Why do employers need company policies in the first place? Because people have very different ideas about professional behavior and workplace etiquette. To make things run smoothly — and fairly — there need be rules about conduct in the office. Leave it up to individuals and employees could wind up dealing with harassment, bullying, or discrimination.
But that doesn’t mean that every company policy is a good one. While it makes sense to have certain policies in writing — sick leave, vacation time, non-discrimination and workers’ comp — some organizations go far beyond the sensible when making the rules.
Let’s be real: unless you’re required to wear a uniform, the company dress code probably doesn’t need to specify shoe choice. And unless the goal is to kill morale, there’s never any reason to require a doctor’s note for a one-day absence.
Leave the employee handbook behind and things can get even more bizarre, with individual bosses creating unwritten rules about everything from which words can be used to describe conflict to which email subject lines should be used for which types of messages.
Seem farfetched? Consider these real-life stories of company policies gone horribly wrong. You may recognize some of your least favorite office rules:
1. No Socializing
My first real full-time job, they had a policy against “socializing.” So, if you walked over to someone else’s cube and talked to them and anything you said was not directly work-related, someone in the next cube would pop up and scold you, saying “no socializing.”
They also had a time sheet on the wall for you to write in when you arrived, when you left and when you took lunch. Everybody signed in by 9:01 but you can bet they were straight out the door at 5:01.
That might be OK if you are working a job defined by service hours, but this was magazine publishing and nobody felt a sense of ownership over the product because that is what happens when you treat people like machines.
– David, Web Editor for a Print Magazine
We were all in cubes in relatively close quarters and were strictly forbidden to talk to one another. Not so much as a “good morning.” …[However], every now and then you’d hit the ladies’ room (as people do), get back to your desk and the boss would be standing there asking where you had been. Crossly and loudly. Horror scene.
– Alexis, Government Contractor
2. No Pants Allowed (If You’re Female)
At my first office job, women weren’t allowed to wear pants. Not even a pinstripe business suit. ‘90s. Surely that wouldn’t fly now? But it was way outdated even then.
– Jennifer, Medical Researcher
Me too, mid-80s, early ‘90s. NYC corporate finance. I couldn’t wear pants even when pregnant.
– Karen, Financial Clerk
My first job was at a Hallmark store in the mall. The dress code required actual dresses. (All bosses were male, employees were all female except one.)
We couldn’t wear even the loose split dresses that were popular at the time (mid-90s) because “they don’t look good on everyone” (i.e., fat shaming). And couldn’t wear sandals. Even in the summer. We also couldn’t sit while doing pricing or inventory stocking. It made one woman who was pregnant quit. She got better treatment at Walmart as a cashier, she told me later.
The sitting thing was awful. You also couldn’t lean on the counter. The owner’s mother would spy on us and we’d hear about it the next day if she caught us talking to each other instead of walking around the store to check on if anyone needed anything.
– Anne, Retail Worker
3. Apparently, Not Letting People Sit Is a Thing
I worked at a bike shop where sitting down wasn’t allowed. It was perceived as being lazy.
– Dan, Retail Worker
At [the makeup counter] we snagged some high chairs for behind the counter so we could try to LOOK like we were standing. But we had to be stealth and vigilant about it.
– Jenn, Retail Worker
4. More Bizarre Dress Code Requirements
Requiring employees to purchase uniform (in a restaurant). Then, changing said uniform and requiring employees purchase [that]. And, you guessed it, changing said uniform again. I told one of the owners if they changed the uniform again, I couldn’t afford to work for them.
– Samantha, Waitstaff
I worked at a Barnes and Noble. There was a dress code (including no sneakers) and you could not sit down. So basically, you had to stand in painful shoes for eight hours. Honestly, those bottom shelves were WELL dusted on the days I worked. They changed the dress code shortly after I very unceremoniously left (called out and never returned).
– Sarah, Retail Worker
I had a boss that wouldn’t allow backless shoes in the office because he didn’t like hearing the back of the shoe hit the foot when we walked by his cubicle.
– Bette, Temp in an Insurance Office
When I worked at [a restaurant], management required that we wear American Apparel deep-Vs. I’m pretty flat chested, so this didn’t work out well for me. The manager, a super abusive woman my age who thought I was younger than her and would make a lot of comments about my age would say things to me like, “Your bra is showing. Go fix it.” Like you are some immodest hussy even though they were the ones who made you wear [that shirt]. She also kept a can of hairspray behind the counter and would routinely make us go to the bathroom with it to fix our “flyaways.”
– Jessica, Waitstaff
5. Very Specific Email Rules
I worked at a place where one department had extensive email rules — what the subject line said, who was cc’d to every single email, etc. The other departments didn’t do this — just the one. And they’d spend a good part of team meetings reminding us about what the subject line had to be and who needed to be copied.
– Elizabeth, Instructional Designer
6. Every Minute Counts
I once had a manager that micromanaged me (and others) so much that we had a spreadsheet we had to fill out. We had to put down what we did in every 15-minute increment and email it to her at the end of the day. We didn’t bill clients. She just wanted to know we were always working all the time and not wasting even one minute.
Fun side note: she was later charged with fraud or embezzlement or something like that.
– Melissa, Event Marketing Coordinator
I was briefly required to turn in detailed time reports on a 20-hour-per-week job. I reported 1 hour per week on “writing detailed time report.” The reports were not required for long after that.
– Jane, IT Director
7. Food in the Kitchen Only (Did We Mention That the Kitchen Is a Closet?)
I had one that would not allow any food or drinks (even water) in the office except the “kitchen” which was a closet. All food or drink was supposed to be consumed off the premises.
Also, if you were going to be as little as one minute late (this was an office job, not retail), you had to call the company owner and explain why.
Then, just before I left, she began requiring a uniform — company polo shirts. Again, there were zero customers involved — we had no contact with anyone other than ourselves. Also, she gave us only five company holidays, claiming (Starbucks workers don’t get paid on Memorial Day if they don’t work, so why should we?) I could go on….
– Christine, Editor
8. It’s Not Like Most People Live Paycheck to Paycheck or Anything
I worked for a multimillion-dollar company that required their employees to cover their corporate Amex charges and get reimbursed 30 days later.
– Oscar, Graphic Design Consultant
9. There Are No Problems, Just Terrible, Terrible Opportunities
The company I worked for where we weren’t supposed to use the word “problem.” I got really tired of people coming into my office, plopping down in a chair, and saying “I have an opportunity for you.”
– Jane, IT Director
10. Trapped in the Library
When I worked as a public librarian, we weren’t allowed to LEAVE THE LIBRARY during our 20-minute afternoon break. The worst part is that this was part of the contract negotiated by the union.
Union: You get a break!
Union: You can’t leave the library during your break!
Librarians: (…peering at the coffee shop across the street.)
– Meghan, Public Librarian
11. This Wasn’t in a Kindergarten … or Shawshank
A long time ago, I got a job offer that I declined (even after they called me twice to offer more money) because you had to raise your hand and ask permission to go to the restroom.
– Mary, Administrative Assistant
12. And Perhaps the Worst Policy of All
UNLIVABLE LOW WAGES. The real people out in the world, serving everyone their food and dealing with all of their issues, can’t afford life. I’m sick of it. …When I got older I would literally say, when asked to get on a ladder [to get a product off a shelf], that when I get two digits in my hourly rate, then I would get on a ladder.
– Dee, Retail Worker
Stories have been lightly edited for clarity and consistency. Some names have been changed.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you ever worked for a company with one of these policies? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.