My family and I went to see my four year old’s dance recital at the neighborhood theater. Unlike most of these events, it wasn’t first come first serve seating. You had to buy tickets, and seats were assigned. They even had ushers. I guess they were trying to avoid a Who-Concert-in-Cinncinati-like stampede (If you are too young to get that reference, look it up, but don’t tell me. I already feel old).
We had seats in the middle row near the stage, but the people in front of us along with the angle of the seats made it difficult to see. It was the earlier of two shows, before dinner time, and so the theater was only two-thirds full. The recital was minutes from starting, and seeing some empty seats higher up, we suggested that our two other daughters sit up there so they could see better. They left, only to come back moments later – one of the ushers, a white-haired volunteer who obviously had nothing better to do, had admonished them telling them they had to sit in their assigned places.
Those seats went unfilled throughout the entire show. What would have been the harm in letting two young girls sit there?
The rules, of course. The ushers’ jobs were to make sure everyone sat where they were assigned, no exceptions. Even when it made perfect sense and it would do no harm. In this case, the adherance to the rules meant nothing more than a couple of disappointed girls and a less than ideal theater seat. However, this same adherance to rules is much more damaging when it comes to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
According to a study conducted by the National Woman’s Law Center and A Better Balance, pregnancy discrimination is on the rise. The EEOC reported that there were almost 6,000 cases of pregnancy discrimanation filed in 2011, resulting in $17 million in damages. Cases ranged from stock people not being allowed water bottles while on the sales floor and cashiers not given stools to sit on, to professionals being let go for taking to much time off due to their pregnancy. One woman even alleges that she was forced to work or lose her job, despite a doctor’s authorization, and this led to a miscarriage.
It should come as no surprise that these cases occur in the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid maternity leave. But why does it happen? Do the managers and HR people hate pregnancy? Do they hate women? Are they cold, heartless Ebanezor Scrooge wannabe’s (before that fateful Christmas Eve, of course)?
Some of these people are no doubt bitter and unhappy malecontents determined to ruin other peoples lives. For them, it is all about control. They’re the boss. They aren’t going to let some expectant mother tell them what to do.
For others, however, it all comes down to the rules. Many who hold the title of manager are not truly managers. They certainly aren’t leaders. They are custodians. Their jobs are not to help make strategic and tactical decisions that are going to help the organization thrive. Their jobs are to make sure the trains run on time, so to speak. To make sure employees are punctual, that the doors open on time, that the shelves are stocked according to plan and that the cash registers balance.
They are there to make sure everyone is following the rules. And if the rules say no water bottles on the sales floor, then there are no water bottles on the sales floor, no matter if the pregnant woman passes out from dehydration.
The line managers are not the only ones to blame. A much larger responsibility goes to the organizations for which they work. They put pressure on these managers to do more with less, even if that means treating workers poorly. Often, the managers are overworked and underpaid, and this treatment filters down.
Worse yet, the companies put out policies and directives instead of training their managers to make good decisions. I worked with a man who took a job as a district manager of a clothing retailer. He would work with his store managers to help them understand the business and take actions that would make them successful. He taught them to read Profit & Loss Reports, how to calculate productivity. He got them thinking about product placement and ideas for improving service. When his boss learned what he was doing, he was told to stop. “We don’t want our store managers to think,” his boss told him. “We want them to smile pretty and look good in our clothes.”
The man quit a week later. Good for him.
The employers also fail the managers because they either don’t hire them for, or instill in them, a sense of self-confidence. Show me a manager who is purely an enforcer of rules, and I’ll show you a manager who does not have confidence in his/her leadership abilities. For them, rules are a way of exerting power and control over others because they do not have confidence in their ability to lead.
Don’t get me wrong. Organizations need rules if they are going to function effectively. When they are based on sound judgement, they can provide consistency throughout and organization and promote its culture. But when rules don’t make sense, they need to be broken. I understand the safety that comes in following the rules. A manager who applies all rules to the letter will never get into trouble. At the same time, that person will never excel, either. Think of those that have accomplished great things in their life – Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi. Of how many of them was it said, That person was great at following the rules.