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On being fair and making exceptions at work

A policy can set clear expectations, help us be consistent, and even save us time – but they can’t make our judgement calls for us.

Caro Griffin
3 min read
On being fair and making exceptions at work

A friend of mine recently had her first child and returned to work full-time. I have other friends with kids, but this is the first time a very close friend of mine has become a parent. It’s given me a new perspective on the ways we choose to support new parents, and the ways we think about fairness in the workplace.

My friend shares her office with a coworker so she has to leave to pump breast milk each day. Luckily, she has access to an empty office that allows her to pump in relative privacy and comfort. Unluckily, the computer she uses at work is a desktop.

It takes my friend over an hour to pump each afternoon. She’d like to continue working during this time, but there is only so much she can do on paper or from her phone while she’s away from her desk. This means she has effectively lost 5-7 hours of her workweek to pumping. Her office is short staffed at the moment so this often means she has to stay late, or let work gone undone.

Now, there are a half-dozen open offices in my friend’s workplace. Temporarily moving her into one of them—so pumping is less disruptive to her day—would make her significantly happier and more productive, but her employer won’t consider it. They have a rule that only employees at Director-level and above are allowed to have their own offices and they don’t make exceptions.

In effect, they are being equal at the cost of being fair.

I could make lots of different arguments about why my friend’s employer should let her move offices. She’s a high performer. She’s filling in for a senior co-worker who does have their own (currently vacant) office. They’re putting her in an unfair position of having to choose between lower output and increased working hours. I could go on! But ever since my friend told me about this, I think about it all the time when making decisions about my own workplace.

When I’m faced with whether or not to make an exception for someone on my team, I think of my friend and her employer’s inflexibility.

On the surface, the rule is not a bad one. I’m all for transparent policies that convey what employees need to do to earn certain perks. This one probably saves managers time and prevents bad feelings, but it’s also inflexible in a way that’s incredibly frustrating for employees.

All policies have exceptions, and pretending they don’t is a waste of time.

As managers, the best we can do is be clear about when we do and don’t make exceptions and minimize them as much as possible. Then we need to be transparent about not only our decision, but the rationale behind that decision. (Especially when the decision itself, or the optics of it, can affect the team.) I’ve found that even when someone on my team disagrees with my decision, they accept it easily enough because they see that I didn’t make the decision lightly, and was open to their feedback.

I work at a small startup and, while I try to be proactive in documenting policies, we ultimately draft a lot of them as we go, and make updates when we’re faced with decisions and circumstances we didn’t foresee.

There’s a tendency in those moments to immediately update the relevant policies in ways that essentially make them less flexible. The idea being that if we add a lot more detail about how we do and don’t intend for things to be done, we’ll avoid similar conversations in the future. This is sometimes true, but often not.

There is no way to predict every scenario. There will always be team members who find themselves in a situation you never foresaw, those who go looking for loopholes, or some who just don’t respect the spirit of your policy. It’s our job as managers to navigate those situations.

A policy can set clear expectations, help us be consistent, and even save us time – but they can’t make our judgement calls for us. And they shouldn’t stop us from being empathetic with employees who deserve some flexibility.

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Caro Griffin is a senior operations leader who writes about remote work, no code, and building calm startups. She's a recovering web developer and digital nomad who calls Mexico City home. 🇲🇽