What’s Good about Quiet Rule-Breaking

If your company quietly allows employees to break some rules with the tacit approval of management, that's a moral gray zone. And your company is not alone. When rules are broken but privileges are not abused, such unspoken pacts between workers and management can allow both to achieve their respective goals of expressing professional identity and sustaining efforts in positive ways, says HBS professor Michel Anteby. Q&A Key concepts include:
  • Moral gray zones in organizations rely on trust. Even if monitoring of employees increases, such gray zones are here to stay.
  • Moral gray zones test middle management's ability to manage and to prevent abuses of mutual trust.
  • Strong communities within occupations provide the unstated but necessary guidelines to ensure proper use of moral gray zones.
by Martha Lagace
What do software engineers, flight attendants, factory workers, mail carriers, truck drivers, and hospital nurses have in common? According to HBS professor Michel Anteby, these professions—and many others just as dissimilar, maybe even yours—inform a "moral gray zone" that allows discreet but regular ways for staff and supervisors to engage in officially forbidden yet tolerated practices at work. "Gray zones emerge when official company rules are repeatedly broken with, at minimum, a supervisor's tacit or explicit approval," says Anteby. In the case of software engineers, the quiet rule-breaking could mean developing code with management's approval for open-source external company projects. For mail carriers, the moral gray zone might mean finishing duties early yet staying "on the clock" until the workday has officially ended. In both cases, managers are usually aware of these activities yet turn a blind eye, says Anteby. Why? Is that because such managers are nice people? Or do supervisors see hidden yet important benefits in a company culture that tacitly encourages—and nourishes—gray zones? Anteby's recent book, Moral Gray Zones: Side Productions, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant (Princeton University Press), looks at how craftsmen establish and fulfill professional identity while simultaneously skirting rules against the creation of personal artifacts on company time and with company materials. While such settings may become less common as manufacturing loses influence, in the following email Q&A Anteby explains that moral gray zones operate everywhere, at all levels of organizations. What's more, they will probably remain strong in the years to come. "To date, I have not found a single person unable to articulate in his or her work context a moral gray zone," says Anteby. What does your office do to sustain one?

Martha Lagace: How prevalent are gray zones?

Michel Anteby: Very prevalent, but not all gray zones are moral. Following sociologist Emile Durkheim's use of morality, moral practices are defined as those deemed acceptable by a given society or group. The moral labeling is therefore a collective process. A worker and a supervisor cannot together deem a practice moral; instead a larger collective needs to agree to the label. Consider, for instance, an employee stealing repeatedly—with his manager's approval—from the cash register. That practice is a gray zone, but would hardly qualify as a moral one. By contrast, the same employee setting aside a clothing item in a storage room to later purchase for himself when the item will be deeply discounted is a gray zone as well. In high-end department stores such practices are often tolerated. This leniency when moderately exhibited is widely seen as "good" practice, a small favor done to reward deserving employees, and as such qualifies as a moral gray zone. Quantifying moral gray zones is a difficult exercise. Identifying them, first, requires in-depth knowledge of a given work setting. Quantifying them, next, requires multiple managers and employees answering questions that could get them fired if the company decided to apply its rules to the letter. This is why ethnographic approaches are best suited to document such practices. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time in the field and therefore see or are told by informants what others might miss. At the same time, a limitation is that we cannot quantify what we observe.
“To date, I have not found a single person unable to articulate in his or her work context a moral gray zone.”
However, to date I have not found a single person unable to articulate in his or her work context a moral gray zone. Harvard Business School students constantly share with me their stories of moral gray zones and update me on current practices. Recently, for instance, I was surprised to learn that a student who worked in the U.S. pulp industry was asked by his co-workers to punch them out later than they actually finished work. Management apparently was aware of this practice and allowed it: a prime example, I suspect, of a moral gray zone.

Q: Using the example of paramedics, how do gray zones operate and why are they significant?

A: Occupations, de facto, provide the shared, collective level of understanding that allows moral gray zones to exist. Nurses, paramedics, or flight attendants, for instance, share common training, practices, and social identities that place them in a readily available collective. Paramedics are a telling example given the costly implications of malpractice in the United States. Paramedics are supposed to bring patients to attending physicians (most often in emergency rooms) and are not supposed to perform many medical acts. Officially, attending physicians are the ones performing the acts. Yet in some instances, to save "crashing patients" (meaning patients who seem about to die), paramedics will perform acts that they are not officially allowed to perform. Not all paramedics, however, are given such leeway—only the trusted ones. When physicians are aware of these breaches, yet remain silent, we are in the midst of a moral gray zone. Two broader implications can be drawn from this example. First, leniencies are part of the managerial toolkit. They allow for "local regulation": in other words, they allow work to be done. Second, by allowing trusted paramedics to "save lives" even if this means bending the rules a bit, physicians cater to the paramedics' occupational identities. Paramedics become who they aspire to be, namely "saviors." These paramedics are also more likely to cooperate with the physicians in the future. Thus, moral gray zones enable both managers and workers to perform their roles.

