The Distinction between Empowerment and Discretion

In discussing the need for written standards, policies, and procedures, we quoted Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt who said that “Discretion is the enemy of order, standardization, and quality.”  We have also talked about empowered employees being encouraged to think, act, and make decisions on their own based on guidance provided by the company.  We offer the following to clarify what might seem a contradiction.

An important distinction to make for employees is that there is a hierarchy of rules to guide their empowered actions.

1.      Legal and liability issues take precedence in that no employee may violate the law.  This applies to many employment and labor laws such as Equal Employment Opportunity, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and others.

2.      For private clubs and some non-profit organizations there are the policies based upon the by-laws and rules of the club or on tax laws.  Once again, no employee is authorized to modify or violate these rules which constitute the organizational or tax foundation of the enterprise.

3.      Beyond these are the organizational values that define the company’s culture of service and standards of behavior.  These may not be altered at the employee’s “discretion.”

4.      Next are the company’s operational policies relating to its operating systems, such as human resources, accounting and financial management, and departmental operations.

5.      Last are the operational procedures that describe how the routine things are done.

Since it’s impossible to foresee every operational contingency, employees are authorized to alter procedures, even operational policies, when common sense and necessity dictate so long as their actions are in alignment with the law, club or non-profit rules, and the organization’s values.  When they do this, they should alert their leaders of their decisions and actions.  It may well be that the employee’s on-the-spot decision will point the way to improved performance.  This is what makes employee empowerment so powerful.  The people who do the work and interface directly with the customers are in a position to influence and improve the company’s policies and procedures.

If leaders feel that an employee’s action was inappropriate, this should be communicated in a supportive and non-critical way to the work team, as well as to the individual employee, so that all can learn from the experience.

Ed Rehkopf, Excerpted from Leadership on the Line – The Workbook, Clarity Publications, 2009

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the hospitality industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers — those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hospitality hardworking  managers throughout the country and around the world.

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