Trust, Rules, or Guardrails, Oh My!

Photo by Hogarth de la Plante on Unsplash

Many years ago, one of my colleagues who served our campus as the Equal Employment Opportunity officer and who had spent her career in the world of Human Resources, told me, “I used to think there were only two things we didn’t have to tell people about their jobs – you don’t sleep on the job and you have to wear clothes.” I’ll leave to your imagination the details of the situation that led her to make this comment to me.

I often thought that one of my weaknesses when I worked in Student Conduct was my inability to think of all the different ways students could devise to work around ‘the system.’ The energy some students put in to cheating on a test always seemed to me better used for studying, but I’m boring that way. However, one of the responsibilities of both conduct officers and human resource staff is to provide notice – in other words tell people what behaviors are expected of them and what behaviors will land them in trouble. Often that results in extensive lists that attempt to imagine everything that can possibly go wrong. Unfortunately, each time someone finds a way to cause a problem that’s not in the list, the response is to add something to the list. (For years, the longest rule in the Student Code at UT Austin was the list of things you couldn’t do in an artificial body of water. As a faculty colleague said in frustration, if read literally, it meant no one could use a swimming pool on campus. That quirk has been clarified and based on a quick look, the prohibition against stalking seems to be longest now.)

We all face the tension between two realities – we can’t list everything that can go wrong because most of us can’t imagine every creative thing someone will do either by mistake or to get around a system. These lists are both an attempt to do something laudable – provide notice – and a desire to control behavior. In the past two days, I’ve talked with people whose campus decisions vary widely with regard to the return to campus. One has taken away all decisions – everyone is to come back to campus. Simple, clear, some might say fair since everyone is being treated the same way. But as we all know one size rarely fits all. On another campus, the return to campus is being delayed for several weeks for non-student facing staff. They also have a process for requesting flexible work arrangements and they have developed an Expectations Form that can be used to document the agreement. Authority seems to be located in managers which will mean different results based on unit and staff needs. I certainly don’t know the right answer for every campus but I appreciate a process that allows for different answers for different situations. I also appreciate the need to balance individual need and preference with our responsibility to get the work done for the people we are serving.

David M. Perry, writing in The Chronicle*, advocates for adding the elements of trust and agency into the process. He writes about the idea of creating ‘guardrails’ within which we can trust people to make decisions. I’ve shared the article below. I deeply appreciate what he is advocating for and I also think about the conversation I shared at the start. I do think we need to find ways to trust the people we work with to do their jobs and we have a fiduciary responsibility to make certain work is divided equitably and done effectively. All of this to acknowledge that this fall was already shaping up to be more complex than last fall and that was before we understood what the Delta variant was bringing to the mix.

If I have any advice to give, I’d say ask for help, listen to people’s concerns, make the best decisions you can in the circumstances, and give yourself some grace when it’s hard. Trust in yourself – you know how to do this work. You already know you can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try. And remember to take care of yourself while you are trying to take care of everyone around you!

Take care,




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