Stupid Workplace Rules That Destroy Employee Morale

Most companies have rules that frustrate employees. It's time to rid your workplace of stupid rules and introduce some smarter ones.
July 22, 2013

"Most managers," says futurist Alvin Toffler, "were trained to be the thing they most despise—bureaucrats." Bureaucratic workplace rules, policies and red tape are a major frustration, both for the manager who has to enforce them, and for the employees who have to endure them. Employees often cite baffling workplace rules as an impediment to getting their work done efficiently. Some workplace rules are essential to deal with important considerations such as safety. But arbitrary edicts for every aspect of office life act as handcuffs, limiting people's ability to achieve the best results.

In Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules For Smart Results, authors Bill Jensen and Josh Klein show how today's top performers are taking matters into their own hands to circumvent all sorts of rules just to get their work done. These are dubbed benevolent hackers who find ways to get around stupid rules to get smarter results. The authors cite an example of employees frustrated because their boss insists that all presentations be delivered in PowerPoint. But collaborating with others on PowerPoint slides took forever to upload (and download) files on the company's Microsoft SharePoint servers. Breaking the rules by surreptitiously using Google Documents for the collaborative work, and saving to PowerPoint at the last minute, saved hours of frustration and helped these employees accomplish more. Another example cited is of an employee who was tired of spending six to eight hours a month doing his expense reports according to his employer's cumbersome forms. He now uses to create a one-pager of his expenses and even uses to order duplicate sets of receipts to match his expenses so he doesn't have to carry pockets full of receipts.

What these two examples teach business executives is that there's an urgent need to keep up with the rapidly changing work environment—not only in terms of how people work today, but also what tools are available out there. The authors state that "the tools we have outside of work are leapfrogging past what we use on the job." Preventing employees from using these tools makes their life needlessly more difficult. And many will find a way to work around firewalls and use them anyway because these tools allow them to work more efficiently.

What can you do to make sense of workplace rules? What are some rules that you should consider and what rules do you need to discard? Here are some suggestions.

Consider instituting a BYOD policy. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies are something more employers are considering as employees increasingly bring to work an array of mobile devices such as smartphones, personal laptops and tablets that they then connect to the company's systems and networks. Doing so can create potential security risks. Yet prohibiting employees from bringing their own devices is a particularly punitive policy that is sure to irk a lot of employees.

According to a Tech Republic survey, 38 percent of companies don't have a policy in place for BYOD. If you're in this category, think about instituting some best practices to plug any security holes while allowing employees the freedom to use some of their own devices, as needed. Two resources that can help you: this set of 10 security best practices, and a BYOD policy that you can download from Tech Republic.

Develop a policy for Google Glass use. Google Glass, the innovative wearable computer, is the latest device that has the potential to disrupt the workplace. Even though it's not scheduled to be released until later this year, some workplaces have already instituted a policy to ban its use. Concerns are that it will result in an invasion of privacy, a loss of productivity and a security risk. Don't be caught off guard when the first employee walks through the door wearing one of these devices. What will your policy be? Are there safety issues that could be impacted by wearers of the Glass? At a minimum, you might need to consider some etiquette rules regarding their use in order to protect everyone's right to privacy.

Reconsider tightfisted policies. Even employers with the best intentions sometimes end up with policies that cause employee resentment. Resentment in the workplace is the enemy of achievement. One such policy that generates animosity is taking back frequent flyer miles that employees earned from traveling on company business. Even though the company pays for the airline ticket, consider the intangibles for which the employee doesn't get paid: wear and tear on health from travel, eating mediocre food on the run, long waits stranded at airports, disrupted sleep patterns, time away from family, and safety risks, to name a few. This is a part of the unspoken loyalty of employees to their jobs. Responding by taking away airline loyalty rewards is not a fair exchange.

Develop a healthy outlook on sick leave. A recent survey shows that the majority of Americans support mandating paid sick leave for employees. All employers have their own imperatives and challenges when it comes to sick leave policy. If you're not already offering this benefit, it pays to look at what some of the most successful companies are doing in this area. Hubspot, whose emphasis is on building an uber-culture, has a three-word policy for sick days—as with most other things: "Use good judgment." Good judgment is explained as "favoring your team over yourself" and remembering that "acting in our customers' interest is our long-term interest too." IDEO, considered one of the greatest place to work, started an online employee contest asking, "How might we create healthy communities within and beyond the workplace?" where employees submitted 10 winning ideas, such as health leave, not just sick leave, and rewards for a healthy lifestyle. Take a look, as well, at Tastefully Simple, a small business voted one of the Top Small Company Workplaces. It offers several wellness initiatives including a Hooky Day—a birthday as a paid holiday.

Offer a positive alternative to social media venting. Rather than having policies that muzzle critiques of the company on social media, Nokia does the opposite. It encourages its employees to bring on any critiques. To that end, they set up BlogHub and Sphere, online platforms to catch employee rants that can help the company improve—whether it's in updating its administrative policies or fixing software issues.

Granted, not everyone is comfortable with this radical transparency. But many companies have draconian cultures where openly criticizing the company is frowned upon. With the ever-increasing number of rapid information-sharing tools, such as Twitter, this is an area that will be harder to restrict. Business executives need to be prepared to handle more and more open reactions from staff. What can you do to foster an environment where employees, regardless of rank, can openly speak up for the good of the company?  

Characteristics of an Ideal Workplace

Ultimately, workplace policies impact the quality of life at the office. "Creating The Best Workplace On Earth: What Employees Require To Be Their Most Productive" is a global survey conducted by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Europe's leading experts on organizational culture. Their survey results reveal six essential imperatives of an ideal company to work for, including letting people be themselves, showing people how the daily work makes sense and, not surprisingly, having rules people can believe in—which translates into having no stupid rules.

Goffee and Jones provide a Don't Hinder Me With Stupid Rules checklist that's characteristic of an ideal workplace. Try it out for yourself: Check off each statement that applies to you—the more checkmarks you have, the closer you are to an ideal workplace with regard to workplace rules.

  • We keep things simple.
  • The rules are clear and apply equally to everyone.
  • I know what the rules are for.
  • Everyone knows what the rules are for.
  • We, as an organization, resist red tape.
  • Authority is respected.

Are there any outdated rules, policies or processes that need to be changed in your company?

Read more articles on company culture.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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