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Ask an Expert: Rule-Breakers

Should we discipline a top performer who doesn't follow the rules?

A businessman writing i will follow the rules on a blackboard.

While top performers are extremely valuable to a business, they can also damage a company’s culture and negate its core values if they refuse to follow company policies and rules.

In fact, the negative impact of such “renegade employees” can result in significant cost to a company’s bottom line. That’s because HR professionals and managers must spend valuable time addressing other employees’ complaints about the star performer’s behavior. And if the behavior isn’t addressed, other employees will see that as favoritism, and morale will suffer. Their productivity and engagement may be reduced as a result. 

Turning a blind eye to a top performer’s failure to comply with company rules sends a message to other employees that those policies aren’t important and all employees aren’t valued equally. Ultimately, the employer’s reluctance to take corrective action could result in formal complaints of discrimination from workers who perceive inconsistent application of policies.

For example, say there’s a top performer named Bob, a young, white male who consistently exceeds sales expectations but also routinely violates the company’s expense reimbursement policy. Expenses are due by the end of the next month from when they were incurred; however, Bob brags to his co-workers about how he regularly submits his expenses 30 to 60 days late and still is reimbursed. 

On the other hand, Beth is a disabled veteran who is over age 40 and was denied expense reimbursements that were two days late. Beth files a discrimination claim for gender, age and disability discrimination. The costs incurred by the company to consult internal and outside legal counsel to address Beth’s claims wipe out the gains from Bob’s strong sales performance. Not to mention, the company might be required to reimburse Beth for her expenses that were denied over the past year.

Bob’s reimbursement should be denied in keeping with the company policy. Star performers, managers and executives should be held to the same standards and disciplined consistently, whether they’ve violated the attendance policy or committed more serious infractions.  

Top performers who consistently break the rules should be viewed not only as rebellious, but also as employees with a privilege mentality who can wreak havoc on a company’s culture and bottom line. 

Just as no one is above the law, employers should also take up the mantra that no one is above company policies.  

Yuletta Pringle, SHRM-CP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.


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