The challenge of interpreting company policies and procedures

Often, it's a generational thing. Photo: Cast of 'The Office'/Flickr

WASHINGTON, September 8, 2013 – Younger company employees and new employees who have just arrived both generally come from a different generation than existing corporate personnel and management. This can set up opportunities for learning and growth. But it is often the occasion for generational culture clashes as well. 

Younger employees are likely to interpret their company’s policies and procedures differently than more senior employees who regard a rule as a rule.

Since at least some senior employees likely participated in creating the company’s policies and procedures to begin with, they have specific expectations about what the rules mean and how they are to be followed. In turn, this can lead to workplace conflict. 

For example, in some companies, dress policy is business causal. In others, corporate dress may be more formal, requiring suits for both male and female employees. A formal dress policy is fairly cut and dried in such companies with most employees possessing a similar understanding of the term “formal.”  

On the other hand, a dress policy that allows “business casual” frequently becomes messy because this definition is inherently less precise.   

Backstage with the cast of “The Office,” 2009. One way generations interact in Scranton, PA. (Wikimedia Commons via Flickr)


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In a recent meeting, the CEO of a small company announced that all employees were invited to a company dinner at specific restaurant at a specific time. He further noted that the evening dress code was “casual business attire,”  adding that “jeans are permitted as long as they are full-length to the floor, have no holes and are high enough at the waist such that there is no underwear showing.”

He elaborated in further detail, noting that “tops should be buttoned or closed above chest-high without any underwear showing” and concluded that there would be “no flip flops permitted and no shorts.”   

This demonstrates how specific this exec felt he needed to be given the range of age of his employees and their likely individualistic definitions of business casual.

The irony is all employees appreciated this information, even at this excruciating level of detail, as it prevented embarrassing attire problems from happening at the corporate get-together. 


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Other policies that are difficult to interpret are company “on-time” rules. Is five minutes late officially late? Is an employee who is five minutes late penalized? New employees will not know the answer to this even if it seems obvious to management.

This is especially true if a new has just been hired directly from college or graduate school where there is rarely a roll call, and frequently no penalty for being late to class.   

Another frequently misinterpreted set of policies revolves around vacation and sick leave. Some new employees feel that they are entitled to their days off, including sick leave, no matter what the current company project requirements or their own required inputs may be. They may also feel that sick leave can be used for time off that is not directly sick time.

For example, they may use it for a rest day or perhaps a needed errand day.  

Typically, senior employees interpret leave policies very literally. In other words, they believe that a sick day should be taken when an employee is legitimately sick. In addition, they may feel that vacation time must be earned and cannot be used in large increments when an employee is still new to the company.  

Oftentimes, personnel from previous generations rate employees who do not take time off as exceptional. New employees have a different attitude and could not disagree more.

They believe time off is well-deserved, should be taken, and should be used to the maximum extent that it is available.  

A good company new employee orientation will include a detailed review of the company’s policies and procedures. However, with a multi-generational workforce and predictably different interpretations of the rules by different age groups, in-depth policy orientations and occasional reviews are now necessary. 

Many managers today are shocked to discover what young employees routinely think and do in a corporate environment. On the other hand, the junior employees genuinely believe what they do is perfectly fine and consistent with policy. 

Why this differences in the interpretation of company policies? There are two major, discernable differences between new employees and more senior employees. First, younger employees view rules loosely.

They believe that rules are guidelines rather than hard and fast dictates. Second, they do not have the same type of respect for authority as previous generations. It is not that they do not respect authority at all.

They do.

However, they were not raised in a manner that encouraged them to allow dictatorships.  

In the past, if senior managers put rules in place, they expected those rules to be followed without question. Today, young employees question the rules and expect to understand how they originated. 

This is clearly an impasse and can even be viewed as a challenge to authority. 

Bottom line: In today’s workplace, all generations must try to understand each other’s behaviors and the reasoning behind them. This is not easy because it takes time to reach a cross-generational understanding. Taking the time to build relationships that respect these understandings decreases productivity at least in the short run, and senior personnel have very little tolerance for low productivity.  

Whether an employee likes it or not, he or she must understand that senior managers have earned their authority. Thus, they find it very frustrating to effectively be forced to earn it again for the benefit of inexperienced, junior employees. 

Younger and newer employees, on the other hand, do not want to be forced to automatically adapt to a situation that was created before they joined the company. 

The answer for all generations is to exercise patience and tolerance, as long as situations do not reach the point where they are having a serious, negative impact on productivity.  

If contemporary workplace challenges like these can be resolved in a satisfactory manner, working relationships will likely improve while frustrations will decrease. As a result, productivity will ultimately improve. 

The best of all outcomes for a 21st century company is when young employees and senior employees learn to accept one another and then begin to learn from each other as well.

When this happens, corporate productivity has the potential to skyrocket.


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Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV, MSNBC.com, FOX News Live, US News & World Report, Recruiter.com, WUSA9, News Channel 8, HR.com, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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