Tuesday, December 5, 2006

just because it's corporate doesn't mean it's good

Let me first say that I am in no way "anti-corporate". I think corporations are an integral part of our economy and society in general. I plan to detail this thinking in later posts. But for now...

A friend of mine is employed by a corporation. Let's call her "Susan". Susan is a non-exempt, employed in a business capacity. The corporation that employs Susan has recently instituted a company-wide Drug and Alcohol Policy. Susan came to me for some friendly advice regarding this policy. The policy states, among many other things, that any employee of the corporation is prohibited from performing any work for the company while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are some narrow exceptions to this broad prohibition, none of which are relevant here.

At first blush, the above-mentioned prohibition seems reasonable and intuitive. I imagine that your average, ordinary, responsible employer would agree with the concept here: you don't want your employees performing their work while they are shit-faced. Duh. And your average, ordinary, responsible employee would also agree.

But consider further.

My friend Susan's work is, in large part, intellectual in nature. Although she does do some physical things from time to time (for example, she sometimes makes copies, prints and files documents, and carries various things to and fro), these activities are merely incidental to her primary duties, which essentially consist of receiving information (primarily by reading or hearing), processing this information, using this information to form new information, and transmitting this new information to others (primarily by writing or speaking).

Susan sometimes gets invited to attend a happy hour. For those of you living on the planet Mars (or in Utah), a "happy hour" is an event wherein (typically) employed persons meet at a designated place (usually, a bar) at a designated time (usually, 5pm-6pm or so, but in any event, after the normal work-day is done), drink alcohol, blow off steam, and generally relax for a while. Sometimes a happy hour will consist entirely of people from the same workplace. Sometimes not. Frequently, happy hours can foster social relationships within a workplace, among persons who normally don't get to meet or speak together in an informal setting. For this reason, sometimes happy hours are officially sanctioned by a company, but for the sake of this post we will not consider these instances. Here we are simply talking about an unsanctioned, ad hoc happy hour.

Now, at one of these types of happy hours, Susan will in all probability have some level of social discourse with her colleagues from work (whether or not from her same company). If you are not from Mars or Utah, you know how these things often go: the talk turns to work at some point. Why? Because this is typically the weightiest and most pervasive thing that the happy hour-goers have in common.

What is involved in one of these typical, work-related, instances of social discourse? For Susan (and others, but for example), it will almost necessarily involve receiving (work-related) information, processing this information, using this information to form new information, and transmitting this information to others (her colleagues); in simpler terms: "work". All while "under the influence of... alcohol".

So, Susan's conduct at these periodic happy hours is prohibited by the policy, and will subject her to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of her employment.

Should her conduct be prohibited? I think reasonable people can agree that it should not be. As long as she is not drunkenly spouting confidential information to persons unauthorized to receive such (which would be a fireable offense even without the policy), her conduct is harmless and even beneficial to the company.

Is it really the intent of the company, acting through the policy, to prohibit this conduct? Likely not. Probably the conduct is prohibited by the policy because of laziness and poor drafting or, more specifically, failure to give sufficient thought to the nature of the "work" performed by Susan and those employees similarly situated. It is worth noting here that the number of employees working for the company in question is somewhat large, with many of these employees performing potentially dangerous physical labor. A fact which itself points out a major deficiency of these type of one-size-fits-all corporate fiats (i.e., "policies" of many kinds).

Even if the promulgators of this policy recognized that the work performed by Susan and her peers didn't fit into a neat little box like the work performed by, say, a truck driver, I would suggest that they glossed over this small problem and went ahead, knowing that the policy was overbroad but also knowing that they would have a certain latititude in its enforcement.

Which brings us to the question of whether Susan, if "caught" violating the policy by her conduct as described above, would be disciplined under the policy. Again, likely not. But certainly this does not allow the policy to escape scrutiny. First of all, this would mean that the policy will be selectively enforced. But what's wrong with that? Well, for one thing, the whole purpose of promulgating such a policy is to establish firm guidelines, so that each person who is subject to the policy will be treated equally according to its terms and will have a certain amount of certainty in knowing where they stand. Selective enforcement introduces uncertainty into the equation, and opens the door for biases of many different flavors.

But there is something else more important involved here. Regardless of the actual intent of the policy, and regardless of whether Susan is disciplined under it, there is a question of personal integrity. In other words, by engaging in the otherwise innocent conduct described above, Susan is violating the official policy of her company, a policy she has agreed to abide by (either explicity, if she were made to sign the policy, or, if she were not, then tacitly by continuing her employment with the company).

1 comment:

Gleemonex said...

I've always been of the opinion that these policies exist to provide a pretext for termination of employment, should they wish to find a reason and can find none in your work product or otherwise in your conduct -- but I like your analysis. :-)