Are You Accountable for Unwritten Rules?

Gerwig 2014-03-17

Have you ever heard that ignorance of the law is no excuse? If you’re a student of Latin, then you may have heard “ignorantia legis neminem excusat.” It’s basically a legal principle saying that if you break a law, you’re guilty regardless of whether or not you knew there was a law prohibiting said behavior.

Now I’m definitely NOT a lawyer, and I’m certain there are times when ignorantia legis neminem excusat makes a lot of sense. But in everyday, practical living, I would argue that this legal principle is flawed. Can you imagine going to a neighbor’s house for dinner and getting in trouble because you didn’t take off your shoes before entering the house (and your host didn’t tell you)? Can you imagine disciplining your children because they weren’t ready for bed at 8pm when you hadn’t told them their bed time? Can you imagine an employee getting fired because no one told them they had to take a 30 minute lunch?

You undoubtedly have your own examples. We could go on and on. But I believe the concept is clear. And it’s simple. Before holding someone accountable for their behavior, you (or someone in authority) need to explain the rules, the expectations. In fact, it’s Management 101 and Parenting 101. Provide clear expectations before the behavior and appropriate consequences after the behavior. It’s really Psychology 101 as well.

I was reminded of this today while flying to Seattle for a leadership conference. When I arrived at the gate, I learned that I had been upgraded to first class, seat 1A. This was great. The seat in first class provided extra legroom, hip room, and real food. Nice!

About half-way through the flight, I got up, stretched and used the lavatory. When I came out, I grabbed a banana and asked the flight attendant if I could stretch a bit in the small galley (the galley was between my seat and the lavatory). She said “sure.” So I stretched for a minute until a second flight attendant came and asked me to move back to a lavatory between first class and coach/economy.

No problem I thought. Though I did think it was odd that the first flight attendant said “yes,” I could stretch and yet the second flight attendant asked me to move. Not wanting to argue, I simply complied and moved back near the lavatory to which I’d been directed. I stretched another minute or so and returned to my seat. Well, I tried to return to my seat.

Just as I was about to sit down, the second flight attendant asked what I was doing. I said, “I’m returning to my seat. Is there a problem?” “Yes”, she replied and then scolded me for a couple minutes before allowing me to sit down. Apparently, the captain had wanted to use the lavatory and that’s why I’d been asked to stretch somewhere else. I didn’t know. The flight attendants had also turned a drink cart sideways blocking the entrance to the galley from the main aisle. As I was returning to my seat, I did not notice their cart nor did I try to cross into the galley or go near the first class lavatory. All I was trying to do was return to my seat from stretching.

The flight attendant proceeded to tell me that when the door to the cabin is open and a passenger is walking forward, it is a possible threat and therefore the captain had to quickly close the door. Who knew?

I told both flight attendants that I was well-traveled and that I’d never heard of a situation where a passenger couldn’t simply return to their seat. I added that they hadn’t asked me to stay near the rear lavatory until signaled, or that the captain was using the lavatory, or that it was a safety violation to walk forward while the door was open.

In truth, though typically very observant, I did not see the cart turned sideways nor did I see the open cockpit door. I’d just woken up from a nap and was simply trying to use the lavatory and stretch a bit (as I’d gotten a blood clot from flying in the not-too-distant-past). I wasn’t looking straight ahead as I walked back to my seat. I was looking out the windows and only peripherally looking ahead.

Now, could the second flight attendant have handled the situation a bit better? I believe so. But that really isn’t the point of my little story. The point of my story is that I was reminded of the importance of setting clear expectations with our children, our co-workers, our employees, our boss, our students, etc.

While ignorantia legis neminem excusat may be a legitimate legal principle, it’s silly to expect others to be mind readers. If you desire a certain behavior, you need to tell the one who will perform the behavior. And, obviously, you need to provide the appropriate consequences based on the observed behavior. Compliance to the expectation that was clearly communicated is critical to monitor. But that’s another story.

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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