Photo credit: Brian Jackson

Hire people who know when to break the rules. Empower them to do so.

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on June 12, 2023.

The principle of hiring people who will know when it’s appropriate to violate the rules on occasion because it’s in the company’s best interests or it’s the right thing to do extends across all types of organizations. I wrote an article on this important principle in August 2021. This is an update of that article.

A May 14 Leesburg, Georgia, WALB News 10 article reports that two high school seniors within the Lee County School District were not permitted to attend their prom by the school’s principal because they missed a significant number of school days due to their treatments for cancer. 

The school’s principal had no empathy for the students and didn’t use common sense and good critical judgment, traits of all effective leaders. He acted like a bureaucrat. His decision was based on the following policy outlined in the school handbook

Absences must not exceed a cumulative total of six days per school year, and students cannot already have absences in excess of 10 days. These absences must be pre-approved by the principal with input from the attendance officer in order to be excused. 

Why weren’t these student’s absences for cancer treatments pre-approved with input from the attendance officer, avoiding the need for a decision just prior to the student’s prom?

Policies are meant to be violated for good reason, and missing school due to receiving cancer treatment certainly falls within that category. Because he didn’t use common sense and good critical judgment, the principal of the school was forced to reverse his decision after an outcry of support for the students. 

In the case of corporate policies, there are many good reasons for holding employees accountable for following them. Certainly, employees must always comply with legal, regulatory and safety requirements. But I am referring to situations that fall outside those areas. When should an employee be celebrated rather than terminated for violating a company policy?

When I was a young division business manager early in my career, we learned that one of our products was found to have a trace amount of contaminants. It had been shipped to several distributors, who in turn sold the product to many end-users. We needed to recall the product.

Photo credit: Brian Jackson

The cost of a recall increased significantly with each day. In addition, we faced a growing reputational and liability risk the longer the product remained in the marketplace. I didn’t have the authority to order the recall because its expense was beyond my approval authority.

The recall couldn’t be approved by my boss or the CEO because they were travelling at the time and were unreachable. Waiting until they could be reached increased the cost and liability risk to the company. So I ordered the recall even though it went against company policy. Had I not ordered the recall, I would have not been doing my job.

When my boss and the CEO returned, they thanked me for the decision I had made. The lesson their reaction taught me as a young leader is to always hire people with common sense and good critical judgment, because someday they may need to violate company policy or their authority to save the company money, reduce liability exposure or protect its reputation. 

I also learned that as a leader, your reaction to an employee violating company policy is situational. On occasion, violating a policy is exactly what you want, and the employee should be recognized for doing so. 

These are also great opportunities to test whether a company policy is still relevant. Do you ever wonder about the policies at your company and whether some are still valid, especially those that have been on the books for years and never reassessed? If a policy is no longer relevant, it should be taken off the books.

Employees who on occasion violate company policy for the right reasons are your change agents and future leaders. Celebrate them.

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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