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Lesson Learned from Failure of New York City’s Don’t Honk Rule

On page A16 of the January 29 New York Times, a headline announced, “Stop the Honking. New York Suggests It’s a Lost Cause”. The article goes on to explain that the Big Apple has a noise ordinance banning honking, but that the ordinance is rarely enforced. In fact, it is so rarely enforced (only 206 summonses were issued in 2012 compared, for instance, to 141,000 summonses issued for the use of a cell phone by drivers) that the Transportation Department is now removing signs from lampposts across the city that say, DON’T HONK $350 PENALTY. The Times reports that the rationale for the decision is, “the move was part of an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.”

New York’s “Signgate” reminded me peripherally of a key point I make in every seminar I teach: the importance of being on time. As part of the discussion, I recount the experience I had with one of our first clients. The organization had about 250 employees, and we were to teach our business etiquette program to them in groups of 25, beginning with the most senior people. Start time was 2:00 p.m., but at 2:00 p.m. the room was virtually empty of attendees. People straggled in, and finally we got started at 2:20 p.m. Apologies were mixed with explanations that meetings routinely did not start on time. This pattern of behavior had evolved and now was engrained in the organization. We then discussed the importance of being on time not just for meetings with people from outside the organization, but for meetings within it as well. Being on time is a measure of respect and shows you as an organized person. Being late is nothing more than being disrespectful of others and demonstrates your disorganization.

I then pointed out to the group that culture change was possible. To do it they needed to establish a clear expectation and then abide by it. Nobody would be held accountable for past transgressions, but from here on forward, the expectation would be that people would arrive on time and meetings would start on time.

Interestingly, by the next scheduled session word had gotten out and most of the participants arrived by 2:00 p.m., and the presentation started on time. By the third session, everybody was on time and that continued for the remaining sessions. The key here was to set an expectation and then hold people accountable. One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to make rules or set expectations and then not abide by them.

The organization was willing to change its culture and in the process became a better place for establishing an on-time culture. New York set an expectation about establishing a tolerable street-noise culture but was unwilling to enforce it. As long as that’s the case, it’s time for the signs to come down.

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