Bending the Rules

While I can certainly appreciate the need for formal rules & official policies in today’s society & specifically, in corporate America, I’ve always had an element of rebellion in me ever since I was a kid.

Not sure if it was a “Lets see what I can get away with before I get into some BIG trouble!” attitude or just some sort of stupid death wish!

Seemed I got into my fair share of trouble, but like my Mom would always say, “He’s not a bad kid…he’s just mischievous!”

Maybe it was my name? Not sure how many times I’ve heard, “How can it be that EVERY single Michael is a little devil?!”

At a very young age, I threw my baby bottle (glass, in those days) outta my crib, almost breaking my Mom’s nose.

I’d cut the President’s picture out of $1 & $5 bills.

I’ve eaten coins. (No, it’s not true that I ate a quarter one day & shit out 2 dimes & a nickel the next!)

And my older sister has no photographic proof whatsoever nor DNA evidence that I stole & ate the hollow chocolate bunny that she won for some spelling bee contest!

I spent many an hour in the Sister Principal’s office in elementary school! Only the fact that I was an excellent student…and my Dad always had his checkbook handy to make an on-the-spot donation to the Regina Paris school or church…kept me from getting kicked out.

I seemed to carry (some of) these tendencies as I grew older.

But when I began to actively manage people (first, a small Special Projects team in Brooklyn for Citi & then, as Operations Director for the CitiPhone business for Brooklyn/Long Island/Staten Island Region), I found myself in a different position.

Yes, I had previous leadership experience…as Sergeant-at-Arms & later, President of the Altar Boy Society…as Captain for several of my baseball teams…as manager & coach for several youth baseball & basketball teams…as Pack Leader in the Cub Scouts & Webelows…as Patrol Leader & Junior Assistant Scout Master in the Boy Scouts, Troop 201…but all that, while great experience in prepping for the real world, would be nothing compared to what was waiting for me in the business world.

You’re now talking about people’s lives & their ability to support their families.

This is serious stuff!

And on the other hand, you’re obligated to the company that signs your check to make sure that all official policies & procedures are being followed accordingly..and when an employee’s performance is not up to standard in every measurable category, that you take the proper & appropriate disciplinary measures.

It’s a fine line that you walk.

But in no way did I ever want myself, nor my managers, to be viewed as primarily, rule enforcers.

We’re not the secret police.

We’re not here to “catch people doing stuff”.

We don’t get a buzz off getting people into (official) trouble.

Nor do I want any of us looked upon as such.

What does a boy do now? 🤔

Here’s the position that I would take with my managers regarding their people…

Your people need to realize that you are, indeed, their boss. And that you take that responsibility very seriously.

Whatever they do, no matter how well or how poorly they perform, is a direct reflection on you (as well as on themselves, naturally)!

But I do NOT want you shoving the rules down their throats.

They’re not prisoners…they’re responsible, mature, hard-working adults.

Even if some continued to act like kids.

I don’t want you guys acting like the class monitor & reciting the company’s rules verbatim.

In fact, I’d like you to find every opportunity to “bend the rules whenever possible & appropriate”…in your people’s favor!

No, it’s not blasphemy. Nor is it hypocrisy.

The people must feel, and believe, that you’re on “their side”.

They can read all the rules & policies themselves. They’re all written down someplace.

But compassion & empathy must be demonstrated!

Instead of marking someone “late” (for a “legitimate” reason…had to find a replacement babysitter, sick child, incredible/unusual traffic), see if you’ll be able to move today’s work schedule from 8:00-5:00 to 8:20-5:20.

Or have them change their lunch hour to 40 minutes while moving their start time to 8:20.

Don’t make it a habit & don’t allow them to use it as a crutch.

If they’re having a crazy day & demonstrate a little less than the optimal effort on a task late in the day, bring them aside for a brief chat…don’t make a Supreme Court case out of everything.

Before you take any disciplinary action whatsoever, make sure you’ve exhausted every possible option (individual training, study time during slow periods, buddy up with a seasoned/exceptional employee, etc) to help the person improve.

I’ve always enjoyed attendance & staff turnover figures that were significantly better than comparable units as well as other areas in the business.

Nip stuff in the bud.

Whenever an employee returned from an unscheduled absence, he/she always met with their manager that day.


A review of the most current rolling 3, 6 & 12 months performance was reviewed.

Could result in a “Thank You! This has been your first incident in well over a year. You’re still doing great!”

Or a “You’re really walking a fine line here. This is your Xth incident in the past Y months. I don’t want to see you getting into formal trouble. If there’s stuff that we need to discuss that help improve your performance, then I’m more than happy to talk. I wanna help you in every way possible. OK?”

Don’t let the mole hills develop into mountains.

Review EVERY incident with them.

I would normally allow 1 “Get out of jail FREE” card to an employee who called in sick.

