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Walking my dog the other day, I passed a “drug-free zone” sign and, smelling marijuana, smiled at the three guys standing there passing a joint. (Even with the new DC marijuana laws you still can’t light up on the streets, especially in front of the drug-free school zone.)

The three guys were not just standing there smoking weed, they, along with some other people, were watching a chess game. Right behind the table where the chessboard sat was a “No Loitering” sign.

It was all quite funny. 

Now, lest someone think I am adhering to the direction of all signs, I did not pay attention to a couple of speed limit signs as I drove to the office this morning.

This got me thinking about policies and how so often organizations draft up a policy on something and then send it out to employees thinking that resolves the matter of following the law once and for all.  It doesn’t.

Just as people will hang out and smoke pot in front of the drug-free zone and no loitering signs (policies if you will), employees will not follow policies.

There are a lot of reasons that employees don’t follow policies. Sometimes its because they are not quite sure what the policy means. For example, is playing chess and attracting a crowd that watches the game loitering? Is marijuana still considered a “drug”?

If your policies are too legalistic or use words and phrases that aren’t clear, you are at risk of your policies not being followed. People won’t follow them because they aren’t sure what the policies mean.

So, it’s important that your policies use clear, non-legalistic language so that employees know what they should do or should not do.

Another reason people don’t follow policies is because the policies are simply too cumbersome to follow and do not really address the ill the policy is designed to prevent.

Again, using the chess game, if the sidewalk is really wide and the chess game is not blocking the sidewalk or the entrances to the stores does the no loitering really make sense? Isn’t a chess game exactly what we want folks to do to create a sense of community and to stay out of real trouble? If so, does the no loitering really work?

Likewise, if policies fail to account for the actual processes and practices that exist and create cumbersome requirements employees will ignore the policy and work around it. Or, if the policy does not address any real concern or legal requirements, employees will quickly figure that out and not follow it.

This often happens when the policy drafter has no idea how things actually work or fails to consult with the employees who own the procedures at issue.

Again, it is just like the guys playing chess. They know their loitering is not blocking anyone’s access to stores and the sidewalk is wide enough for people to walk around them.

Sometimes people don’t follow policies because they know they won’t get caught.

Those guys have been playing chess in front of that no loitering sign for a couple of years and the guys have been smoking weed in that exact location even before the new DC marijuana laws. So, they know there are no ramifications for loitering or smoking weed, at least on that street corner.

Now, you don’t need a version of DC Metro Police trolling the hallways or inspecting employee’s computers. (You do sometimes but that is for another post.)

I have worked with clients who have had enforcers who do that and the “police officer” quickly becomes someone everyone avoids. But, you do need some way to detect when policies are violated.

Then, when an employee is found to have violated policy, you need swift, appropriate and fair discipline. Most importantly, everyone needs to be treated the same when they violate policy.

Inconsistent discipline for policy violations will quickly erode your employees’ trust in your organization.

Finally, although I believe in the goodness of people and their desire to do the right thing, the reality is there will always be those who will not comply with the law or policies.

Like me, I just keep speeding. Even though I know the speed limits and sometimes even get tickets, I keep speeding to get where I am going faster.

Some of your employees will violate policies or law because they will incur some benefit that in their minds makes it worthwhile to do so. For these types of policy violators, you need to have a way to demonstrate that they knew about the policy.

You do that through effective and consistent training and communications on the policies. You also do that through having employees certify annually that they understand your policies and have followed them.

And, if despite this, they intentionally violate your policies, your organization needs to identify those employees and either get them in compliance or manage them out of the organization.

These are not the only reasons people either break the law or ignore policy but they are some of the reasons.

As an organization builds its ethics and compliance program and drafts its policies, it should consider why employees may not follow policy and try to develop approaches to minimize non-compliance.


The intersection of law, business, criminal activity crime and ethics: why do some companies violate the law? what happens when they do? what is ethical? how do we get corporations to follow the law? can lawyers help and, if so, what is the lawyer’s role? Stay tuned, we’re going to address all of these issues and more in When the Writ Hits the Fan.

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