Every once in a while a news story comes along that makes you ask, “What were they thinking?” In the news story that follows, one might even ask, “Were they thinking at all?”
North American newspapers and television news programs recently carried a story about a 21-year-old lifeguard in Miami who was fired for leaving his post to rescue a person in distress. The lifeguard responded to the call for help, as lifeguards are trained to do, and saved a life. This should have been a “hero saves the day” story but, instead, the lifeguard saw his employment terminated for leaving his workstation in violation of company rules!
The problem arose because the person in distress was outside the coverage area of the lifeguard. Before rushing off to render assistance, the lifeguard notified his supervisor to cover his designated area for him.
The employer had a well-understood rule that prohibited lifeguards from leaving their post and their coverage area. On the surface, the rule would seem quite reasonable and was implemented for very sound reasons. After all, you wouldn’t want a lifeguard abandoning his or her post, leaving people in their area without assistance.
The difficulty here was not the rule, nor the sound reasons for the rule, nor the lifeguard understanding the important rule. The difficulty arose in the application of the rule under special and unique circumstances. It is very hard to fault the actions of the lifeguard in these circumstances.
What Management Did
Management had established and implemented a reasonable and important safety rule for their workplace. They decided to terminate the lifeguard’s employment because he knowingly violated such an important safety policy and rule. After all, the knowing violation of a well-understood and important safety policy is an extremely serious manner.
What Management Did Not Do!
The management in this situation failed to carefully look at all the circumstances surrounding this matter. They failed to take a “reasonable” view of the situation in its entirety. It appears they simply decided that because the employee violated the policy his employment should be terminated. Management applied the rule and did not turn its mind to whether the unique and unusual circumstances of this matter might be reasonably considered to be an exception.
The Impacts of Simply Applying the Rule
The company involved faced very harsh public and media criticism for their decision to terminate the employment of the lifeguard. They were forced to reconsider their decision and offered to reinstate the lifeguard. During the incident, two other lifeguards were terminated because they indicated they would have likely acted in the same manner as their terminated colleague. They were also offered reinstatement. In addition, the City of Miami has indicated they will likely look for different service providers when the current contract expires in September.
The Important Lessons Learned
It is sound practice that employers carefully establish and communicate workplace rules and policies. It is also very important that rules and policies are consistently applied in the workplace. To ensure this happens, supervisors and managers must ensure that they not only understand the rules and policies, but that they also understand the importance of reasonably applying those rules and policies.
Every instance of a violation of workplace rules and policies must be carefully examined. Simply applying an automatic disciplinary action or termination may not be a reasonable response to the unique circumstances. Each and every case must be reviewed on its own merits to avoid an unfortunate situation like the one noted in this article.
Keep the following principle in mind when applying workplace rules and policies: “Good managers know and apply workplace rules consistently, great managers know when to apply the exceptions!”