“If you feel better in an hour or so after lying down, you can always call me & we’ll adjust your schedule this one time only. No incident reported.”

Of course, that all needs to be accommodated within the normal parameters of your business.

Are you doing special favors?

Yeah, probably so.

But will it pay for itself 10x over with a more loyal, more flexible, more dedicated employee? You betcha!

Bend the rules as far as you can go without breaking them entirely.

But ALWAYS make sure that the person fully understands what you’re doing for them. You didn’t hafta do this. In fact, you very well may be taking a risk here by not enforcing the rules exactly as they’re written.

* * * * * I clearly remember one particular incident at Lehman Brothers mortgage-servicing subsidiary, Aurora Loan Services, back in December of 2007.

With our new ACD/Automated Call Distributor in Customer Service, we could not only silently monitor our people’s phone calls, but we were able to mirror their screens as well.

This enhancement was so INCREDIBLY valuable as seeing the rep’s actual screen navigation is such a great tool in identifying improvement opportunities, helping with efficiency & effectiveness, and truly enabling the call reviewer to understand…and appreciate…the ENTIRE customer interaction.

I happened to be listening in to (and “watching”) one of my better, experienced reps walk a customer through our website.

First off, she not only did a wonderful job in “selling our customer” the significant advantages of web self-service (especially since we were not a 24×7 shop, nor were most mortgage servicers), but she was patient enough to take the customer through the actual process herself.

(Note: For those in our audience saying to themselves, “OMG, Mike, look at all the time she spent with that one caller! Oh, her handle time! The queue! The horror of it all!!! 😱😱😱”, you can cool your jets.

By spending a few extra minutes with this one customer THIS ONE TIME, our rep was able to eliminate probably dozens & dozens of similar calls from this same customer in the future!

She taught her to do herself for what she would regularly call us.

I’d much rather have one 6-minute call than receive twenty 3-minute calls in the future.

And the rep wasn’t obsessed with her AHT (handle time) BECAUSE SHE WAS OVERLY OBSESSED WITH PROVIDING THE BEST POSSIBLE SERVICE for her customer!!!

BTW, decades of research has clearly shown that customers are “most satisfied” when they’re using automated, self-service tools, e.g., ATMs, on-line applications, mobile apps, IVR/Interactive Voice Response, etc..

It’s best – – for the company AND the customers – – when automated tools handles information & transactional requests while manned services (branches, stores, customer service, etc.) are utilized for teaching/learning, special requests & problem-solving.

If you’re “happy” when your people get those quick calls & keep that AHT down, then it’s pretty clear – – TO ME – – that you don’t understand, nor look at, the “big picture”.

If you think Customer Service’s job is to handle calls quickly & efficiently, you’re really (somewhat) misguided!

If all you do when your kid keeps falling off their bicycle is put a band-aid on their scraped knee, you just don’t get it.

Yes, put the bandage on…and HELP TEACH THEM how to ride!!!)


Where was I?

Anyway, the rep was doing a great job on this call…taking an ordinary inquiry & creating a new web user.

Great for the customer & great for the company.

But, all of a sudden…

I start seeing Target’s website pop up on my (her) screen.

As my rep is walking the customer through the web sign-in process & the specific functions that would help the customer, she’s doing her Christmas shopping!

I also felt that by not exclusively devoting herself to the task at hand, she wasn’t as quick & as insightful as she could/should have been.

Would I have been aware that she was “distracted” if I couldn’t actually see her screen?

Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. While it was obvious to me (as I knew & saw what she was doing), I didn’t believe that it was so blatant that it had a significant negative impact on the call.

I called her into my office (which was pretty easy as she sat only a few cubicles away).

First, I told her how very proud I was of her for the exceptional service she provided her customer. (This was the call that merited a blue ribbon…a “5” on the 1-5 scale…the call you play for a new hire training class as well as the CEO!)

She felt great…until I told her that I was also watching her screen navigation.

“You know that could get you into serious trouble. And you know what would’ve happened had Service Quality monitored that call, right?

“Please, you’re one of my very best people.


“Thank you, Mike. I’m so sorry that…”

“Don’t worry. I trust you!”

She got the message, lesson learned, no damage done.

And I never even told her Team Leader. * * * * *

And don’t hesitate to “call in your markers” when necessary (shortened lunch period to handle unforecasted volume, OT volunteers, etc.).

It’s all give & take. One hand washes the other.

And don’t be afraid to make the first move if & when it’s available to you.

But don’t be a pushover, either!

Make sure everyone knows that you’re in their corner & will do everything possible to help them.

But that there will be many situations when your hands are tied.

Don’t ever, ever do something unethical.

Never. Under no circumstances.

But push that envelope. Sometimes, you’ll actually realize that it, indeed, has a certain degree of elasticity to it.

Good luck!


And, as always, thank you so much for listening!

Posted in:

Subscribe to Mike's Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Leave a Reply