Making Exceptions. Enough is Enough Already!

An internal audit is being conducted in our office and the HR office is asked to produce several documents.The audit is procedural based, still not in the least less daunting or unsettling than any other audit but if you fail any portion of it, it means many grueling hours of implementing new procedures and practices.

So, you get the document request and your first thoughts are, “Do we have the document? Can it be located easily? and most importantly, “Did we follow procedure and practice?” Non-compliance in any audit is alarming, but if you make exceptions it is even worse.

I began to wonder about the requests for exceptions I have been presented with in my career – the biggies, the ones that have far-reaching ramifications. Here are just a few I faced in my years in Human Resources – and whether or not they was allowed or caught – they would require an exorbitant amount of detail to justify:

  • Allow an employee to late enroll into our Flexible Spending Account 4 months after the deadline. As you know, each year companies go through open enrollment and employees are asked to review, make appropriate changes and enroll in health and welfare benefit plans. Most plans are subject to IRS Section 125 and the clause of the IRS code only allows changes or exceptions to be made on any 1 of the 4 qualifying events. You compensation and benefit pros out there know the scrutiny these plans undergo and the misery of of administering them. This employee was a 12 year veteran of the company and knew he had to re-enroll every year – this year was the exception.
  • Allow a candidate to drug screen test more than the allowed times to test, knowing pre-employment background checks allow 2 times. How about (this happens to be my favorite exception to date) stopping a random drug test because the selected employee complained it was a waste of time and the program was altered to not include this group of employees. Or this, allowing an employee to begin knowing they did not meet the criteria to pass. A candidate tested positive and asked to allow his employment go forward, knowing employment is contingent upon successful passing of a background check.

When was the last time you made or were asked to make an exception. Was it a personal or professional decision? Who asked you? What reasoning or justification did you use? Was it a well thought out exception or a snap decision.

Whatever the case, you lower your standards, you compromise your beliefs, and in some cases

you jeopardize the very essence or truth of the original request, decision or promise.

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, ‘make an exception’ was first recorded in 1931. It is defined as allowing someone or something to be exempt from the general rule or practice. You make an exception for your kids on their birthday and let them stay up late, you make an exception perhaps because your company’s forecast is trending positively, you make an exception because of your mood.

There is no hard and fast rule on making exceptions especially when the consequence are minimal. But what do you do when the consequences are more significant?  Here is some criteria I would consider when deciding whether or not to allow an exception.

  1. What is the exception? What is the issue, request, policy or general principle being asked to be altered or modified.
  2. What is the original process? Do I have a policy, procedure or other program in place to support, defend or other mechanism needed to preserve the original or natural state of the process.
  3. What resources or analysis is required. Consider this and act.
  4. Who or what will be affected? Are there legal, monetary, regulatory, personal or some other governing system that your exception will affect?
  5. What will be the outcome? What is the end desired result? Did you anticipate this ending?
  6. How will this affect decisions I make in the future? Is what prompted you to make an exception be similarly applied to other situations.

Predicting outcomes can be a complicated thorny matter and sometimes deemed convoluted if you are dealing with people (and tell me when an exception does not affect a person or group of people) and predicting human behavior is a dubious landscape.

It really boils down to making decisions. We make decisions every day, but just because you make decisions it does not necessarily mean that you are good at making them, that you should act upon the decisions you make or that you should even be the one making the decision.

Decisions are either instinctive or require a more in-depth analysis –  make sure you know the difference. Ultimately, decisions are the choices you make.

Do you do what is right when no one is looking? Would you be comfortable with someone questioning the veracity of your decisions. Can you live with the exceptions you make in your personal and professional lives?

Photo credit: iStockphoto


About the Author

Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren, PHR is a Human Resources Business Partner for Wincor Nixdorf, a Global IT organization and has over 18 years progressive human resources experience. She is the Chair for the Austin HR Management Association Certification Committee, blogs regularly for AHRMA on various HR topics and lends her talents to other HR projects and initiatives. You can connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.


Dave Jordan

Wow, the comment by HR Mark really hit the nail on the head. Reminds me of a similar situation. Years ago I was part of an organization for about 4 months where one of the employees did have a felony record (he spoke about past “endeavors”), did use drugs, but was buddies with the manager. As such, the “little transgressions” were overlooked and tensions started running high around the place. I finally left because of the blatant disregard for workplace etiquette and rules, and the contemptible displays of favoritism.

HR Mark

Letting a new manager start work before receiving the results of pre-employment drug screen. Candidate dodged efforts to schedule the drug test with enough time to get results before first day. Exception made because the candidate was referred by a Board Member. Embarassing and difficult situation not only for the sales manager but also the company when the employee was let go before the end of the day for failing the drug screen.

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