I needed a break from work this past Saturday, and decided to venture out to Target to buy a few items for the office. I shop only when necessary, and I’m usually out the door in 15 minutes.

The conversation I will share here is important on many fronts. First, I do understand that policy and procedures are important, and that we must do whatever possible to follow them. In fact, HR law is often involved, and deviating from employee regulations can be dangerous for managers.

However, I also think we must teach our employees common sense. There are times when we can bend the rules, even just a little bit. Of course, the effort begins with the leadership team, and buy-in from the employees is essential.

The Target scenario …

Me: Ma’am, do you know where I can find the trash bags?

Employee: I can’t help you right now. I’m on break!

Me: I’m just asking if you can point me in the right direction – like an aisle number.

Employee [walking away]: Let me see if someone else can help you.

Me: Ok.

Given our proximity to the pharmacy, the employee asks the pharmacist, and her co-worker. From my experience, these are generally the busiest people in most retail outlets. When they are not working directly with the customers, they are filling prescriptions.

Pharmacist: Sir, how can I help you?

Me: I’m looking for the trash bags, but it’s no big deal. I will try and find them.

Pharmacist: Ok. Let us know if you need assistance.

I walk away to where I think the trash bags are located, and I happen to run into a gentleman with a big red tag confirming his manager status.

Me: Sir, do you know where I can find the trash bags?

Manager: Yes, they’re on Aisle 10.

Me: Sir, I have a quick question. Please know that I’m not complaining … but I asked an employee if she could help me find the trash bags. She informed me that she couldn’t help because she was on break. Is this standard operating procedure?

Manager: Yeah. I can’t ask my employees to do anything when they are not on the clock. If they’re not getting paid, they’re not to do any work.

Me: Wow! So, they’re not allowed to help customers in any way when they’re on break.

I wonder what they are allowed to do if a fire breaks out and they’re on break. Kidding!

Manager: That’s right. We tell them to find the nearest person who can help you. Those are the rules, and we follow them.

Me: Ok, great! Things are much different today.

Manager: I guess so.

This example has many different angles. Does a problem even exist? From a customer standpoint, I did find the response from the employee somewhat unprofessional. However, she was following orders. She was told to avoid any work during her break, and she followed procedure.

From a business owner standpoint, this situation reinforces the opportunities available today. While policies and procedures are important, there must be some wiggle room. In some cases, we can keep the doors open beyond 5 pm, we can work a few hours during the weekend, and we can even help customers during our assigned breaks.