“Just this once” doesn’t exist

Every now and then, a manager who can approve purchase orders up to $10,000 will ask a vendor to split a $15,000 PO in two so that the manager does not have to send it up for approval.

In most cases, the manager is not trying to hide the purchase. She simply wants to expedite a foregone approval.

Of course, when she does so, she sends the message that it’s OK to break some rules. That message is received by the vendor, by the bookkeeper, by the accountant, by the manager’s assistant, among others.

But that message doesn’t come with instructions. It’s not clear when it’s OK to break the rules, or under what circumstances. So when the accountant faces an inconvenient situation later on, what is she to do? How does she know if this is one of those circumstances that warrants breaking a rule or a control?

When we think a rule ought to be broken, just this once, it’s best to ask for permission and to be transparent. In the process of making our case, we might realize the error of our ways. If, however, our request is granted, we can then explain our decision to all those involved. And we can also explain the process we followed to get an exception to the rule.

Which brings me to my last point: if your job calls you to write rules, make sure to include a waiver process. No rule is perfect. At some point, it will have to be broken.

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