Beware of employees who are too eager to please

Employers (and their lawyers) worry so much about disgruntled, lazy, poorly performing employees who never show up ("The food here is terrible -- and such small portions!")

But do you ever worry about employees who are too eager to please? If not, you should.

Legend has it that King Henry II of England, angry at his former friend Archbishop Thomas á Becket, vented, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Next thing you know, four of his knights went over to the Cathedral in Canterbury and murdered the poor Archbishop during his prayers.

Henry was reportedly mad, but he wasn't that mad.

In our time, Richard Nixon's guys thought they were doing what he wanted when they broke into the Watergate Hotel. Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein thought those traffic problems in Fort Lee were just what Chris Christie wanted. (Some say they were right.)

I thought about all this when I spent a vacation day reading the report of Anton Valukas on the Chevy Cobalt ignition switch problem, which led to a recall just recently, even though certain people at GM knew or should have known about the defect for approximately 10 years. I was expecting to read about a series of mistakes combined with bureaucratic inertia. What a surprise to find that at least one engineer approved the ignition switch knowing full well that it wasn't to "spec," then secretly authorized a change to a safer mechanism after people started being killed in accidents, and then never admitted to the change until caught by a plaintiff's lawyer in a deposition in 2013.

Holy Toledo! Why would the engineer do such a thing!?, I wondered. The report didn't really answer the question, but some other articles noted that GM was in calamitous financial condition at the time that the Cobalt was being developed. (This was pre-bailout.) Cost-slashing was the directive from the top, and the company's survival was at stake.

So, my best guess is that this engineer thought he was doing what his bosses would want him to do. First, save on the part to keep production costs as low as possible and maximize the margin. Second (once he realized that people were being severely injured and killed), get it fixed asap, but don't admit it. That way, you might avoid the expense of a recall, and you don't have to admit that the part was bad in the first place.

Is this really what his bosses wanted him to do? I don't know. I hope not. But employers often underestimate their employees' desire to please. Which is really what I want to blog about today.

I touched on this topic a while back, in connection with off-clock work. Salaried, non-exempt employees (the good ones, anyway) often want to be available at all hours and work as long as it takes to get the job done. Bless 'em. But we really don't want them to do that -- right? -- because if they do, we could be creating all kinds of wage-hour problems.

It can also come up in the context of employer cost-cutting, or unrealistic expectations. If you overemphasize cutting costs, you could end up with an employee like our GM engineer who exercises a "judgment call" that has catastrophic consequences. If you set expectations that are not realistic (for example, "We have laid off half of the employees in your department, but we expect you to get all your work plus theirs done in 40 hours a week"), you get employees who cheat so that they can (seem to) meet your goals.

Or it might come up in the context of a termination decision. Maybe the employee's termination was ill-advised. But in presenting the facts to you, the manager paints a rosy picture, leading you to decline an offer of early mediation. It's only after your case falls apart, and you incur great expense, that you finally realize the manager failed to give you the real story, perhaps out of a desire to please.

Here are some ways to ensure that employees do not feel that they're doing what the company wants when they cheat, lie, or unethically cut corners:

1-Set performance goals that are realistic. Don't expect them, for example, to be able to get 60 hours' worth of work done in 40 hours. It can't be done. They will either blow off the work, which is a problem, or they'll work off the clock, which is a problem. (Or maybe a combination of the two, which is two problems.) You should not set expectations that can't possibly be met. If you need to consult with the employees to ensure that your goals are achievable, then do so.

2-When you communicate your goals to employees, be sure they understand that the goals are not "absolute." Cost-cutting and profitability are great, but safety (both of your employees and the public), compliance with the law, honesty, integrity, and ethics always have to take priority. Make sure employees know this. Make sure their bosses know it, too.

3-Have a mechanism in place for employees to report if they feel that they can't comply with company goals without compromising safety, legality, or ethics. Needless to say, the mechanism should allow them to bypass any supervisors who may be directing or "encouraging" the unsafe/unethical behavior. Whether your jurisdiction has a whistleblower law or not, as a matter of company policy, promise that you will not retaliate against any employee who makes such a good-faith complaint. (And then, of course, make good on your promise.)

4-Make sure that employees know that the reporting mechanism exists and know how to use it.

5-Set an example. Show, by your own actions, that your desire to act responsibly and ethically outweighs your desire to cut costs or maximize profits. Talk to employees about times that you had an opportunity to -- for example -- cut costs at the expense of safety and did not do it because safety was non-negotiable. Your example (and getting the word out) will encourage your employees to follow your lead.

6-Follow up promptly to thoroughly investigate any issues that are brought to your attention, and take effective remedial action.

7-Reward honesty, and employees who are willing to give you bad news. If an employee messes up and fesses up, get over your disappointment as quickly as possible and express your appreciation for the prompt disclosure. Then get to work on constructive solutions to resolve the problem. If your employees know you take it pretty well when they bear bad news, they won't be as reluctant to let you know while you still have time to do something about it.

8-If, like King Henry II, you say something intemperate in the presence of employees, apologize and clarify your true feelings as soon as possible -- before they run out and murder the Archbishop.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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