I heard a story that broke my heart. A young man on the autism spectrum has a job in a well-known organization. He made a snack purchase on the honor system at his office break room. When he scanned the item, he hit the wrong button and ended up canceling the transaction instead of charging it. But he didn’t realize what he had done and ate the item.
Later, he was confronted about stealing the $5 item. It’s my understanding that he didn’t explain what happened well, and was placed on suspension for a week. He thought he was going to lose his job, including his important benefits.
I first became aware of the situation while he was on suspension. A relative of his had shared the story and was concerned about what might happen. While I certainly had no way of knowing why he was suspended for a week over such a transgression, I was confident that he would not lose his job over it. The relative indicated he had worked there for 2½ years, had never been late, had never called in sick and volunteered to work late. He had even won a productivity award in a previous month.
So here’s what I think happened. The organization has rules. A rule was broken, and instead of management using judgement, he was immediately suspended. A week of suspension seemed a long time to me, but I’m guessing that was the standard protocol.
The good news is that the young man didn’t lose his job. But his confidence had to be shaken. If it had been me, I expect volunteering for extra work after hours would be a thing of the past. And I’m not sure how committed I would remain to the organization.
I am all about rules. Rules keep things sane and fair, most of the time. Rules, however, are sometimes ill-prepared to deal with the realities of the workplace.
The reality is that you have a young person who is a good worker, has never been late and never called in sick for 2½ years and has a known disability. Would I apply the rule the same way I would for a person who doesn’t have the same commitment to the organization and is not as effective? I don’t know. Many of you are screaming that I must treat everyone fairly. But what’s fair in this situation? Just because there’s a rule, is it fair to treat a person—with or without a disability, who is a good employee—the same as one who has had performance issues? This is where judgement must be exercised.
So I would encourage you to look around your organization. Are the rules and protocols in place fair and equitable for all? Do the managers have any leeway in applying the rules? Or must they follow the strict interpretation, as was the case in this situation?
Think about the young man for a moment. He was scared he was going to lose his job. Could his manager have indicated that this automatic weeklong suspension was standard operating procedure? The manager could have reassured the employee that there would be an investigation, but that, given his record, he didn’t think he should worry about losing his position. Evidently none of this was done, leaving the young man wondering all week what was going to happen.
I wasn’t there and am not privy to all of the facts, but this screams to me of unilaterally applying well-meaning rules in all situations without considering the circumstances.
As a manager, have you ever been asked to do this? If you were asked, I hope you would respond with some compassion and a willingness to stand up for your good employee.
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.