Can Employees Be Trusted?

Because employees can’t be trusted, we have put in place a massive system of policies and controls to make sure no one steps out of line. It costs hundreds of millions of shareholder and customer dollars to manage this system, but it must be worth it because we’re so certain our employees are untrustworthy—notwithstanding the fact that we hired every one of them ourselves.

We run people through online honesty tests, writing tests, background checks, and drug tests, but we must have hard evidence that employees still can’t be trusted. If we didn’t have that evidence, why would we subject every one of our employees to soul-crushing, forced-ranking exercises and constant performance appraisals? If our leadership behavior is any guide, our employees are not to be trusted—not for a femtosecond.

Because employees can’t be trusted, we put in place policies that require our co-workers to bring in evidence of a doctor’s visit when they are sick, no matter how much they tell us they hate to be out because of the stress it will cause them when they return, and no matter that half the city is down with the same virus. Since employees can’t be relied upon, we require them to bring in a funeral notice proving that Aunt Sally really died last week—no matter that everyone in the department has met Aunt Sally at social gatherings, or that we consoled our co-worker during Aunt Sally’s protracted illness.

Policies such as the proof-of-death protocol are expensive to administer, so it must be beyond doubt that our employees—whatever our relationships day-to-day with them may be—are unworthy of our trust.

Since employees are conniving little beggars likely to shank us the moment our backs our turned, we hold them to weekly, monthly, and quarterly milestones. If we were to trust them to carry out a project without close supervision, who knows what wrong step they might take? Our job ads require applicants to have 15 years of experience, suggesting that the people we bring into our shops might have passed all the can-you-be-trusted tests in our collective corporate quivers many jobs ago. Fifteen years is a long time, but we can’t be too careful. Even a 15-year veteran can breach a policy or make a misstep, and the ramifications of that could be horrible. (Say, the wrong typeface ends up in a product brochure, requiring reprinting at a cost of $400.)

Our leadership systems scream: “We love our customers. Our employees? Different story.”

If we were to treat our customers the way we treat employees, they’d run for the hills. Somehow, because customers give us their cash, we believe their every wish is our command. Since employees give us only their brains, guts, emotional connection, time, and goodwill, the deal is slightly different. We treat our employees as though they’re only waiting for the chance to take us down.

We write mistrust into our management guidelines. We institutionalize it in our policy handbooks. We reinforce it with every insulting memo and “to the staff” broadcast e-mail. We ding employees when they forget their ID badges and penalize them for leaving work a half-hour early to pay a traffic ticket. We willingly take and make the most of the juice and spark our teammates bring us because they can’t help connecting to their work at a level far above what the paycheck requires, but we fall back down to the level of the transaction as soon as it’s convenient to do so.

When it matters, we say: “It’s business.” When we need the extra effort, the last mile, the work-all-weekend push, or the thankless, endless trip to God-knows-where, then it’s all about the team. We don’t deserve the trust we get in those moments, but humans are trusting.

If we value talent, we’ll start dismantling the lumbering Godzilla of controls and policies that hampers creativity in virtually every organization, and we’ll start trusting ourselves to hire people we trust. Then our jobs will get easier and the energy at work will improve dramatically. What are we waiting for?

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