Sometimes an idea or an argument just seems suddenly topical. Right now, it seems ‘what is the point of rules?’ is one of those questions. Rules may not always have the full weight of the law behind thrm, but they throw up the same issue about whether they are to observed in the letter or the spirit. I’m guessing Shakespeare found that latter conundrum pressing too: not only did he give us the expression “More honour’d in the breach than the observance” (usually nowadays meant as a rule that is broken more than it is followed), but also – ahead of himself by a few centuries in noting the rise of the employment legal advisor – “let’s kill all the lawyers”.

That last one still resonates, particularly – and I can’t think why – with lawyers. In their very different ways (in two very readable posts coming from very different places), The Nutmeg Lawyer and The Ethical Spectacle come to different conclusions. On one hand, massacring our legal friends paves the way for anarchy and marches against informed dialogue; on the other, it is actually a dark joke at the expense of lawyers, spoken by a wisecracking villain. As they conclude:

As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”

I’ll leave you to take your pick on that one, as both writers make valid points. But if lawyers aren’t necessarily asses, that doesn’t stop ‘the law’ from turning into one once in a while. Even well-intentioned rule making can lead to logical conundrums.

Sipping my first cuppa of the day while taking in the radio news, I heard about proposed changes to the role of Child Maintenance Options, a public-sector body that provides advice to couples that are separating or who want to alter their maintenance arrangements. The moral rights and wrongs of those divorcing receiving public funds in resolving legal aspects of their situation are perhaps for another place, but my partner and I raised a silent eyebrow a piece at one element, summarized in the BBC website’s coverage of the news item:

Should individuals be unable to resolve the situation themselves and opt for statutory guidance, they will have to pay a one-off application fee – £100 for those in work, £50 for those on benefits and £20 for those in the most acute financial need.

Officials say the charges – which will not apply to cases involving domestic violence – will recoup only a part of the current cost of processing applications.”

I’ve since tried running that one past myself a few times, and – without the support of the detailed proposition or a (privately funded) lawyer – I keep concluding that a couple who are arguing about their future arrangements can save themselves up to £100 by resorting to physical violence. I do hope I’m wrong on that one – not because I’m that bothered where that £100 is coming from, but because I’m worried about the implicit message about reward and recognition. Changes presented as putting the welfare of the child at their centre surely can’t be served effectively by incentivising violence between their parents. Someone please tell me I’ve got that one wrong.

I wonder if John Kay (whose Obliquity we reviewed recently) shares The Ethical Spectacle’s sense of irony. If you’re wondering why I’m wondering, spare a few moments to read his colum in yesterday’s Financial Times, A smart business is dressing in principles not rules (you can read it online at his own website).A reprint – in abridged form – of an article originally written 15 years ago as a spoof, it has been caught up with by reality, as Kay explains:

Exactly 15 years ago I wrote an article in this newspaper about the adoption of an extended dress code in a major company. I thought the editor’s insistence that I should make clear that the story was a spoof was unnecessary. But last month’s news that UBS had issued a 43-page dress code to some of its employees confirms that, as always, the editor was right.”

The UBS reference in the newly written introduction is, of course, not a joke. Well, at least in the sense the a 43 page dress code has been written and issued. This, of course, has not prevented mockery. I’d expect a website like Styleite to be at the head of the mocking queue, and they didn’t disappoint:

The guide covers everything imaginable — and we do mean everything. There are rules you’d expect, most of which are concerned with the desire for employees to always appear clean and professional. And then there are the rules that get a little too close to home, like the one about only wearing underwear that matches your skin tone and applying fragrance as soon as you get out of the shower, and not a second thereafter.

Women are allowed to wear exactly seven jewels — any more and they’d appear too fussy. They also can’t wear new shoes, and their skirts should hit the middle of the knee exactly. Should a hemline fall lower than 5 centimeters below the knee joint, someone might get in trouble. Men’s fingernails can’t be any longer than 1.5 millimeters long, and guys aren’t supposed to dye their hair, no matter how concerned they might be about premature grays. They’re also not supposed to knot their ties in shapes that don’t match the “morphology of the face” (and unless your face is shaped like a gothic cathedral, we’re not sure what that means). Also: no one can eat garlic or onions. Ever.”

But the business media have had the audacity to laugh up their (possibly non-regulation length, inappropriately coloured) sleeves too. Business Insider thoughtfully translated a selection of the instructions and guidance from the original French language document, which include:

  • “You can wear a watch to the extent it does not threaten not safety.”
  • (For men) “We recommend protecting skin by applying a skin cream that consists of nourishing and soothing elements. Thus, your skin will appear beautiful and you will be radiant!”
  • “Always put on your shoes with the help of a shoehorn.”
  • “Do not wash, nor ever iron your shirts yourself.”

