how to change course on a bad office policy that you put in place

A reader writes:

I’m a brand new manager and I’ve realized that I’ve made a mistake: I created a new blanket policy that my employees hate, when I could have just addressed matters with the small number of employees who were causing a problem.

The situation was this: My employees take breaks and lunches at their desk. This leads to a lot of discussion throughout the day. I manage a call center, so a lot of discussion not on calls can be disruptive to others, especially when you’re dealing with a couple of employees who tend to be loud. So to create a quieter environment, I set forth the rule that no one can take breaks and lunches at their desks any longer. My staff hates this rule because there is no cell reception in the break room or bathrooms and our conference room stays very cold.

In hindsight, I feel that maybe this rule was too extreme, and perhaps I should’ve just asked people to be mindful of the fact that others are trying to conduct business around them.

Can I backtrack on this rule without losing the respect of employees?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 27 comments… read them below }

    1. blu*

      Yeah, especially the part about taking personal cell calls on the floor. Having worked in a call center it’s distracting enough with the other business calls going on, let alone adding in personal calls to the mix.

      1. Anonsie*

        They might not be making calls– when I take breaks I’m checking my email, reading the news, stuff like that on my phone, not calling.

        1. blu*

          I’m doing that as well, but none of that makes noise, so I’m not sure what’s up with this group.

    2. Cat*

      I think it’s reasonable to prohibit chatting on breaks at desks, but if someone wants to sit and check their email, that should be fine.

      1. YandO*

        yeah, maybe amend the rule to state: “No personal conversations at the desks. Computer use is ok”.

        I’ve just been on the phone with too many reps who I could now understand due to the background noise of loud personal convos.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Or even work convos.

          In my very brief telemarketing career, I once came in and found the only empty seat next to this guy who, I kid you not, bellowed his entire pitch at about twice normal talking volume. I couldn’t hear my own calls. After that, if I saw he was working, I tried to find a desk as far away as possible…

  1. TheExchequer*

    Whatever you do, when you’ve realized your policy is stupid, do not then double down on it. After making an error on an order, I went to my manager to tell him about it (which is policy – and a good one). After reviewing the general policy of triple checking orders (which is kind of silly as 99% my orders are error free) I then had my manager tell me that everyone else in the office, including himself, was allowed to make mistakes, but I am not. I need a new job, yes I do.

  2. grasshopper*

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice about how to handle this as a manager, but it seems like part of the issue is the condition of the break room. I don’t know if you have any budget, but see what you can do to improve the space to make it somewhere that people want to go. Check with tech people to see if cell reception can be improved, or at least see if you can provide wifi in the area, adjust the HVAC so the temperature is better, get nice tables, comfy chairs and make it an inviting space to relax. My old job had a terrible lunchroom that was under-used because the table/chair configuration wasn’t good. We put in better chairs, a nicer table and made it a more friendly space and more people started to use it.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I agree. I doubt these employees want to eat at their desks; call center desks are not known for their spaciousness or comfort. They just find the break room even worse.

      1. Retail Lifer*

        Our lunch room at work is gross. Uncomfortable chairs, sketchy cell reception at best, and the cleaning crew never has time to make it in there. I either eat at my desk or in the noisy food court because our break room is the last place I would ever want to eat.

    2. STJ*

      Completely agree with you grasshopper, the condition of the break room and facilities leapt out to me. I know very few workers if given a choice would happily sit at their desks during lunches while wondering who was listening in or watching them.

    3. Bunny*

      This is exactly what I was about to say.

      Break rooms are rarely luxurious, but they should at least be fit for purpose. That means the seats should not be less comfortable than sitting at your desk, the heating and/or air conditioning should be adequate, the lighting should be sufficient, there should be reception if at all possible (harder to fix, so it’s understandable if there’s nothing to be done about that particular issue).

      Ideally there will be somewhere THAT IS REGULARLY CLEANED to store and heat food. (If it can’t be included in the daily work by cleaning staff, then for the love of all that is good do NOT include a fridge or microwave as they will become grotesque very quickly). Optional but very much appreciated by most people – hot drinks machine and snack machine.

      If the options for staff are so bad they choose to sit at their desks rather than use them, then there are some serious issues with the quality of the break room being provided. Most people don’t actually want to spend their breaks at their desk – it does nothing to relieve you of the stress or noise of the workplace, and it becomes all too easy for co-workers and senior staff to engage you in work-related conversations, and even cut short your breaks by just straight-up walking up to you and asking you to look at Job Thing while you’re there. Especially in a call-centre, when your break might be the first time that day you weren’t on a call.

  3. gsa*

    My first thought was, “Of course you can…” change your mind. If it gets bad again, the mere suggestion of reinstating the policy will likely, hopefully lead to your team policing themselves.

    Good Luck.

