How to make office protocols stick

Marie G. McIntyre
Tribune News Service

Q. I work in a medical practice where the staff regularly fails to follow established protocols. Although I know there should be consequences for ignoring the rules, we haven’t been able to make that work with our employees.

Writing people up seems to have no effect, probably because they know they won’t be fired. We’ve considered deducting money from their bonus pay, but we’re afraid that might hurt morale. What other consequences can be used with professional adults?

A. When employees appear to be willfully noncompliant, managers tend to view punishment as the logical solution. In reality, however, imposing negative consequences should be the last step, not the first. So let’s start by considering whether your focus on penalties might be premature.

People disregard rules for many reasons. Unless managers explain the purpose of a policy, employees may have no idea why it matters. Also, some procedures may not be as clearly defined as management thinks. With complex processes, people can have trouble remembering all the steps. And sometimes they find an easier way to accomplish the same result.

To assess this particular situation, ask yourself a few relevant questions. Have these protocols been specifically defined and communicated in writing? Are visual reminders provided at appropriate points? Has management thoroughly explained why the procedures are important? Are employees frequently reminded of those reasons?

If you haven’t already done so, try asking the staff why they aren’t following the desired steps. Unless they’re being deliberately stubborn, which seems unlikely in a medical practice, they may be able to point out flaws and suggest improvements. When an entire group fails to comply, the problem often lies with the policy, not the people.

Finally, remember that consequences can also be positive. Instead of issuing warnings or withholding money, you might publicly praise those who do well or give them an extra bonus. But if, after all your efforts, some obstinate employees still ignore proper procedures, then its time to replace those meaningless write-ups with pre-termination notices.

Q. I recently sent several emails in which I referred to my managers as idiots. Unfortunately, they saw these messages and weren’t pleased. When they called me in for a discussion, I admitted that my language was inappropriate and that I deserved a reprimand.

Even though I apologized profusely, I’m afraid my bosses may still be upset with me. Should I send them an apologetic email or just leave it alone and hope they forget?

A. In terms of immediate response, you have probably done enough. After an admission of guilt and a fervent apology, additional groveling might seem like overkill. And if the meeting with your bosses ended on a positive note, you certainly don’t want to remind them of the problem.

To completely undo the damage, however, you will have to demonstrate that this was a temporary expression of frustration, not a reflection of your true feelings. Therefore, you must be sure that any future interactions with management are friendly, polite and respectful. While a single misstep might eventually be forgotten, a repeat performance could kill your career.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”

Twitter: @officecoach