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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

"Rules are rules!" And Other Dumb Rules

I heard it just the other day. "Rules are rules!" The statement was being used to terminate an employee who, because of difficult personal circumstances, had too many unplanned absences. He didn't no-call, no-show. He didn't walk off the job. He even called his supervisor ahead of time. He even had two weeks of vacation time that he hadn't used. But because his absences were unplanned, he was canned. I'm just gonna say it: "Yes, it was a dumb move, Herman. What is the matter with you?" (Charade, 1963. Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn)

Why do we cling to silly rules as if they were giving us life, when really, they are killing employee morale, engagement, loyalty, productivity and profits? This guy who was fired - it would have taken him a couple of weeks to sort out his personal issues and it would have all been covered by vacation time. He would have been able to take care of his stuff and return to his job with renewed focus. But instead, he's job hunting, probably feeling like he's been screwed over by his company, and probably telling lots of people (potential company customers, employees and vendors) how pissed off he is at his former employer. But I'm sure there are pros to terminating him. Let's think.

Hmm. "Well now people will know we are serious when we say unplanned absences are not permitted more than twice per year." Really? That's cool that you can find people who don't have unexpected life events. Which job board do you post on to find those kind of candidates? Oh. You mean you know life happens but it's the principle of it? That's why you went to termination? Oh okay. So it's rooted in your company values? Oh got it. It's just because you are powerful and he is not, right?

I'd like to help you get rid of your dumb rules and policies. Here's the evaluation process I use to determine if a rule is needed and you should keep it or if it's just dumb and should be dumped:

1. Is it required by laws or regulations? > Keep it.

FMLA, ADA, basic handbook language.

2. Was it written because one person one time made an error in judgment? > Dump it.

"No eating at your desk because one time someone spilled their sticky soda all over their keyboard and we had to pay $50 for a new one." This is a policy that makes people feel micromanaged and really isn't necessary. You can give your employees more autonomy and your costs are not going to increase much, if at all. If every once in a while you have to buy a new keyboard, it will more than pay for itself in the productivity people will have if you allow them this small privilege.

3. Is it overly complicated and focused on minutiae that doesn't matter? > Dump it.

"You may wear skirts that are knee-length, but not with boots. You may only wear dress shoes." (This was a real policy at one of my old jobs!) First of all, unless you are a fashion expert, and I'm guessing you're not because if you were, you probably wouldn't be reading this post, you should not be making silly detailed policies dictating what type of fashion is appropriate. The clothes people wear represent who they are. Believe it or not, your dress code policy can be effective if it's just three words: "Please dress professionally." Let people be themselves. They will be happier if they don't have to rely on your misguided fashion sense for guidance on what to wear.

4. Is the policy an administrative burden and difficult to enforce consistently? > Dump it.

"Everyone who accrues more than 10 points for unplanned absences in one year will be terminated." Is every manager applying this policy the same way? Who is tracking the points? Is the manager trained on FMLA and when to seek help from HR? Is truly everyone who accrues more than 10 points being terminated? What if it's your star employee? Will the policy still apply? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

What if instead of enforcing these dumb rules, you focused on supporting your employees for success. Training them. Career pathing with them. Building their skills and confidence. Think about it. What kind of results could you get? I can see the wheels turning in your head! Let's do better by enforcing cultures of value and respect instead of dumb rules.

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