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Lessons Learned

When To Make Exceptions To Your Own HR Policies

One exec explains why she hired a candidate who was 8.5 months pregnant, then gave her maternity leave two weeks after she started.

When To Make Exceptions To Your Own HR Policies
[Photo: Flickr user freestocks.org]

At long last in your search for top talent, you’ve found the right person with the right resume and right vision for the right price. The only thing is that she's eight-and-a-half months pregnant and won't be eligible for your company’s paid maternity leave policy by the time she starts. What do you do?

A lawyer will be the first to tell you that enforceable employment policies are crucial in any business. But what your attorney probably won’t mention is that the rigid enforcement of these policies—like vacation time, sick days, non-compete agreements, bereavement policies, maternity leave, and rest of the gamut—can choke the life out of a company’s culture.

Policy Vs. People

After my company mined our best resources for a new director of catalog services, we were left with an outstanding candidate who we probably couldn’t keep because of our own rules. Our maternity leave policy provides short-term disability benefits to full-time employees who've been on staff for at least 31 weeks. Of course, being so far along in her pregnancy, our new hire didn’t have anything close to 31 weeks to give us. She would barely have put in a fraction of that time before needing to leave for nearly three months to care for her newborn.

So we faced a decision: Do we set an entirely new precedent, or do we lose a top-tier candidate we need and respect?

We chose the former. We waived our formal policy and gave our new employee paid maternity leave in order to communicate her worth to us. She later told us this showed how much she'd be valued at our company for the long term—which is why she took the job and will hopefully be with us for many years.

Employees are your company. If your policies are more important than your people, they'll certainly notice. Whether it’s maternity leave, vacation time, or something else, you shouldn’t be afraid to bend rules when rules need bending, and the reason is simple: Good company culture thrives on one basis—treating employees like the adults they are.

When strict rules and regulations can't accommodate your employees’ most sensitive life moments (like a new baby, an illness, a death in the family, or even a new job), leaders lose compassion and camaraderie and become enforcers of hand-holding, wrist-slapping, and rule-following. Your office becomes an elementary school principal's office, not a team of professionals.

When To Bend The Rules (And When Not To)

Of course, that isn't to say that everything under the HR umbrella is up for negotiation all of the time, but when real situations arise, your best employees deserve the benefit of your support. It’s an investment. When great people stay, more great people come, and more good people thrive.

In 2008, Walgreens fired a longtime employee with diabetes for eating a bag of potato chips when her blood sugar dropped. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyers, Walgreens argued that it "had a zero-tolerance policy." This is an extreme case, but it points to a kind of thinking that's all too common—that rules are rules, and they're the glue that keeps your organization together and its performance consistently high.

In practice, though, that usually isn't the case. If a company can't make reasonable accommodations, its culture will reflect hostility instead of value and appreciation. Remember the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish.

There's also the legitimate fear that other employees will feel frustrated when they see one employee being treated differently. But in my experience, it worked out just the opposite way. Now employees know that we're wiling to bend the rules to accommodate life’s emergencies. We have acknowledged that people have a life outside work and that that's important. For example, in July we gave a programmer three weeks off after his wife had a baby—something that's also outside our policy.

The key for leaders is establishing a criteria for making exceptions to HR policies you otherwise enforce. Where do you draw the line, and on what basis? How do you make those calls as objectively as possible? For us, it all comes down to the loyalty of exceptional people. A high turnover rate is much more expensive and disruptive to company culture than making an occasional exception, especially when it comes to filling key positions, like director of catalog services, for which it took us five months to do.

And while our eight-and-a-half-month–pregnant new hire hadn't had a chance to prove her commitment to us, we felt confident she'd be loyal partly thanks to the kinds of questions she'd asked us in her interview. They primarily weren't about our company; she'd already done her research there. Instead, she asked deeper questions, like how will we define goals for the success of her department and what are the specific challenges it's facing?

And, during the two weeks she was onsite before she had her baby, she immediately built a strong rapport with her team and set things in motion for the team to operate at a higher level while she was gone. She also checked in weekly while on leave to make sure things were running smoothly. So, she signaled her future loyalty before we hired her and demonstrated it afterward. As a company, we'd have come up short had we failed to show the same degree of loyalty to her.

Ultimately, the rule of thumb I prefer to follow is simple: Make exceptions in order to invest in people. We'd be less likely to do so for a less critical position, or one where the training takes only a week. Employment policies are important guidelines. All employers should have them, and we haven't changed ours since. What we have changed is how we implement them. We now dare to make exceptions for exceptional people. For my company, anyway, there's been no greater policy.

Michelle Martin is vice president of professional services at Edgenet, a Nashville-based software as a service company that provides industry-leading retailers, distributors, websites, and suppliers with the ability to manage and improve their product content.

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