How do you know when to make an exception?


Groucho Marx famously said, “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” We laugh when we hear it, and we probably also have a name (or a face) that pops into our heads, but the truth is, we are often looking to either make an exception or to be one. And if we are not, someone else is probably asking us to make an exception for him. It seems that people (we) always want an exception; which makes me think of one of my favorite lines from the movie, “The Incredibles,” when one of the characters – Dash – in response to the comment from his mother that “everyone’s special,” says, “which is another way of saying no one is.” This also true for exceptions – if you always make an exception, it’s no longer an exception.

The question, then, that follows is, how do you know when to make an exception? Well, it begins by first knowing the norm.   That seems to be common sense – you can’t make an exception to the rule if you don’t first know what the rule is – but it also seems to be something that people forget to do. If you don’t know the standard, the normal expectations and boundaries, then there is no way you can determine where the exception should be granted. This therefore first requires clear standards of normal behavior and process that have been established and communicated. That’s why Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” You see, it as only after you are familiar and confident with the application of norms that you can begin to determine when and how to make exceptions.

I had the opportunity to learn when and how to make an exception early in my first experience as a headmaster, when I was faced with an exception dilemma. I had been asked to make an exception on something, and I was struggling with whether or not it was the right thing to do. It seemed like I could see both potential positive and potential negative impacts of either decision, and I just wasn’t sure what to do. So, I picked up the phone. I called Larry, who had been a Christian school administrator for many years and had been influential in my life, to seek his counsel. After explaining my situation and the internal turmoil it was causing, he shared some wisdom with me that, since that day, has set my parameters for deciding on exceptions.

Larry explained to me that there were two guiding principles that he used, two questions that he asked, to determine whether or not he should make an exception:

  1. Is it an exception I could make for anyone else?
  2. Is there a legitimate reason I could make an exception for this person and not for anyone else?

The answers to these simple questions – either yes or no – he said made the decision a clear and justifiable one. If he could clearly justify that it was an exception he would be willing and able make for others in a similar circumstance, then it was an exception he could make in this instance as well. In this way, it really became a standard exception, a precedent or guideline that he could use to provide a fair exception in all similar situations. And if he could clearly justify – in a way that could be documented in writing and presented to others – that it was an unusual situation that warranted an exception for this person or this circumstance only, then it was a rare exception that he could make in good conscience. The key to this one, he said, was that you could look someone else in the eye and justify with integrity and credibility why only the other person or situation qualified for an exception. If he couldn’t do that, then he knew it was not an exception he could make; put another way – if he had to hide it or cover it up, it was not an exception that should be made.

These guidelines have become my standard response. In any organization, when faced with having to determine whether or not to make an exception, I first make sure I know what the standard policies, procedures, and expectations are. Then I find out if there have been any precedents that have set the guidelines for standard exceptions. Finally, I apply the two questions I learned from Larry. Applying these guidelines has taken much of the struggle out of these decisions, enabling me to manage exceptions in a fair and justifiable way, while still maintaining consistency.   I still get asked (more often than I would like), but at least now I have a helpful process for determining a good answer.

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