Employers should allow workers to break the rules — sometimes

A new Sauder School of Business study found that when some employees ignore orders to help better serve customers, it can benefit businesses and improve the well-being of worker.

Happy customer smiling at the worker while paying with contactless credit card at a shopping terminal looking at each other.

When employees break the rules at work, they can land in hot water — but according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, bosses may want to think twice about cracking down on those who don’t stick to the script.

In the past, researchers believed that when employees broke the rules, they were doing it for malicious or self-serving reasons: for example, workers might steal, or take longer breaks than they’re entitled to. But it turns out that some employees ignore orders to help better serve customers, which can benefit businesses and improve the well-being of workers.

For the study, titled “Breaking rules yet helpful for all: Beneficial effects of pro-customer rule breaking on employee outcomes,” researchers asked participants to imagine themselves as a customer service employee at a dance school that provided dance lessons to young students. In one of the fictitious scenarios, a parent calls asking if they can still get the early-bird promotion rate, even though they were past the deadline.

Participants were free to do whatever they wanted, but were reminded of the rule that says customers must meet the deadline to get the reduced rate. Surprisingly, roughly half of the participants decided to break the rule and gave the customer the better rate, while the other half stood firm.

For a second study, researchers surveyed employees working in customer service — from restaurant servers to retail salespeople to hospital workers — and asked them whether they had encountered situations where breaking a rule would lead to better customer service. Participants then recounted their experiences, revealed whether or not they chose to break the rules, and talked about how it made them feel.

Roughly half the workers admitted to rule breaking — although UBC Sauder sessional lecturer and study author Dr. Irene Kim (she/her/hers) points out the actual number may be even higher. In general, those who bent or broke the rules said they didn’t feel guilty because they were trying to help. They also felt more autonomous and competent because they were able to provide a solution for their customers. What’s more, they reported feeling more connected to customers.

The researchers also found that pro-customer rule breaking led to feelings of psychological fulfilment for employees, which in turn led to lower rates of emotional exhaustion, higher job satisfaction, and an increased sense of voice.

The employees were also more likely to share their concerns about the organization’s rules, and provide suggestions for how the existing practices could be improved.

“They might say, ‘I didn’t think this rule was great in letting me provide the best customer service,’” explains Dr. Kim, who co-authored the study with Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Yujie Zhan. “So employees who felt the rules didn’t allow them to provide good service benefited more from their pro-customer rule breaking.”

Rule breaking can take all kinds of forms, says Dr. Kim, including making exceptions to return policies, giving unhappy restaurant customers a free meal or dessert, or helping someone get faster service in a healthcare setting.

Other studies have looked at the impact of employee rule breaking on customers, but the UBC study is the first of its kind to examine what happens to employees when they bend the rules in order to help better serve customers.

As a result of the findings, Dr. Kim says employers may want to give employees more leeway to break rules when it leads to better customer service, and to speak up when the existing rules prevent them from keeping customers happy.

“It’s a good idea to let employees voice their concerns, because they’re the ones at the frontline. They observe the rules or practices that cause inefficiency, or don’t allow them to provide best customer service,” says Dr. Kim, who worked in customer service when she was a student.

“It also helps to allow employees some input in the designing of those rules and practices, and to make the rules somewhat flexible if organizations want good customer service to be delivered.”

Interview language: English, Korean