The Law of Unintended Consequences

Have you ever made a decision that seemed right in the beginning, only to watch it slowly morph into a nightmare over time? The Law of Unintended Consequences says that for every change or action, there are both positive consequences – which we obviously want – and negative, unintended consequences (which we obviously don’t want). How often, as a manager, are you presented with a problem that seems unique and make a decision thinking it’s not likely to happen again? Have you ever considered the risk in setting precedent for those “rare” occasions?

For example, imagine there is a paid time off policy in place at Company X. Employee A approaches the manager with a crisis: his father just had a stroke and lives on the other side of the country, alone. He asks if he can fly out to take care of him for the next month and offers to work remotely so as not to disrupt his department or current projects. He’s a great employee, rarely takes time off, and the manager trusts that the employee will continue to perform at the same level he always does, even if he’s not in the office daily. So, the manager, thinking this type of situation is unique, agrees to allow the employee to work “remotely” rather than use any of his paid time off. Problem solved, right?

But what happens when, a couple weeks later, Employee B, who is an average performer and often on the brink of disciplinary action, notifies the manager that his mother has to have emergency surgery and needs someone to care for her while she recovers… oh, and she lives in a foreign country thousands of miles away. The employee says there is no one else who can help her but explains that he, too, is able to work remotely while he is away. Even though Employee B holds the same position as Employee A, the manager is not confident in Employee B’s work ethic and worries about the time zone difference further hindering his performance. The manager would rather the employee use some of his paid time off instead of work remotely but fears the employee will file a discrimination claim. How does the manager respond? What are the risks if the manager doesn’t provide the same accommodations he did for Employee A?

As managers, we must always be mindful of the ‘exceptions’ we make to policies. Ask yourself, “Would I do the same thing for every employee, if this happens again? What are the risks if I don’t?” Consider how it will affect morale or productivity. Think about the legal implications. “Special treatment” is often a slippery slope. While you may be inclined to offer it to some people, it’s usually better to stick with the policies already in place, unless you are prepared for the potential liability associated with excluding other individuals.