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Work Ethic

The rules say sack him — do you?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Donald Trump fired many people on the reality show, The Apprentice. (Getty Images)

Donald Trump fired many people on reality television show, The Apprentice. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Q: At the corporate unit I run, we have policies to protect worker safety. When employees violate them — for instance, by leaving the key in a large baling machine — untrained workers could endanger themselves and others. Violation of these policies constitutes a firing offense because the company takes safety seriously. Is it ethical for me to let employees off with a warning the first time they mess up if I think losing this job would be disastrous for them?

A: This question deals with a larger issue than just safety regulations. Every company has rules that can’t be broken by those who want to keep their jobs. Doctors have to “first do no harm.” Journalists have to report the facts and can’t plagiarise. Teachers can’t become romantically involved with students. These rules are among the bedrock ethics that hold a profession together.

Then there are the rules that the company insists are unbreakable but that sometimes cause more harm than good if they were enforced. That’s the situation here. You have to figure out how to get your colleagues to follow the rules. But you want to minimise the consequences if they don’t comply because you think the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

There’s no question that safety rules are there for good reason. Carelessness can cause injury or death in some industries and that can’t be tolerated.

“If you work for a company that has a policy that says that violators of that policy should be fired, you can't let it pass with a warning,” said Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, an Argentina-based consultant at executive-recruiting firm Egon Zehnder and the author of a new book on human resource strategy, It’s Not the How or the What but the Who.

You have three options, Fernandez-Araoz said. You can follow the policy by firing employees who break the rules. You can bring special cases to your boss if you feel it’s necessary in a specific situation. Or you can try to get the rule, or the consequence, changed. If you don’t feel comfortable with these scenarios, you should think about switching companies rather than deliberately fail to enforce the rule, he said.

If you feel that a no-warning policy isn't fair, you may want to lobby management for a probation option. Many companies put an employee on formal probation when they make a big and dangerous mistake. If they do it again, they can be fired, but if they successfully pass a trial period without incident, they are reinstated. 

Consider also taking a look at your company's safety protocol. Are you resting everything on the ability of your employees to remember the right thing to do? Perhaps you can build in more systems that take human error out of the picture, like checklists or physical barriers. 

Another avenue is more training for employees to teach them what they’re expected to know before they unwittingly break a rule and find themselves out of a job. Investing in your employees’ knowledge base is usually a good idea in any event — and it might prevent safety lapses as well as job loss.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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