Trust, or Lack Thereof

“If you care enough to ask me, I’ll order two copies.” Our book buying policy was as straightforward as it gets. I had been handed a company credit card with a decent limit, and damned if I was going to nickel and dime employees on materials.

Over the year or so that I owned book purchasing in a department of a hundred engineers, I ended up buying all sorts of books. Obvious ones, technical manuals for Ruby, Javascript, and Postgres. But also more interesting choices. Employees asked me for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was so cheap I ordered six copies instead of two. They asked for books on management, on writing well, and on making better presentations.

And in every case, I faithfully ordered multiple copies. One or two (or ten) for the folks requesting the order, and a few extras for the “library”. When all the copies in the library disappeared, I ordered a few more, bumping up the quantity until a copy or two could stick on the shelf. All in all, I ordered about three books for each engineer in the department. The total cost was somewhere in the range of our monthly beer budget, and the return on that investment was fantastic.

And yet, when I talk to management about instituting a similar policy at their companies, many bristle. “That’s all well and good, but how do you prevent abuse? We set a two book limit to make sure nobody is abusing the policy and taking the books home.”

Honestly? I spent zero time preventing abuse. Zero. I didn’t monitor how many books someone had ordered, or cajole employees to bring books back. And in that time, nobody abused the privilege.

Fretting about perk abuse is really a lack of faith in your employees.

I’ve been speaking to a lot of friends about this phenomenon. Most companies aren’t so lax as mine was, and are rife with policies aimed at eliminating the possibility of perk “abuse”. Overwhelmingly, employees tell me that these policies make them feel disrespected and infantilized. An antiquated holdover from Industrial Management, when workers were seen as shiftless and dishonest, laying in wait for their chance to abuse and steal from employers.

But this isn’t the 1920s, and we can do better. And so, I present…

A Three Step Plan for Trusting Your Employees

Step One: Hire Adults. Take a quick mental survey of your employee roster. If you find that you haven’t been hiring responsible adults, it’s important to fix that problem first. If you’ve been waiting for a rainy day to fix any critical hiring mistakes, now’s the time. I’ll wait.

Step Two: Handle Problems with Individuals. Take a deep breath and realize that one-off problems — when they do happen — are generally correctable and cheap. If an employee shows poor discretion, don’t tighten policies and punish every other employee. Start with a conversation with the offending employee. Treat them like an adult discuss their poor choice with them. If they offend repeatedly, you were wrong about step one and should fix your critical hiring mistake.

This is the crux of the matter. People who can’t be trusted shouldn’t be part of the team. People who can be trusted, should be.

Step Three: Bask in Your Lowered Stress Level. Most of the effort you spend on policing employees is wasted. Place the burden of fixing problems on the people who cause problems, and leave the rest of us in peace. When you do, you engender more trust in your employees, which pays off not only in better communication, but also in happy, engaged employees. Trust me.

A caveat: when dealing with relationships between employees, set clear expectations up front. In contrast to perks, interpersonal issues are often damaging in ways that are nearly impossible to repair. Don’t pre-punish employees for problems that have yet to occur, but make sure that the ground rules are clear, and that any habitual offenders aren’t allowed to linger around poisoning your team.