I’ve not even read the whole document, and I feel woefully non-compliant already. For a start, I think I need a third-party cleaner for my shirts while I take care of my underwear (men’s underwear must be easily washed, I am now glad to learn: that’s going to save me a fortune at the dry-cleaners …). At least I moisturise and I don’t dye my hair, even if the cut (and that really is using language loosely) wouldn’t pass muster.

Observing that first impressions count for a lot, even the Wall Street Journal couldn’t resist covering it. Allowing that the code was originally intended as guidance for temporary workers and is being rolled out to a number of Swiss branches (with undisclosed cash payment support – so this might be a good week to for any lawyers who’re feeling the pinch to open a Tie Rack franchise in Geneva or a flesh-coloured underwear boutique in Bern), the justification offered to the WSJ does seem a little odd:

“Even so, only around 1,500 [employees] would be affected, less than 10% of our staff in Switzerland,” Mr. Fontannaz added. “The goal is for clients to immediately know that they are at UBS when they are entering the bank,” he said.”

Whether or not needing as many 43 pages on how to get dressed and not smell bad is basically patronising to staff or not, I am worried that the large UBS signage on the outside of the building, and the corporate branding and signage in the lobby wasn’t enough for the bank’s customers to realise they hadn’t drifted casually into a branch of Switzerland’s equivalent of Poundstretcher.

Quite apart from the potential for a Stepford Wives (and Husbands) effect, the big ‘Huh?’ must surely be to ask – not, as a greeting banker might, ‘are you being served?’ – the simple question ‘what is being served?’. Reading about the UBS code reminded me of a moment in a previous job arriving at a client’s offices with a colleague to be ushered into a reception area atrium that would put Caesar’s Palace to shame. As he whispered to me while we waited, “I’m not sure what this is supposed to make me think, but it’s making me wonder why they’re so desperate to impress and how much they spend on lilies and marble polish”. (In delivering the image of your brand rather than its reality – its actual services – you can ‘try too hard’ in much the same way as the ill-advised might do in the dressing mirror.)

In that vein, I’m not sure that “these people all look the same, and a little stifled too” is the kind of impression that I want to have on entering a bank. I want professionalism, a bit of respect, basic tidiness (nothing inappropriate hanging out, bulging or suggesting a lack of hygiene), but essentially I want to get the sense that they’re really good at banking. Grooming isn’t totally and utterly irrelevant, but it’s not that far up my list. When I want grooming advice and role models, my bank isn’t where I head. (I work in what is a comparatively very relaxed environment, dresswise, and I can’t help but think we reserve our finite energies and attention for producing our work and handling our relationships with each other. Perhaps working in a sphere where exploring diversity and valuing difference are part of ‘our territory’ influences that, perhaps not.)

But as we commented when we discussed the role of rules – and the potential benefit of HR being a little less rulebound – recently, the problem with a ‘rules are rules’ approach is:

[…] the sense of resignation that it reflects in the speaker and seeks to instil in the listener. If they’d said ‘principles’ or ‘values’ instead of ‘rules’, it wouldn’t seem as bleak: principles and values are guides that flex in response to events. Rules, like latter-day Canutes, are often more interested in bending reality to their will.”

These are obviously concerns that John Kay shares. Rules support principles and values where they are workable and they don’t act as provocations to disobey them (because they are plainly foolish) or as distractions from the real aim (where observing rules to the letter means we act against their spirit). As he concludes:

The only answer is to establish structures, both within the business and in the environment within which it operates, that frame attitudes and styles of behaviour. While rules can contribute to those objectives, only rules that are easy to understand and monitor will work. For those who subscribe to the objective of a dress code, formal definitions are irrelevant: for those who do not recognise their purpose, such definitions become a licence for abuse.”

As he comments in his intro, let us all hope that those in Basel working towards new working rules for bank employees keep a suitable sense of perspective: whatever the temperature, we need them to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. Lawyers aren’t the only profession that some people would really like to take a pop at, and that’s not good news for any of us.

In the meantime, let’s remember the next line from the Shakespeare quote:

Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? “

Shakespeare wrote, of course, in a time before paper or recycling. He was also teasing. But even in our enlightened age, a choice between more 43 page rule books and more trees isn’t exactly a difficult choice. I get many things from rule books, but trees give me oxygen …

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