Compliance With Rules Begins With Rules That Are Just



For years I have been advising the leaders of organizations to meet regularly to, among other things, review the efficacy and appropriateness of their policies and rules. An important element to any organizational governance is to review all policies regularly and in the context of a changing business environment. Safety trends and leading indicators should lead senior leaders to anticipate future issues and concerns and policies and rules should proactively address future needs. 

Not only should the rules make sense now but they should also be positioned to address emergent needs. Policy review can be tough.  It can sometimes be tough to differentiate between rules that are important for protecting both the organization and workers and those rules set in place by an irrational human resources fusspot or a megalomaniac attorney.

As I reflected on policy review it occurs to me that every rule should meet three basic elements.  So when you’re safety strategy committee reviews your organization’s policies, there are three basic tests that every policy (not just safety) should pass.

The Compliance Test
In the law for a loan to be enforceable there is generally a requirement that the person who “loans” another money must have a reasonable expectation of repayment.  Basically, that means that one can’t give money to someone they know will never be able repay it and then enforce it under the law. I think this is a legal principle that you should be applied to any and all policies in an organization. 

Any policy must have a reasonable expectation of compliance. In other words, if you know good and well that the majority of the population won’t comply to the rule you should dump it. 

Take for example rules against speeding. 

If you are running a trucking firm (or any company that requires many or most of its employees to drive significant distances) you may be tempted to institute a “zero-tolerance” for speeding. But if you, at the same time, you expect productivity levels that essentially require the drivers to speed, then you really don’t have a reasonable expectation of compliance.

This test is also good for exposing “nod-and-a-wink” policies where organizations outlaw practices on paper on which they rely for the completion of day-to-day operations.  These can include using unsafe vehicles or machinery, concealing noncompliance during government audits, or knowingly establishing processes that are unsafe.

A reasonable expectation of compliance cannot be claimed in cases where the policy prohibits where long-standing practice of the population deems the practices in question as acceptable.  This particular criterion can be dicey—there are things that people have done for years that may suddenly become illegal and in these cases it doesn’t matter how many people have been engaged in a practice or for how long they’ve been doing it. 

The law supersedes corporate policy, after all.

A final group of policies that will likely fail this test are policies that because of custom are considered voluntary. When the corporate culture tacitly encourages noncompliance (for example when supervisors openly ignore a rule) it cannot claim reasonable expectation of compliance.

The Test Of Higher Order
All policy should serve a greater good. By that I mean that all policies must do more than impose order in the workplace they must also serve a greater good. The rule should do more than restrict an individual’s freedom because a given behavior irritates a leader, appeals to a leader’s whims, or otherwise restricts liberty and freedoms guaranteed by law simply to meet the capricious demands of heavy-handed corporate despots.

In other words, is there a legitimate business reason for the rule or is it more about pandering to the infantile fits thrown by the baby in the corner office playpen? When examining this test, ask yourself, why do we need this rule? If you find yourself hemming and hawing as you look for a reason, or if people roll their eyes when you insist that civilization will end if you repeal the rule, you had ought consider revising or repealing the rules.

The Fairness Test
Organizations should be able to enforce all their rules and policies fairly and equitably. Equitable consequences for non-compliance are more than just important for the sake of fairness or morale, but for legal reasons as well. If a disciplined employee of a protected class can demonstrate that he or she has been punished for violating the rule while people outside the class have been allowed to violate the rule with impunity. 

If said employee can demonstrate a pattern of such behavior the organization can find itself in significant peril. But forget whether or not the enforcement of the law is legal for the moment—let us never mistake that which is legal for that which is right—and let us focus on what is fair. Unless a policy can be unequivocally and without reservation be seen by the population as fair and just it can never be considered a valid policy.

Phil La Duke is a safety and training expert with Rockford Greene International, a Monroe, Mich.-based business optimization services company. He may be contacted at 530-208-3286 or He also writes blogs at and

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