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Workplace rules can be flexible … if enforced fairly

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When it comes to creating workplace rules, don’t think you have to spell out every last detail. It’s OK to leave some rules intentionally vague, so you’ll have some wiggle room. Just be sure to exercise your discretion fairly.

For example, you probably expect employees to goof off sometimes. After all, all work and no play makes for poor workplace morale. So, set reasonable rules for Internet usage, phone calls, water-cooler breaks and the like. You don’t have to be an ogre, but you can still punish those who take advantage of flexible rules.

Recent case: James Pruitt and Kenneth Smith, who are black, worked at BellSouth under the same supervisor. The company issued all employees cell phones and required them to sign an agreement to use their phones “for company use” and “in a businesslike manner.”

The company also told employees that they could make personal calls in an emergency, such as a sudden illness or a car accident. Pruitt and Smith ran up their cell-phone bills partly because of personal calls, and their supervisor warned them not to do it again. But BellSouth didn’t specify how high their bills would have to be before they would lose their jobs.

BellSouth fired Pruitt and Smith when their bills hit $443 and $163, respectively. They sued for discrimination, alleging BellSouth didn’t fire white employees when their bills ran high.

The court compared the other employees’ bills, which averaged about $60, and found that their high charges were due to business calls. The charges run up by Pruitt and Smith ran at least twice as high as those of the others.

The 11th Circuit dismissed their case for lack of evidence that white employees were treated differently than blacks. It was OK for BellSouth to exercise judgment and fire only workers who ran up the highest bills. (Pruitt, Smith v. BellSouth, No. 06-11970, 11th Cir., 2007)  

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