Thursday, 13 June 2013

Discretion: how far is too far?

'Use your discretion' is a phrase that comes up frequently at our weekly staff meetings. It is normally the conclusion we come to after discussing issues like whether to wipe overdue fees for older patrons and whether or not patrons should be given access to our front desk telephone.

While I agree in theory with this view, sometimes it doesn't work in a library's favour. For example, if some librarians are extremely lenient with writing off overdue fees and others fastidiously stick to the rule book what does that say about the library? That it doesn't have clear rules and policies? That it is prepared to be flexible in order to please patrons? That a bit of give and take is acceptable? My personal solution to problems like a large amount of overdue fees that a patron is questioning is to halve them ( if reasonable). That way, the patron (theoretically) goes away happy and the library has reinforced their overdue books policy while also showing some goodwill towards the patron.

I, for one, am all for the freedom to make professional decisions whilst at the circulation desk but I also like to know where the boundaries are. I think if we give free reign of discretion as a quick 'fix it' solution it can do the library a disservice. Patrons may not know where they stand and would also have the right to question why some librarians follow the rules to the letter and why some seem to disregard the rules altogether. Also, if you are regularly discussing issues like this, maybe some policy changes need to happen. I think it's important for all staff to be aware of what the preferred policy is for any tricky situations, but also to feel confident that they can use their own judgement if necessary.

What are your thoughts on discretion? I'd love to hear them/discuss any tricky situations you've had- just leave a comment here or send me a tweet @JuliadeRuiter


  1. Inconsistent application of policies used to drive me mad when I worked on a service desk. It can build unreasonable expectations in the customer that they'll get the same treatment from someone else.
    Or maybe it's just a case of the staff member making it clear that they're making an exception and that if the issue comes up again they're unlikely to get the same result.
    Either way, I think consistency is a much better less confusing option for everyone.

  2. Good points, Julia. There as some staff that need rules and doesn’t have the confidence to act on their own. Guidelines/Rules are for everybody, also those that use their discretion, to fall back on. Life for most of us, is not just black and white, but has many shades of grey. I encourage staff to lead from any position and to make judgement calls, when required. Some will and some won’t. As a manger, one has to create an environment that is conducive to initiative and innovation. Rules are there, in my opinion, to serve the patron and not to annoy, so circumstances have to be taken into consideration. There are ways to address the few that will try and work the system, like making a note on the person’s record.
    To quote from Gary Hamel and Polly LaBarre: How to Lead When you’re Not in Charge: “In order to engage in a conversation about leadership, you have to assume you have no power — that you aren't "in charge" of anything and that you can't sanction those who are unwilling to do your bidding. If, given this starting point, you can mobilize others and accomplish amazing things, then you're a leader. If you can't, well then, you're a bureaucrat”.

  3. What a tricky topic! On the one hand librarians are people too and have empathy; on the other hand the 'exception' suddenly becomes the 'rule'; on the next hand who really cares if the customer does not have their card?; on the fourth hand is it costing the library anything to make this exception; and on and on. Librarians are really good at making rules for the 5% of people who will never have their card, will always want to use the phone, will never photocopy anything ever again, absolutely need to take out all the books on a particular subject.
    I do not have an answer for you. This is what I am doing in my case
    - Examining the interaction between policy and guidelines. e.g. P. The library supports the students in their learning. G. No students from other institutions can join.
    - Is there a reason for the rule? e.g. No eating in the library > The library has ants. YES. e.g. No bags in the library > Because people steal books > Is there evidence of this? > Not really > NO.

  4. Yes, interesting and challenging topic. I am, by nature, a rule follower, but I do have to 'use my discretion' when working on the circulation desk on a regular basis. As librarians, we all love to ensure that our customers get the information they need at the time that they need it. At my library, our students are required to have their ID card with them to borrow books or laptops. Yet, there have been times when we've had to use our discretion on this, as our primary goal is to assist our students to do well with their assignments. There are times when rules have to go out of the window. With regards to food in the library, we have a 'no hot food and no drinks without lids' policy. Some of the reasons for this are the smell of hot fast food affecting others, the greasy fingers that get all over our laptops etc. when students are eating fast food and typing at the same time, and the potential for damage to our books and computers.