When is it OK to bend the rules?

Incidents involving airline passengers highlight dilemmas around customer service

Recent stories — that spread quickly through social media — of employees who are sticklers about the rules have raised the question: When is it OK to break the rules? 

In May, a Canadian singer  and her young son were removed from an United Airlines flight apparently because the crew claimed he was being too rowdy and was a safety risk. Also in May, a woman boarded a Southwest Airlines flight, only to receive an alarming text from her husband indicating he would commit suicide. But two flight attendants would not let her make an emergency call to police, citing Federal Aviation Administration rules. When the passenger arrived home two hours later, her husband was dead.

The back story
When Bill Hogg hears of situations like these, he wonders what’s really going on beyond the scenes. Often, it’s because leaders expect people to act according to a list of rules that have been put in place to address and deal with previously seen bad behaviours, said the HR consultant of Bill Hogg & Associates in Aurora, Ont.

“If anybody varies from that rule at all, then the leaders come down and say, ‘Thou shalt not’ and ‘Here are the consequences’ and what you start to develop is an organization of people who don’t think anymore because they have a black-and-white set of rules and they’ve been told that if they don’t behave appropriately, there’s consequences. And that’s the last thing you want in any organization,” said Hogg.

“I like to think that when we hire people, we hire them fully equipped, including the brain, so why would we then take away their ability to think by giving them a list of hard and fast rules that don’t allow them any flexibility to respond to the situation?”

And with the power of social media, the repercussions of ill-advised customer service are going to be quicker and more significant, he said.

The Southwest incident is an extreme example of why it’s so important to have a system in place that really empowers employees to make the right decisions and to use good judgment, said Arlene Keis, Vancouver-based CEO of go2HR, an HR association for British Columbia tourism and hospitality.

That service quality system involves a strategy, commitment from the top and good policies, process and tools, along with training from the top-down, she said. 

“There tends to be an over-focus on that front line without management being accountable and creating the culture and providing the tools for the front line to… have that flexibility.”

It’s about having a commitment from management and not just dictating to employees one day “Thou shalt be empowered to bend the rules,” said Keis.

“It’s not going to work that way because they’re going to be afraid, and you need to really have that support and commitment coming from the top,” she said.

“You can give them all the autonomy you want but if they make a mistake and you come down hard on them, they’re never going to take a risk again.”

But there are boundaries, of course, and nobody should be compromising the safety of themselves or others, said Keis.
There are usually two reasons why people don’t want to go the extra mile — they don’t care or they haven’t been trained or empowered to do so, said Dolly Konzelmann, president of the Customer Service Professionals Network in Toronto.

“If they’re not empowered, people going into these customer service roles — and they’re usually the lowest paid people —there’s… a little bit of fear, a bit of indecisiveness, they’re not certain what they are allowed to do or what they aren’t allowed to do.” 

As long as it doesn’t jeopardize safety or isn’t illegal, then people should do what they can to save the customer, she said.
“(Employees) are very cognizant and they’re not going to be giving away the farm, and there’s checks and balances in place and you coach accordingly if that happens, and that doesn’t happen. Have lots of faith (in workers) and give them the tools and resources. And bundle all that with a great communication plan and then you’ve got a winning team.”

Stuff happens, said Konzelmann, and employees are  going to face some unique inquiries that are out of the norm.

“This is really the opportunity for (employers) to shine, for your staff to shine and to stand out from the crowd.”

It’s about having people who can think outside the box and come up with solutions, said Konzelmann. 

But there still need to be rules.

“There’s a need for consistency, you can’t have people making their own rules. I think we need to bend the rules and then leave it at that because everybody comes to an organization with their own beliefs and values and there has to be that level of consistency.”

But unless there are serious implications — such as legal or legislative issues — it’s better to dispense with the rules altogether and instead use guidelines, said Hogg. That means establishing an organization’s values and service principles, with senior leadership framing the decision-making process.

“When you start from that perspective, I find that the folks within the organization don’t think they’re as constrained by rules and they in fact feel that they can make the appropriate decisions from a customer’s perspective, with clear guidelines that have been provided by the organization so that there’s more consistency there in terms of the overall experience that a customer might get.”

The service principles should be prioritized and introduced to the organization as a whole, with a good amount of dialogue, he said.

“So people start to understand what that decision-making process looks like, examples of good decisions, examples of bad decisions, and the reality is if that kind of dialogue is taking place, then you have a reasonably good shot at people really having a good understanding of what is appropriate.”

This focus on flexibility and employee autonomy started way back in the 70s and 80s in the auto industry, with Toyota’s approach to service quality, said Keis, and now the hospitality industry is very much committed to the concept.

“It’s catching on because people understand the ROI of it — once you see the business case for this, then that opens up a lot of eyes, it’s not just a touchy-feely, HR-y kind of thing.”

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