When policies don't make sense

Canadian study finds employees make break the rules for social reasons or to help better serve customers

When policies don't make sense

When employees are given enough latitude and autonomy to break company rules to better serve a customer, the results are mostly positive, finds a new university study.

The research focused on employees of a fictional company who were given certain scenarios and then asked how to handle the situations, while another part surveyed real-world workers about how they reacted in the past.

The participants related to the researchers why they came to these decisions and how it made them feel about their jobs.

The study, “Breaking rules yet helpful for all: Beneficial effects of pro-customer rule breaking on employee outcomes,” was conducted by Irene Kim, sessional lecturer, organizational behaviour and human resources division at the UBC Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, and Yujie Zhan, associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Past work in customer service

For Kim, it was her earlier familiarity in customer service that inspired the study.

“I have experience in customer service as an undergraduate student, and I’ve encountered situations where sometimes you’re in a dilemma: Should you follow the company rules and maybe not be able to deliver the requested service? Or should you deviate from the rules or practices to deliver better customer service?”

In the first part of the research study, designed as a simulation, participants were asked to imagine they were front-line employees at a dance school and were asked by parents to extend an early-bird promotion rate that had expired.

They were advised they were free to answer these questions in any way they wished, with no restrictions.

“Almost half of the participants decided to break the rule and apply the promotion rate to this parent,” says Kim.

The other portion of the research involved surveying actual employees.

“We asked, ‘Have you ever encountered a challenging situation where you’re facing a dilemma [about] whether you should just follow the rule and not deliver the requested service or situations where you felt you were compelled to break the rule to deliver better customer service?’”

In both cases, the employees who disobeyed the rules ended up feeling more positive, according to Kim.

“A lot of participants didn’t report feeling guilty about the rule breaking… because they did it for pro-social reasons, and also, they felt more autonomous. A lot of the times, they don’t have a lot of decision latitude at the front line and they felt competent because they were able to solve the customer problems.”

Employees have the right to wellbeing in an organization and its up to HR make this happen, which will increase engagement, says another expert.

Rule breaking increases job fulfillment

When digging deeper into participants’ feelings about their actions, “employees also reported lower levels of emotional exhaustion — they were more satisfied with their job and they were more willing to voice their concerns about existing rules or practices in regards to customer service,” she says, and that makes sense “because they’re the ones serving customers at the front line.”

The study also showed that long-held theories about employees are often wrong, says Kim.

“It turns out that sometimes employees do break rules or go above and beyond for pro-social reasons, or to help better serve customers, which was interesting because it’s somewhat different from the traditional assumption that employees only break rules for self-serving reasons.”

Leaders should pay more attention to employee opinions when it comes to rules or policies, she says.

“Organizations and employers, if you really expect your employees to deliver high-quality service, then giving them some decision, latitude or autonomy and equipping them with the right resources would be very important. I know that some organizations are actually doing this: Ritz Carlton, they apparently provide up to $2,000 to the front-line employees if they make the customer experience exceptional.”

Those front-line workers also have experience in what works, and what doesn’t, which should give them the ability to be heard in decision making, says Kim.

“Employees who felt that a lot of their existing organizational rules are ineffective or inefficient, for those employees breaking the rule to better serve customers actually enhanced the benefit that they derived out of their rule-breaking behaviour. They felt even more autonomous, more competent and more connected.”

Revisit broken rules

It might be a positive idea to look into certain policies that are constantly being disobeyed, according to Kim.

“That signals that maybe we should revisit this rule or practice so we can have a discussion on potentially improving the rule. Or if it’s really important that the employees need to follow the rule, no matter what, then it’s important to communicate the reasons behind why they expect their employees to follow the rules.”

And workers are not always bending the rules for their own purposes.

“It would be important for managers and supervisors to consider reasons behind employees rule breaking, and not always assume that employees always break rules for self-serving reasons. It could have been that they were just trying to deliver good customer service,” she says.

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