Q: Gray zones might be detrimental to organizational health, even subversive. When employees do things behind the scenes, an organization potentially loses revenue and material, as well as less-tangible benefits. What is the balancing act needed to sustain gray zones?

A: Using the above example of paramedics, what is gained and lost? Obviously, some level of organizational control is lost because "control" now occurs at the field level between the physician and the paramedic. In a way, top management loses power over its employees. In gray zones involving material pursuits—such as when a clothing item that could have been sold at a higher price to a customer is kept hidden until it becomes deeply discounted—direct losses can be calculated. At the same time, managers gain the employees' engagement, and perhaps, more importantly, managers get to decide who benefits from its leniencies.
“Moral gray zones enable both managers and workers to perform their roles.”
While such freedom can lead to abuses, overall it tests the ability of middle management to manage. A key assumption is that middle management exercises proper judgment in selectively exhibiting leniencies. Moral gray zones therefore rely on trust, at all levels, and might not be appropriate in all contexts. Strong occupational communities often provide the needed guidelines to ensure proper use of these leniencies. The abuse of leniencies is a problem; its routine use, I would argue, is less so.

Q: You assert that managers are usually aware of gray zones. How do managers benefit from gray zones to the degree that they notice them and even perhaps cultivate them? Is there anything managers can do to improve a "negative" gray zone?

A: A key test of the morality of a gray zone is the extent to which it entails shared practices. But newly appointed managers often do not know if the practice is shared. So let's consider two cases. First case: The manager notices the practice is an anomaly or is only confined to her team. An obvious next step is to do away with it, explaining precisely why it should be discontinued. Second case: The "morality" of the practice is confirmed. For instance, all similar teams operate in the observed manner, regardless of their employer or the geography. In that case—and if the practice does not violate broader social norms—it is then important for the manager to signal that she is "in the know." This signals that the leniency is actively permitted, not a default choice. Then defining the boundaries of the practice becomes necessary: Setting one or two clothing items aside can be tolerated; setting aside ten for resale should be sanctioned.

Q: How will gray zones evolve in the future?

A: The fact that contemporary organizations might rely on more elaborate employee monitoring mechanisms could appear to endanger the existence of moral gray zones. For instance, whereas truck drivers in the past could pick up passengers en route, today a video camera is often used to monitor the driver's seat. In some instances a driver can lose his job if he picks up a passenger—a practice that goes against company rules but that used to be often tolerated. However, two important reasons suggest that moral gray zones are here to stay. First, moral gray zones involve tacit managerial approval. Thus, it is not because employees are more highly monitored that gray zones will disappear; instead, employees are now made more aware of their supervisor's tacit approval. In other words, the give and take operating in gray zones is made more explicit. A second important reason to see the development of moral gray zones is the high burden bestowed upon individuals these days to prove themselves in their occupation. Imagine two software engineers with similar technical training, both vying for recognition. One is located in London and the other in Bangalore. Both likely do similar work and may experience threats—distinct in intensity and nature—to their occupational identity. For the one in London, an upcoming cost reduction wave could eliminate her job. For the one in Bangalore, the most rewarding work is probably done in London, and her earnings are likely to be lower than those of her London counterparts. With the arrival of new candidates from diverse backgrounds in occupations operating across geographies, it seems reasonable to expect the contest for recognition to intensify. Many moral gray zones provide readily available intra- and inter-occupational sorting mechanisms. In global labor markets, moral gray zones will likely blossom.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: My research focuses mainly on questions of social identities and morality. Moral Gray Zones was an attempt to explore this interplay in the context of a community with strong norms—craftsmen in a low-turnover factory setting. This led me to want to explore similar issues in the absence of strong norms. My current project focuses on potentially contested practice where few norms seem to prevail. Whole-body donations for medical education and research provide the setting for this project. The goal is to understand how individuals and organizations operate in this context. How (moral) norms emerge, and are enforced, are questions at the core of my research.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.