on actual work results — the more objective the performance goals, the easier it is to do that. But if the employees’ perception is that the boss has favorites or dislikes other employees, and those preferences override actual work results, his decisions won’t be credible.

Why try to achieve wok goals if you believe the boss’s personal likes and dislikes are what matter?

As an old human resources practitioner, I know that when employees trust their boss to be fair they are happy, cooperative and likely to be focused on their work. They may not like the boss but if they respect him and see him as fair and trustworthy, that’s what matters.

Policies consistently applied will build trust, but they need to be administered thoughtfully. Most businesses have policies in place about attendance, punctuality, time-off, job requirements, Internet and cellphone use, workplace safety, confidentiality and probably drug use. All good. But who tells the employee which policies have “zero tolerance” for any infraction and which are just a statement of preference?

Maybe there is an informal three absences (or infractions) allowed each year, but are you out the door with number four? Put it all in writing, give the written policies to prospective employees before they are hired and let them know the rules of the road from day one.

Employees need to know which offense will be cause for termination, which will affect their performance rating and what just irritates the boss; they can then decide if the consequences are worth the crime.

Policies should provide employees with a good understanding of pay, performance expectations, when and if to expect a pay raise, privacy rights, ethics guidelines, training options and how to report a grievance or problem — and that’s just the basics.

Clear, well-written policies aren’t a cure all — they will be administered by human beings — and we are all blind to our own flaws. Sometimes you need an objective outsider to look at your policies and talk over your reasoning before you do something drastic. It takes little time to have someone check your thinking.

Poorly administered written policies can do some damage, but not as much as the unwritten rules and preferences we each have. (I have no proof, just a lot of experience with supervisors making irrational decisions.)

I have never forgotten what happened to my singing co-worker John. He is the first on my long list of employees who irritated the boss and suffered real consequences.

John is the reason I tell supervisors and business owners to let their employees know their pet peeves and what irritating behavior employees should avoid to stay in their good graces. Put it in writing. If you can’t stand whistling, are repulsed by bare feet in sandals or will hold someone’s messy work space against them — give people a warning.

It’s only fair.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


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