    1. OhNo*

      If the threat of having the policy reinforced is enough of a deterrent, they might even start policing each other. This can work wonders in correcting behavior – it’s one thing to follow a rule because your boss will get cranky if you don’t, and it’s another to follow a rule because it’s just become part of the culture of the workplace.

      If nothing else, you could always do a trial period! Like, “I know you guys aren’t fond of this policy… if you can keep personal conversations to a minimum, we can reverse it. Let’s try it for X weeks and then we can revisit the need for the policy.”

      1. gsa*

        In my industry, homebuilding; I rely on feedback from from one Trade Partner to the next, aka: if you don’t tell me, I may never know. Most of our crews know each other and understand how the quality and timeliness of their work effects the crew before and after them. That in and of itself is the policing. And when it’s not, I do it. It is my job.


  4. vitamin c*

    I wish my boss would stop using blanket policies to deal with even minor issues because he can’t have a conversation with the offending person. Sigh.

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      It seems that 99.999% of the time, the person (s) who inspired the blanket policy in the first place are completely oblivious of this fact and think that the instatement of the policy had absolutely nothing to do with their behavior. Sometimes I wish I had the superpower of making coworkers see how they actually are.

  5. AW*

    If they have any sense, they’ll appreciate having a manager who’s 1) willing to listen to complaints and 2) willing to admit they were wrong. Seems hypocritical to tell someone they ought to revise/remove a policy and then not respect them for doing so.

    1. Maxwell Edison*

      There are managers who will do those things? They were more rare than unicorns at ToxicJob.

  6. Elizabeth West*

    (from the article) One of the best things you can do if you want the respect of your employees is to admit when you’re wrong.

    Yes this this this. If my boss can admit she made a mistake, then I am going to feel less intimidated if I make one (assuming she’s not a horrible boss who says I can’t make any, like TheExchequer’s boss above (that sucks so much).

    I also second the commenters who asked if the company could address the complaints about the break areas. We had a similar situation at Exjob. We had a break room designated for smokers attached to the main one, but because people had to go through it to get to the parking lot, when they opened the door the smell/smoke would drift into the main break room and bother the non-smokers.

    Ultimately they made the smokers go outside, but that was really the only solution–we didn’t have another covered area we could dedicate to them. Most of the smokers only bitched a little; we were used to it because you can’t really smoke anywhere anymore. I quit not too long after anyway. But it did improve conditions for everyone. If the OP can see about making the conditions more comfortable, the problem may solve itself.

  7. Nobody*

    I totally agree with Alison’s advice here. I have had managers reverse bad decisions they’ve made, and it definitely made me respect them more, not less. (I’ve had way too many managers who are the opposite, and once they put a policy in place, no matter how onerous it is, they will NEVER change it. Please don’t be like that!)

    You’re showing that you’re actually evaluating your results, not just blindly putting policies in place and hoping for the best. You’re showing that you’re reasonable, not just dictating new rules because you’re the boss and you can. In this case in particular, you’re showing that you care about your employees’ working conditions and you’re listening to their feedback. These are all good things that will only improve your working relationships with your employees. I wouldn’t suggest making a habit of hastily putting policies in place only to backpedal, because then nobody will take your rules seriously, but as a rare occurrence, this should not be a problem.

    When you make policies in the future, you should consider getting input and feedback from employees before you put a rule into effect. If you had done that in this situation, for example, you could have found out how much the employees would hate the new policy and come up with a different solution before you implemented it. Employees often have good insight that can help you make decisions, and just because you’re the boss and ultimately make the decisions doesn’t mean you have to do so in a vacuum.

  8. Stranger than fiction*

    I can totally relate except in the opposite manner. We have no break room, just a kitchen with a huge copier where I assume a table and chairs used to be. You pretty much have to leave the building or eat at your desk. So, I find it extremely annoying trying to eat and relax with phones ringing, people hollering out to each other etc etc

  9. call center lifer*

    As someone who works at a call center, I’m amazed your center allows for personal electronic devices on your call floor. Cell phones especially are prohibited in our contact and first offense is a final, second is termination for all level of employees. No exceptions because one cell phone anywhere near the call floor and they can pull out contract.

  10. Pennalynn Lott*

    At the startup I worked at before going back to school, the CEO was upset that one employee was spending most of his day on FB and playing games on his cell phone. He told me that he was going to have to institute a rule that cell phones must be locked in desks except for breaks and lunch, and then you could only use your phone in the [sunny, spacious, mostly clean] lunch room. I couldn’t say, ‘NO, please don’t do that!” fast enough. I told him that it’s bad management to punish everyone for the sins of a single individual and suggested that he talk to that one person, instead. Ta-da! It worked! The kid was fresh out of college and had had no idea how to act in a professional environment.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      This is a win for everybody.
      –Your boss listened to you (re: he is not a jerk).
      –New Kid learned how to be more professional.
      –Nobody else got punished.
      –You are a smart cookie.

      +a zillion

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