Workplace rules are important. They’re intended to hold us to a standard of professionalism and personal responsibility that keeps everything humming along smoothly.
The best rules are both well-intentioned and rigorously scrutinized before they become office policy. They’re rules that enable us to succeed in our role and help preserve an atmosphere of common purpose. They support rather than inhibit good work.
But of course not every rule is made equal. There are smart rules and there are dumb rules. The worst rules are band-aids: poorly thought-out temporary fixes to problems that don’t (or shouldn’t) exist. A bad or badly implemented rule can create problems for your people, and the worst rules can devastate morale, sow distrust, and potentially even ruin an organization.
So, I’ve rounded up seven workplace rules and policies that continue to plague office workers the world over. Take a look and hopefully we can banish bad rules forever.
7 workplace rules that are holding back your organization
1. Strict dress codes
Surprisingly, rigid dress codes policies are still being enforced, though they’re not nearly as commonplace as they once were. According to a study by Robert Half Finance & Accounting, one-quarter of organizations require employees to dress formally at work. Four percent of organizations make employees wear a suit and tie, and just 21 percent require workers to wear slacks or skirts with button-down shirts.
The workplace dress code is thankfully on its way out. Nevertheless, that’s still a lot of organizations who remain under the impression, despite evidence to the contrary, that an employee is somehow less productive because they’re wearing jeans or leggings in the workplace.
Some people do their best work in sweatpants. While lying on the couch in the Jostleplex employee lounge. Other people enjoy dressing up formally for work. Neither should matter, especially if you’re hiring adults who understand what a professional environment calls for. The way in which an employee dresses for work is a personal choice, and shouldn’t be mandated by their employer.
Enforcing a strict dress code makes your people feel like children who don’t know how to dress themselves in the morning. Cut it out.
2. Inflexible working hours and banning remote work
Technology has drastically influenced the ways in which people work. It’s made us more mobile, flexible, and agile. It’s also been a huge boon to productivity. Allowing remote work and flexible working hours demonstrates to people that their employer trusts them to do the work they’re being paid to do. It builds trust and creates more committed, disciplined employees.
Some companies stubbornly cling to the traditional 9 to 5 shift for dear life; and then there are those who ban remote work entirely. For some, it’s a matter of operating during peak business hours, or ensuring the Sales team is available to take calls during the work day. And that makes sense. For others, though, this rule remains in place for seemingly no other reason than to drive people away—to organizations that understand that the workplace has evolved and have adapted accordingly.
3. Requiring employees to always be available
Other companies do the opposite: they embrace remote work, and then abuse the technology that makes it possible. They assume that, because you’re always online via your phone, you’re never offline—that is, you’re always available.
If you’ve recently developed a nervous tic every time you see a flashing red dot, or wince whenever your phone buzzes, you know what I’m talking about.
This is generally not an official ‘rule’ per se. It’s more of an unwritten expectation that companies develop over time, which if not stamped out, can only get worse. The only escape, it seems, is to make yourself unavailable, though this might not turn out in your favor.
Organizations must outline exactly where they stand on this issue (yes, via a written rule) in order to explain to employees their expectations. Otherwise, the ‘always on’ corporate culture can quickly get out of hand.
4. Restricting employee internet use
Understandably, employers don’t want their employees accessing malicious or inappropriate websites while at work. It can jeopardize their network security and it can lead to serious trouble in other areas, too.
But restricting, monitoring, or otherwise regulating their employees’ internet use only demonstrates that they don’t trust their people. It also limits people’s ability to adequately do their jobs.
My advice to employers: talk to your people or have them read and sign a document about appropriate internet use during onboarding, and leave it at that. If you’re concerned that they’re spending so much time on social media, to the point where it’s begun to impact their productivity, managers can speak to their employees on a case-by-case basis.
Instituting a company-wide restriction on internet use creates a repressive environment for workers who may want to check their personal email during breaks.
5. Keeping track of bathroom breaks
This may sound draconian and inhumane (and it is), but in some jurisdictions, employers are allowed to keep track and even control when employees are allowed to go to the bathroom. This heinous practice is even in place at some of the most successful companies in history.
This probably goes without saying, but: don’t do this.
Doing so will likely eviscerate your company’s retention rates, lead to mass burnout, and eventually, bad press. If you’re concerned that an employee’s frequent or lengthy bathroom breaks are impacting their performance, and there’s no medical reason for it, talk to them privately.
6. Strict attendance policy
Have you ever been running late and been so terrified to come in at 9:01 that you’d rather call in sick than confront your attendance-obsessed boss? You’re not alone.
Employers who punish their workers for showing up to work 5 minutes late, even though they stay late and complete their day’s work, “sends the message that policies take precedence over performance,” says Travis Bradberry.
“When companies are unnecessarily strict in requiring documentation for bereavement and medical leave,” he continues, “it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of employees who deserve better. After all, if you have employees who will fake a death to miss a day’s work, what does that say about your company?”
My advice to employers: institute a company-wide flexible working hours policy. Your employees are salaried and not hourly. Trust that they will complete their projects and put in a solid day’s work by letting them work during the hours they’re most productive.
Feel free to create some general guidelines around expectations (for example, “everyone needs to be around between 10am and 3pm”), but give your people some flexibility around their schedules. And stop monitoring when they show up and leave.
7. Overbearing performance review policy
Employers want to track how their people are progressing (or regressing), and that information can inform hiring practices, compensation, and more. Performance evaluations, if done right, should be beneficial to both the employee and the employer.
But when performance reviews get in the way of work, take up valuable resources, occur too frequently, or are conducted unfairly, they can be a detriment to a professional working environment.
Performance reviews ought to be about setting goals, providing feedback, and providing evidence of an employee’s growth. If the performance review policy is overbearing or even outright malicious, people will take notice and, eventually, run.
A lot of these bad workplace rules ultimately interrupt and obstruct the way people work. They create a repressive environment that assumes each employee is going to take advantage of their workplace. In other words, they create a toxic culture built on distrust and disrespect. And they can be remedied by adopting a very simple, straightforward solution: treat your employees like the adults they are. It's really that easy.