By Dan Gephart, December 11, 2019

Here at FELTG, we like to make things as easy as possible, especially when it comes to discipline. The slide that introduces the elements of the discipline portion of our flagship supervisory training course, UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct, includes this aphorism often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

With that in mind, we introduce the first element of discipline: Establish a rule. How do you do that? Well, that rule could be a law, an agency regulation, or a local policy that is already in place. A supervisor could establish her own unique rule, such as forbidding cell phones in meetings. But not all rules have been put to paper. Some rules employees should just know, whether they’re written or not.

The federal workplace is not alone when it comes to unwritten, or “should have known” rules. Baseball is full of them. “Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.” “Don’t try to steal a base when you already have a large lead.” And “don’t flip your bat to celebrate a home run.” That last unwritten rule will lead to a beanball being tossed, which is an unwritten rule that breaks a written rule.

Want to have a big muscular bro drop his dead weight, then drop you at the gym? Just get in his way while he’s lifting. When you’re heading up the escalator, stay to the right. Leave the left side open for passers.

Here’s an unwritten rule I wish everyone followed: If you’re getting gas and a hoagie at the Wawa, pull your car away from the pump before you go inside. That spot next to the gas pump is not a parking space.

These rules are basically assumed societal contracts based on common sense and respect for our fellow human beings, whether it’s on the baseball diamond, in the gym, ascending from the Metro, or in the workplace.

Have you ever felt a desire to be elsewhere more than when you catch that initial whiff of something awful from the microwave slowly snaking its way down the hallway to your work station? That’s a big unwritten workplace rule being broken. However, truth be told, a foul-reeking microwave will lead to someone scribbling the rule down on a piece of notepaper and taping it angrily onto the microwave door, thereby taking away its “unwritten” status.

Are you going to discipline someone for cooking yesterday’s fish in the microwave? No. If the culprit fesses up, though, you should have a short talk with him, preferably in an office far from the kitchen. But you should take a less-forgiving approach to an employee who is deep-frying chicken in her cubicle. Microwaved fish is smelly, deep-fried cubicle chicken is a fire hazard.

And, yes, that fire hazard really happened. It’s one of many stories of jaw-dropping unwritten rule-breaking we’ve heard from our customers over the years, which also includes the employee who thought running naked through the hallway was a fine idea since it wasn’t forbidden in the dress policy, and the employee who liked to masturbate in the office supply closet during work hours.

There are numerous tales of employees catching a little snooze at the most inappropriate of times and places. [If you’d like to share your own unwritten rule story, anonymously of course, then email me.]

You have to wonder how many ZZZs it took for the General Services Administration to propose a rule last month to prohibit sleeping in federal buildings. (I admit an editorial conceit here. The GSA rule, as FELTG President Deborah Hopkins explained last month, is meant to address overnight camping. Still, we’ve pored over the text of the proposed rule and we don’t see it.)

There are clearly more should-have-known rules than written ones. The creativity with which some humans find ways to set new low standards of workplace behavior is abundant.

So if you’re faced with disruptive behavior for which there is no current law, policy, regulation, or rule, and you wonder if it falls in the should-have-known category, ask yourself these questions: Is it common sense? Did the employee’s action show a lack of respect for his or her co-workers?

In other words, don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Gephart@FELTG.com

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