Rob, the manager of a small fabrication company in Texas wrote, “Since our company started 20 years ago, we’ve had a nicely kept lounge area – a place for employees to have lunches, breaks, or just get together after work. We have a refrigerator that’s kept stocked with free soft drinks for the staff. And we’ve always kept some beer and wine in the refrigerator for anyone who wanted to relax for a social drink after work. For as long as I’ve worked here, everyone has appreciated this, and no one has abused it. I have one employee now, though, who sees the drinks in the refrigerator as his own personal stash. Regularly he’ll take out 3-4 beer to take home with him. I’ve talked with him about it, but now he just does it behind my back. It looks like my only option is to stop with the free refreshments, but it seems a shame to punish everyone just because of one person’s actions. He seems to feel no remorse for what he’s doing.”

The employee who takes advantage. There are, unfortunately, some people who seem to spend their entire lives looking for ways to take advantage – looking for loopholes. If there’s a system, they feel compelled to try and beat it – even when the system is already pretty good. Give them an inch, they take the proverbial mile.

It’s hard not to take it personally when you see someone taking advantage of your good will and good nature. But what do you do? Blanket solutions are rarely the answer. As Rob identified, he could resolve the issue by just not having free drinks for people any more, but that would punish the vast majority of employees who aren’t trying to beat the system. We also don’t want to start sending out blanket memos or posting tersely worded bulletins which create an accusatory tone in the workplace.

These types of issues are best dealt with decisively, swiftly and personally. Unfortunately, according to the experts, people who feel compelled to “beat the system” aren’t easily dissuaded by simply a stern talking-to from the manager. Most aren’t really convinced that they’re doing anything significantly wrong. They’ve just found a loophole. So, while one-on-one conversations can be valuable, they won’t always achieve the outcome you’re looking for. One approach is to try appealing to your team’s sense of fairness and teamwork.

In Rob’s case, he achieved a successful outcome by calling a staff meeting. He explained the situation to everyone, and made it clear that he believed it was likely only one or two people creating the challenge. He re-explained that the company offered the free drinks as a token of thanks and respect to its hard working employees, and expressed his hopes that the respect would be reciprocated by individuals not abusing it. At the end of the meeting he made it clear that, if the abuse continued, he would have no choice but to discontinue the program – a decision he really didn’t want to make. His team, who already knew who the culprit was, made sure that the situation did not happen again.

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