Why People Break Rules

Rules and procedures are vital to the effective running of an organization. If there were to be no rules, then there would be lots of chaos and mess all around which would result in less than expected output. It is therefore important for everyone in the organization to follow rules and procedures, but then, people break rules. This then begs the question; why do people break rules?

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, there are two main types of human failure: errors and violations. A human error is an action or decision which was not intended and can be in the form of slips, lapses, or mistakes. Slips and lapses occur in very familiar tasks being carried out without much conscious attention — either you don’t do what you’re meant to do, or you forget to do something. Mistakes on the other hand are errors of judgment or decision-making and they arise when we do the wrong thing, believing it to be right. These types of human errors are not intended and can happen to even the most experienced and well-trained person.

The second type of human failure, violation, is however a deliberate deviation from a rule or procedure. These are intentional failures — deliberately doing the wrong thing. However, they are rarely malicious and usually result from an intention to get the job done as efficiently as possible. Therefore, understanding why these violations occur and the different factors which make them worse will help in developing more effective controls to manage them. Violations are divided into three categories: routine, situational, and exceptional. Each of these three categories can be examined to understand the factors that contribute to them and how they can be avoided or reduced.

Routine Violations

Violations are categorized as routine when breaking rules or procedures has become a normal way of working within the workgroup. This is evident in a workplace when working differently from prescribed rules and procedures is so common that they are no longer perceived as violations or deemed to be risky behaviour. This can be due to several factors which include the desire to cut corners to save time and energy, lack of supervision or enforcement of the rules, and a general perception from the workers that the rules are impractical, restrictive, unnecessary or no longer applicable. There are also cases of new workers starting a job where routine violations are the norm and are taught bad habits, believing them to be correct and not realizing that it is not the correct way of working.

These types of violations can be reduced or avoided by identifying design factors and workplace conditions that encourage cutting corners and designing them out or improving them to decrease the likelihood of cutting corners. Conscious steps also need to be taken to increase the chances of detecting such violations, which might have become a norm, through regular monitoring, intervention, and enforcement. Furthermore, the workers should be involved and consulted in the development of rules and procedures to increase acceptance, and the reasons behind certain rules or procedures, and their relevance should be explained to the workers. The rules and procedures should also be reviewed periodically and as the situation changes to ensure that they remain practical, relevant, and applicable.

Situational Violations

Situational violations, by contrast, occurs when circumstances in the workplace require or entice employees to break specific rules or procedures. Such circumstances could be time pressure, insufficient staff for the workload, the right equipment not being available, or even extreme weather conditions. Under these circumstances, the workers find it very difficult to comply with a rule or procedure or think that complying in such a situation might be unsafe.

The potential for these types of violations can be identified through effective risk assessments and subsequently putting controls in place to either prevent the circumstances from occurring or manage any risk that may arise from not following the rule or procedure. Establishing and promoting a positive safety culture by encouraging reporting of job pressures through open communication, while putting measures in place to improve the work design, planning, and environment to remove pressure is also important. Providing adequate supervision, resources, and support for the workers will also be helpful.

Exceptional Violations

While routine violations are a norm and situational violations happen based on circumstances, exceptional violations rarely happen. They occur in unusual circumstances and only when something has gone wrong and the decision making is to try to put things right, even if this means taking risks that are known to be inappropriate. In such exceptional cases, breaking the rules seem to be inevitable to solve the current problem or crisis and the belief is that the benefit outweighs the risk of breaking the rules.

To minimize these types of violations, adequate training for handling abnormal situations and emergencies should be provided for the workers so that when such situations arise, they are better prepared to manage it in a predetermined and effective way. Proper risk assessments should also be carried out to take account of such situations and establish controls to be put in place to minimize any associated risk. Reducing the time pressure on staff to act quickly in novel situations will also help minimize exceptional violations.

People break rules for many reasons. Getting to the root cause of any violation and understanding the different categories of violations is key to identifying control measures and preventing the violation. Human failure is normal and predictable; hence it can be identified and effectively managed. To minimize people breaking rules, you first need to find out why they are breaking the rules, and with that understanding, adopt the most appropriate approach and establish effective controls to address them.




Safety professional, passionate about growth and sustainable development.

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Daud' O. Shittu

Daud' O. Shittu

Safety professional, passionate about growth and sustainable development.

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