The Cowardice of “My Hands are Tied”

On December 23rd of last year, a young man attempted to make a withdrawal from his bank, hoping the $1000 due in his account had been deposited. The clerk he spoke to told him that she could see the money had been credited. Unfortunately, it would not be available until the next day. On the morning of the 24th, he checked his account and the funds were still not available.

Panicked, he called the bank and happened to get the same clerk. He told her he was just trying to get home for Christmas and needed $20 because his car had run out of gas and he was marooned. When she asked, she discovered the young man was about two miles from the bank. Taking pity on him, she asked her manager if she could drive over and give him $20 of her own money. After all, it was Christmas Eve. The manager gave her permission and the clerk did so.

We’d all like to think this story a nice reminder that there is still goodwill in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it ends. Several days after Christmas, both the clerk and her manager were fired because the clerk had had “unauthorized contact with a customer.” (I have not revealed the identity of the bank, but you can find the incident online.)

Some may argue that the person terminating these two employees did so because his or her “hands were tied” by bank policy. I would argue that was simply not true. Seth Godin once observed that when people don’t act in the workplace, it’s not out of a fear of failure, but out of a fear of blame. I suspect the administrator making this decision acted out of fear of blame. After all, sometime down the road this incident might have been examined by someone for some reason and the administrator might have been fired.

So, what message does this send to employees and customers? For the employees – “Generosity, goodwill and going out of your way for customers can get you fired.” Sure, there is a larger context to the situation in question. But most people don’t think that deep. For the customers – “Geez, the bank is always saying they care. But then they do something like this to employees who were just trying to help!” (Right now, the bank’s marketing department is thankful this story has been buried in the 24-hour news cycle.)

Every decision of significance we make in the workplace requires both judgment and courage. The more we promulgate policies to cover every possible instance and liability, the more our people will act out of caution and even cowardice rather than courage and a sense of goodwill. I have lamented more than once in this blog how rules have overtaken reason in our daily adjudication of society. As a result, much of our day-to-day decision making has become mired in caution and even fear. This incident over Christmas is a perfect example. While some may argue this incident is an anomaly, the more we rely on rules rather than reason, the more we’ll hear about anomalies like this.

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