Psychology / Columns / Systems Thinking

Why do we break the rules?

Short-cutters get work done and praise from managers

August 1, 2014
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Why do employees break the rules? Let me take the liberty to focus on reasons that appear to be surfacing more often today according to my experiences (and those of a number of colleagues to whom I spoke for this piece).

Rule breaking is driven by personal attitude, the environment employees operate in, and external pressure, which cause employees to make decisions at the spur of the moment to either follow or break the rule. The same rule can be broken for different reasons at different times.  Following rules is a fluid and dynamic activity throughout the day. Given the right pressure, even the best-of-the-best employee will break the rules.

Feeling trapped

Employees are pushed hard to produce more for less purchasing power from the money they earn. One colleague told me he could remember when he couldn’t carry a hundred dollars of groceries in two hands; now he can easily carry it in one hand.

Several colleagues mentioned cost-saving initiatives that included elimination of pensions, 50 percent increases in copays and soaring deductibles for healthcare, internalizing 401(k) management to eliminate investment management fees, reducing vacation accruals from a maximum of 6 weeks to 4 weeks or less, eliminating vacation banking, forcing employees to take vacation to eliminate banked vacation, reducing work-week hours, eliminating various perk benefits (e.g., paid parking, tuition, health club dues reimbursement), etc.

Older employees are starting to feel trapped. Couple this pressure with the fact that many older employees have not saved enough money to enjoy retirement, at least when they would like to, and the result: many veteran employees are forced to remain employed. 

Fellow employees watch short-cutters get work done and praise from management for keeping the company competitive. Then they begin to take shortcuts with their work, leading to more injuries.  Sure everyone gets away with cutting corners for some period of time, but eventually their luck runs out and — WHAM — someone is off to the hospital.  Too often, the one going to the hospital is not the one who broke the rules.

Keeping it inside

Individuals who don’t break the rules tend to stew over those who do, and vent about it with fellow employees. But rarely do they report what they see, fearing unwanted consequences.  Finally some gather up enough courage to take issue with the unsafe acts of another employee. Everyone gathers around the accused to protect him or her from disciplinary action. The accuser usually is ostracized to the point that new employment is the only fix.

Reasons employees break the rules that surfaced during my conversations with colleagues included:

• Inconsistency of rules

• There are way too many rules

• Lack of agreement with the rules

• Rules make no sense

• Rules do not apply to me

• Disciplinary inconsistency

• No one around here follows the rules

• Everyone does it, don’t they?

• No consequences for not following the rules

• Management does not care about us following the rules until someone is hurt

• Following the rules is a sign of weakness

• Takes too much time

• Never have, never will get hurt

• Rules make me miss my quota

• Others will cover for me if I get hurt

• Management isn’t accountable for safety, so why should I be?

Unhealthy trend

A trend is sweeping today’s workplace: employees are not held accountable for following the rules. No wonder we are seeing a shift in attitudes. We have ongoing pressure to produce and the reality that essentially no consequences will be imposed if rules, safety or otherwise, are broken.

The environment in which employees operate today is another factor. Several colleagues have observed plant managers becoming more motivated by affiliation (i.e., the need to be liked) when managing their employees. When rules are broken, the manager is less likely to levy a severe penalty for fear of not being liked. If breaking rules is tacitly tolerated, you’ll see more of this behavior. 

Connect the dots

Connect this “softer, gentler” management style to a more “collectivist” safety climate (i.e., the group is the primary unit of reality versus the individual) and ultimately there is a lessening of individuals looking out for themselves.  When an infraction occurs, pinpointing the “group” guilty of the infraction to administer some form of disciplinary action becomes essentially impossible, if not meaningless.

Drawing the line

So how to “break” this growing rule-breaking habit? Several colleagues mentioned using lists of “Inviolable Acts,” “Life Saving Rules,” “Cardinal Rules,” and “Golden Rules.”  Typically, this list of acts or rules is developed after recognizing that failing to follow them can lead to serious injury or death.  In all cases colleagues mentioned, if an employee violates any of these acts or rules, disciplinary action is taken up to and including termination of employment.

“Cardinal rules” common to five companies I researched included:

• Valid work permits

• Log, Tag, Clear, and Try

• Vessel/Confined Space Entry

• Fall Protection

• High Energy Isolation and Grounding

• Intentional Overriding of an Interlock

• Wearing Seat Belts

• Management of Change

• Purposely Draining/Releasing to the Environment

• Working Under a Lifted Load

• Smoking Outside Smoking Areas

• Using a Phone While Driving

• Using Alcohol and/or Drugs While Working or Driving

• Horseplay or Fighting

• Watching Pornography

• Possessing a Firearm, Ammunition, Explosives or Strike Anywhere Matches Onsite

• Possessing Knives More Than Three Inches

• Hiding or Failing to Report Injuries or Occupational Illnesses

• Stealing or Unauthorized Removal of Company Property

• Wearing of Jewelry or Loose Clothing

• Proper PPE Worn at All Times

Limit the most crucial rules

All five companies researched had only ten to twelve acts considered to be so important that employees were expected to pay close attention and not violate them. The key to compliance is consistency. Disciplinary action for violating one or more acts must be administered consistently.  All eyes are watching. Another perception key: Is the list of acts compiled sincerely to protect employees from harm, or to insulate management from something catastrophic happening? 

I think the further away we move from the biological axiom of “survival of the fittest” when it comes to safety and toward a “groupthink” approach to safety, the more difficult it becomes to ensure “individuals” follow the rules. As safety and health professionals, our job is to ensure those “individuals” working the tools are the “fittest” when it comes to safety. 

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