Never create a policy because of one person

Years ago, one of my old managers told me a great story about a guy with a leg tattoo. Apparently the tattoo was NSFWish and clearly visible whenever the guy wore shorts to work. Some of his coworkers were uncomfortable with it, yada yada.

What would you do in that scenario? I can tell you the wrong answer because it’s what management did. They created a “no shorts” dress code. For everyone. No one was allowed to wear shorts because one guy had a sketchy tattoo.

Why not ask that one guy to cover his tattoo? Because that’s an uncomfortable conversation.

I’ve seen that pattern a few times since then. Whenever the actions of one person prompt a team-wide (or, worse, org-wide) policy, it’s usually because someone’s avoiding an uncomfortable conversation.

Creating policies to avoid that discomfort leads to dumb rules that annoy people because nobody understands the reasoning. And policies that annoy enough people are eventually ignored. Then you start building up exception debt, and the wheels come off.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.

Jason Fried

I have two rules of thumb here:

  1. Don’t create a policy until you’ve seen the problem from at least 3 people. Give feedback to the first two people instead of resorting to a policy. (It’s the same principle as the rule of three in programming.)
  2. If you do need a policy, make it address the actual issue instead of one possible solution to the issue. For the tattoo fiasco (assuming it involved three people instead of just one), the policy could have been “cover up any questionable tattoos” instead of “wear pants.”

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