Go Ahead, Break a Rule

There can be unpleasant consequences, but sometimes it's the only way to get something important done.
November 4, 2009
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

Civil servants understand they need to follow the laws, but there's some ambivalence about rules. "Rules are made to be broken." "Rules are for the lazy to hide behind." "You're remembered for the rules you break." One of the most popular business books of recent years is First Break All the Rules . Rules are sometimes associated -- rightly -- with bureaucracy and with lack of initiative. Inevitably, everyone is faced with decisions about whether to follow or break a rule.

Organizations have rulebooks. Large organizations have large rulebooks. General Motors is famous for having thousands of pages of rules. The Pentagon tops that easily. There are literally thousands of pages of rules just on operation of government cars -- who can drive them, where they can be driven, for what purposes they can be used, where they can be parked, how frequently to check the tires and oil, and on and on.

Bob Stone and Mick Ukleja offer valuable insights into the problems associated with rules. In government, rules are applied to prevent the abuse of discretion, but frequently prevent sound use of discretion as well. As mayor, I counseled my employees to challenge the rules so long as their intentions were good and the goal was adding public, not personal, value. In Washington, however, investigations -- whether by Congress or inspectors general -- can affect reputations or criminalize conduct where a rule was broken even if breaking it helped taxpayers and citizens. Washington today has swung dramatically toward hardening the rules, even the nonsensical ones. This week's column is quite timely in stirring this debate.

- Stephen Goldsmith

Rules are designed to preserve the organization and protect it from mistakes and abuse. They also have the consequence -- intended or not -- of "protecting" it from change. So anyone trying to lead change inevitably has to decide under what circumstances to break rules.

Bob Stone, one of the authors of this column, faced such a decision at the Pentagon when he was asked by the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command to waive a rule that was keeping his foreign policy advisor -- a State Department foreign service officer -- from living in on-base housing where the admiral needed him, right next door.

Unfortunately, the rule came from the Office of Management and Budget, not the Pentagon, and Bob knew he had no authority to waive it.

The dilemma: should he play by the rules and ask OMB for a waiver he knew they wouldn't grant (because granting waivers wasn't in their DNA)? Or break the rules and grant a waiver he had no authority to grant?

The rules weren't serving their purpose. The military he had hired on to serve needed help. He couldn't get the rule changed or waived. Bob's sense of ethics-cum-duty told him that duty to the national defense outweighed duty to enforce the rule. He was being paid to do a job, and he wouldn't be doing it if he stood passively by and let some crazy rule weaken national defense -- even just a little.

So he broke the rules. The adviser moved on base, the admiral got the help he wanted, and the interests of national defense were served.

Rule-breaking is an issue for lower-ranking employees, too. Jane, an administrative assistant for another federal agency, was directed to set up a training workshop that the agency head considered urgent. Armed with her government Visa card, she set about buying the supplies that would be needed to train several hundred people. The bill came to $4,000, and government rules prohibited charging more than $2,500 for any single purchase on the Visa card. So Jane had the store clerk split the order in two, each order under the limit.

Jane knew that order-splitting was against the rules, but faced with the decision whether to carry out her assignment or follow the rules, she chose performance over compliance. She was later criticized by the auditors for breaking the rule, and could have been terminated had not the agency head vigorously defended her and praised her initiative.

Jane's and Bob's rule-breaking could have had serious personal consequences for them. Were they behaving ethically?

Here are three tests to decide whether you may ethically break a rule.

1. Will you gain a personal benefit?

2. Is it taking the easy way out?

3. Is it serving the cause of justice?

Neither Jane nor Bob benefited personally. They weren't taking the easy way out. (The easy way would have been to not get the job done and blame the rules -- nobody ever gets criticized for that.) Finally, they were both clearly serving the cause of justice -- in this case, doing what was best for the government.

The formula for acceptable rule breaking -- the three tests -- is only partially satisfying. While it makes sense to your authors, it might not make sense to your supervisor. There can be consequences for breaking a rule -- and in government exceeding one's authority can be cause for dismissal, although that rarely happens.

There are also consequences for not breaking rules: organizational inefficiency, lack of progress or program failure. The ethical person must balance off two ethical imperatives: follow the rules, or do his or her best on the job. He or she must weigh the risk of being disciplined for breaking the rules against the comfort of using the rules to justify inaction. Bob and Jane come down on the side of action; Jane's boss supported her. Bob's boss never learned of the action. So both incidents had happy conclusions. But that won't always be the case.


o Members of an organization have an ethical obligation to follow the organization's rules.

o They may also have the conflicting obligation to break the rules to bring about organizational change or to accomplish their mission.

o There are three tests to decide whether breaking a rule is ethical: personal benefit, taking the easy way, and serving justice.

o Rule-breaking may incur punishment, even if it's ethical.