Sticking to policies and procedures can be difficult. You may not know what rules apply or even where to look for the right set of procedures. Sometimes information is contradictory-the university may adopt one set of rules in a handbook, another in a written memo, and yet another set of unwritten rules that everyone is supposed to know. Sometimes faculty and staff forget to follow procedures. Other times, they are busy and cut corners. Some examples include:
- A department chair submits incomplete expense reports.
- A supervisor threatens to terminate someone without consulting with the area VP or Human Resources.
- A staff member routinely arrives late for work but the supervisor fails to take corrective action.
Non-compliance with procedures may not seem like a big deal at the time. But if a dispute ever ends up in litigation, juries often become suspicious that an institution neglecting its own rules might be hiding deeper problems.
Non-compliance with procedures puts both the institution and its faculty and staff on the defensive. At best, the administration will appear incompetent and the institution will seem poorly run. At worst, the failure to follow procedures can be used as evidence to persuade a jury that the university or its faculty and staff acted improperly.
Procedures exist for a reason. They ensure consistency and fairness in handling similar situations. They provide guidance for unfamiliar situations. They take into account institutional policy objectives that an employee may not think of at the time he or she acts. And, they often protect the rights of others, such as a faculty member seeking tenure, a staff member facing discipline or termination, and job applicants seeking fair consideration for a position.
The definition of "fairness" is arrived at by comparing like situations. If like treatment is to be enforced, the supervisor should have an excellent business reason for the difference in treatment. Allowing one staff member to arrive late, while disciplining another for minor infractions of the attendance and tardy policy will generally not be redeemed by a later contention that one staff member was so competent that attendance did not matter. If the rule is to be applied, it should be applied in a uniform manner. Having said that, it is important to recognize that in some situations it is perfectly acceptable, if not desirable, to deviate from standard policies. In these situations, you should consult with the area VP or the director of human resources, and you should document your reasons for deviating from procedures.
When an employee claim gets to court, the critical element is the ability to re-create factually what occurred. Documentation does not have to be especially time consuming. An excellent system is for a supervisor to make notes on a calendar regarding a minor problem and then on the second or third occasion, when it re-occurs, provide complete documentation that references the earlier events.
The growth in employment law makes it impossible for supervisors to know all of the issues. It is better to seek technical information and guidance and find out that it is minor than to make that judgment independently and learn that it is in fact a major problem.
In summary, when you need to make a policy enforcement decision, here are some rules of thumb to remember:
- Find out what procedures apply before taking action.
- Think about how your actions might look to others when you deviate from established rules. Could they assume that you had a bad motive?
- Be consistent. If you never follow a procedure, don't start suddenly following it without a good reason which is understood by all involved.
- Consult with your area VP or the director of human resources if a policy exception is warranted.
- Document your reasons for deviating from procedures. A little documentation at the time of your action can save you a lot of explaining down the road.