“Can I fight my employer for enforcing a rule on me on the basis that others break the rules, too?”

Question: I’m not allowed to apply for an open job in my company because my wife works for our company in the same building. It doesn’t make sense to me, because it is in a different shop, working for a different supervisor, and a different job function from hers. They call it a “conflict of interest.”

At the same time, HR has hired relatives with little or no qualifications, which I think is unethical and hypocritical.

We are union employees. Do I have any chance of legally fighting my not being allowed to apply for the open job or negotiate this with HR? Thanks in advance! 

         Johnnie 
         Pueblo, Colorado

Answer: Johnnie, before I give you  my view of whether you “have any chance” of being successful in applying for the open job, first I have to raise a few points:

1. In a union workplace, the union contract governs employees’ relations with the employer. It also sets the procedures for filing and moving forward with a grievance. That is the first place you need to look to determine your “chances” of being successful. While the contract is probably long, hard to read, and confusing, your union representative should be able to help you with it and its meaning.

2. You must understand that breaking the rules by others is not an excuse for your doing so. It is like telling a police officer, “Sure, I was driving my car 80 miles an hour, but others were speeding too. So you should not give me a ticket.” That just won’t work.

3. If you are aware of others breaking the rules – even if they work for HR – you can probably report them anonymously, or through an Ethics Hotline or company Ombudsman’s Office. What you say they are doing surely sounds like it is unethical, and hypocritical. That’s the “better” route to take. 

My own sense is that you will have little chance of success in applying for the job. The employer’s fears are that – somehow – someone will believe that either you acted a bit differently because your wife, or her coworkers, were involved in something, or that she acted differently because of your presence. Whether it’s true is not the point; if someone believes it is true, it is just as damaging to employee morale as if it is true. Prohibiting such circumstances from taking place is so very, very common. Very few employers make exceptions in this context. And if they did, surely almost everyone else would ask for the same exception.

At the same time, you might try, and even offer some ways of dealing with such “jealousies” from arising. I always love to see people achieve things that everyone else says are “Impossible.” 

I’ve written a helpful Newsletter entitled “Conflicts of Interest at Work – Here’s What You Need to Know.” I suggest you look it over; you can do so by simply [clicking here].

Sorry if it isn’t the answer you hoped for. But it is honestly how I see it.

  Best, Al Sklover   

©  2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.