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When Rules Should Be Overruled

Let’s have a debate about rules today. I’ve touched on the issue before and it usually draws a number of comments, most of them negative, stating that rules are on the book for a reason, we all should follow them, and I have to no right to seek exemptions. I beg to differ.

I start with the following premise: rules serve a vital function in our society, promoting order and equality. Nevertheless, rules ultimately are merely points at which deviation is measured from. The human race is far from perfect and treating every rule as an indefatigable commandment is strikingly unappealing to me if we cannot justify through logic, reason, or faith the purpose for and intent in enforcing the rule.

I am going to Kazakhstan next month and need a visa to visit. The Washington, DC embassy visa office is open from 9:00a to noon, Monday through Friday. I had an appointment on the Hill that concluded about 12:00p.  I hopped on the Metro Red Line from Union Station to Farragut North and made it to the office at 12:20p, hoping it would still be open.

I figured I was too late, but made the stop anyway—and found the gate was open, door unlocked, visa window open, and a man sitting at a desk literally staring into space.

Excited, I pulled out my application package (passport, copy of itinerary, visa application, photo, money order to pay for the visa, and a stamped return envelope) and asked the gentleman if I could drop off my visa materials. He looked up, halfway got out of his chair, then looked up at the clock on the wall, and sat down, stating, “It’s too late. Come back tomorrow.”

I responded, “I just want to drop this off—everything is filled out.” The man responded, “No. You have to come between 9-12.” We went back and forth for a bit, but he refused to budge. I figured that if I pushed the issue further, I might never get a visa, so I left.

That’s simply amazing—I challenge anyone to justify the refusal to take my envelope. I mean, if I had a postal uniform on and walked in and handed over the envelope, he would have taken it without question.

When examining whether a rule is valid or not, we first should look to the aim it sets to accomplish. Why would the Kazakhstan embassy only accept visas from 9:00a-12:00p? Perhaps to concentrate traffic so they don’t get a couple people coming in each hour, all day. Perhaps to allow them to focus on other matters in the afternoon.  Why enforce the rule strictly? Perhaps so people do not get complacent and assume that they can come in after noon and still submit their visa request.

That’s all fine and good—I concede the rule may have valid reasoning behind it. But if it is to concentrate traffic or because the visa folks are busy with other matters after 12:00p, why was there a man sitting at a desk staring into space and why couldn't he accept my visa package? Would bending the rule for me or any other straggler really have been a bad thing or encouraged perpetual tardiness? And what if it did?

The embassy is not obligated to take any visa application, but every potential justification for enforcing the rule in my instance melts when I think about the man sitting in the room twirling his thumbs.  Taking my application would not have obliged the embassy to take late applications everyday, but when your office is still open, why not just accept the package? It seemed to me, in such a Soviet-esque style, the rule was simply was enforced because it was the rule.

I believe in mercy. For example (and above all else), mercy is what keeps me loyal to United Airlines. Unlike other airlines (or embassies), United has always taken a pragmatic approach to enforcing rules. Rules serve as a guide that should be adhered to when possible, but when an incongruent outcome will result by enforcing the rules, the rules will be overlooked. Say I’m booked into Baltimore and United moves my flight time up by three hours. Even though my ticket explicitly says “to Baltimore only”, United will rebook me into a nearby airport like Washington Dulles or even Philadelphia. That’s because they have the right priority in mind—their schedule change caused me inconvenience and they’d rather make me happy, at a minimal cost to them, then have me cancel my ticket.

Then take bmi (British Midland International), another problem I am contending with. I had a schedule change on an upcoming flight that moved my departure up three hours. Ideally, I would have changed my departure to a nearby airport that had a more palatable departure time, closer to my originally scheduled time. Nope. No chance said bmi—the fares rules state that would be a voluntary change and I’d have to pay a change fee plus the difference in fare. Their solution to the schedule change? Accept it or cancel the ticket. I don’t like either option.

Of course the bmi and Kazakhstan embassy situations are not analogous, but both instances show that when we enforce a rule without considering the outcome, we act unjustly.

So I don’t meant to rant, but I hope you can appreciate my thoughts on rules and would love to hear your thoughts on them as well. In a nutshell, rules can become counterproductive when they are enforced without discretion. Mercy is a valuable trait that should be encouraged when a situation warrants, like my embassy experience. When there is nothing to back up a rule other than a declaration that “it’s the rule” something is very wrong.

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AS February 28, 2012 at 12:00 am

All of the examples involve you getting something the rules don't permit you to get. You are asking for flexibility in rules when it benefits you.

Let's flip the situation. What if the Embassy was scheduled to be open 9-12 but closed early at 11:30am because they had more applications than expected, and they decided to start working on applications and close up at 11:30 so that they would get them all done in time. No doubt you would be 100% against that bending of the rules? Or is that okay?

Maybe you could provide an example of a rule, where it is okay for that rule to be flexible, when it inconveniences you. Otherwise this post is just about you being upset when the rules go against you.

Matthew February 28, 2012 at 12:11 am

@AS, I can't think of any in the consumer realm (think of the disaster, for example, if airlines also had a 24hr courtesy cancellation on all fares), but I do make exceptions to rules in my consulting business all the time--price breaks, rush work, changes without a fee--because I contrast enforcing my policy with the consequences of deviating from it, and find that deviation is often more palatable because it only causes a minor inconvenience to me, but greatly helps my client.

It would be wrong for the embassy to close early because with 9-12 hours posted on their website and on their door, people have a reasonable expectation that they can come in during that time. I had no right to come in after 12, but when the office is still open, what is the true harm in accepting my visa application? Telling me to come back tomorrow took more effort than standing up and accepting the package.

bluto February 28, 2012 at 12:25 am

You're clearly an eloquent man who probably could argue any position believably. I think this might be an elaborate form of complaining that you did not get a pass.

If I were in the clerk's shoes, I personally would have done you the favor and accepted the application. However, if I were in your shoes and I were late and the guy did not accept it, I would not have gone home and ranted about how unjust his compliance with the nonsensical rules was.

With that said, here are some possible justifications for his behavior. Maybe he did not want to be responsible for holding your application materials overnight. Maybe the embassy has a policy against that, so that when you show up tomorrow asking where your approved application is and no one can find it, you don't explode and threaten to sue. Also, perhaps he thinks it's unfair that people who show up early tomorrow morning to be first in line at 9am would have to wait in line for the clerk to process the persuasive blogger's application that was dropped off after 12pm the night before. Why should someone who doesn't bring his application during posted hours and isn't present get priority over those who go through the trouble of following procedure?

Other possible reasons for his behavior: if he does you a favor, you go back home and post about how great he was and how you can actually drop it off after hours. Some of your readers decide to later do the same. He's got a mess on his hands trying to decide if he should make exceptions depending on his mood each day. He's also got unhappy applicants who expect to get the same exception you did.

Let's turn to what actually happened. He denied a favor to a blogger. The blogger complains about it. Everyone who reads makes a mental note to show up on time at their local embassy. Workflow concentration is maintained and there's no growing demand for overnight dropoffs and applications to track.

Nobody is saying all rules should be blindly followed. But this clearly isn't one of the grossly unjust rules that we need to expend energy to evaluate or search our conscience to object to. We're not talking about commandments to eradicate the Jews or laws to segregate the blacks. These are office hours; follow them and your life will be more efficient.

The other AS February 28, 2012 at 08:05 am

This is simple case of the "slippery slope." Rules are arbitrary in many cases – they have to be somewhat arbitrary, but they must also be enforceable. By setting a standard and sticking to it - even if it theoretically could be handled differently - the organization is making its self-management a little easier in the long run. Another way of putting it is that disappointing you once is worth scaring away any potential-latecomers you would alert who might hear your story and say, "They made an exception for him? They will make one for me."

The mistake the guy made wasn't in sending you away, it was in not closing the gate and window at noon. I'm guessing anyone with a teenager who argues about curfew can relate to this arbitrary, but reasonable policy. "Home at 11? Why not 11:30?"

Good topic, thanks.

Elliot February 28, 2012 at 10:04 am

Could not agree with you more, Matthew. I've long flown United almost exclusively and have on numerous occasions benefited (in slight but meaningful ways) from their flexibility. I recently flew to the Caribbean for a wedding on American. On our Sunday return, most of the wedding party was leaving on a late morning flight while I was leaving on an afternoon flight. I went to the airport with everyone (the wedding was over an hour's drive from the airport) and asked if I could be listed for standby travel or change my flight - the earlier flight with everyone else was about 50% full. The agent said no and began a long rant about American's strong internal policy against making exceptions to rules and stating that they could be fired for making an exception. Now I don't know if that was true but I was asking simply for travel on an earlier, emptier flight and in the end, I missed my connection due to a mechanical delay and American had to put me up in a hotel, provide meal vouchers, etc. all because they refused to "budge" on a rule where such a budge would have had absolutely zero cost to them.

Perhaps there is no point to this story but I'd argue that the intangible benefit to a company from appearing flexible is real. United made a big deal ages ago (around the time they became "employee owned") about their agents having the ability to make decisions. The recent Blomberg BusinessWeek article about UA-CO discusses agent discretion to hold flights and is interesting - there clearly is a healthy balance one can find between front-line employee decision-making power and chaos.

Now without a profit motive, the embassy may be a tough situation to discuss within this context but your point is well taken.

AS February 28, 2012 at 01:42 pm

I have mixed feelings about your response.

The point about being flexible in your own consulting business, I get it and agree. It's admirable, and good customer service, but it's also a service provider bending their rules for a customer's benefit. So the same analogy, as you pointed out.

The other one, I could argue it the other way. What if the applications are all taken, documented / signed off one, locked up, taken away by courier, etc, and the guy who was left behind didn't have the authority to do any of that? Who knows, maybe he did you a favor by not taking your application and leaving it somewhere unsecure because the safeguards tied to 'normal hours' weren't available any more. But what do I know, I wasn't there.

The situation could be as simple as you described, the guy could have taken your application, but your question was about rules and the consequence of enforcing them vs. being flexible.

ptahcha February 28, 2012 at 01:52 pm

The examples you provided doesn't quite fit the situation. In both cases, United changed the flight, and made changes as a goodwill gesture. A more analogous situation would be you arrive at the gate 10 minutes after the door closed, but the jetbridge is still attached to the plane. Would you expect the agent to re-open the plane door just because it wouldn't inconvenience you?

SEABrad February 28, 2012 at 02:09 pm

Of course none of us besides Matthew were there, but I think even an explanation from the gentleman would have been helpful.

While not on the same level, I work many running event packet pickup/expos. If I had $1 for every person who showed up at 9AM or 9PM when the hours say 10AM - 8PM I could retire tomorrow. It used to annoy me greatly, but I just got over it. Many times the decision is not up to the "front of house" or the person at the desk. (often a race will not let us pass out t-shirts, packets.) However, from a timers perspective, I will always pass the item out if I am there and everything is set up.

Again, not the same playing field - but there could be multiple things going on. I for one would be more accepting of the situation if the man at the desk just gave an explanation (even if I didn't like it).

Marcus February 29, 2012 at 10:48 am

You should read some Schmitt. He argues in politics that the sovereign is the one who decides the exception. It's impossible for any society to create rules that encompass all situations. So the question is not so much should rules be overriden, but rather who gets to decide when they are overruled.

JT March 2, 2012 at 02:34 pm

you have a sense of entitlement because you are frequent flier.

Matthew March 2, 2012 at 05:59 pm

Or is just because I don't like unreasonable rules?

Franklyn Miller March 3, 2012 at 04:51 pm

I personally think response #6 hit the nail on the head. Does that window process other items? For example 9-12 visa applications 1-5 lost/stolen passport applications. The gentleman at the window could have been covering the lunch hour for those two different people and had no authority to do anything.

Rather than put up an impersonal sign, he said no. (And while he got up to "look at the clock" he could have also asked someone and that person could have said no)

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