Listen to this story
It’s hard enough to attract and hold on to good employees, but to attract and hold on to the best employees is even harder. Occasionally they leave because of an opportunity they can’t pass up, but most of the time the cause lies within the company they’re leaving. Too many workplaces create rule-driven cultures that may keep management feeling like things are under control, but they squelch creativity and reinforce the ordinary.
Faced with a rule-driven culture, the best employees — the most talented and hard-working ones — are usually the first to go, because they’re in high demand and have more opportunity than most. What’s left is a pool of people who are mediocre at what they do, willing to compromise their standards, and in it mostly for the paycheck. And if you have mediocre people doing mediocre work, you are going to have a mediocre company. Here’s a simple principle for hiring and keeping the best and most talented people:
Stop creating dumb rules.
How do you know if a rule is dumb? Ask yourself who needs it. If it’s directed primarily at the people you wish you hadn’t hired, it’s probably a dumb rule. In this article, we’ll examine some common workplace scenarios where these rulings might apply.:
Imagine you’re a potentially great employee applying for a job with your organization. You polish your resume, write a compelling cover letter, and then you enter the black hole — the space between applying for a job and being hired (or getting an impersonal notification that it’s been filled). It’s not just dumb — it’s inhumane. Isn’t there a way to create hiring processes with a human touch? Isn’t it possible to find the right person on the basis of their words and presentation and a sense of who they are instead of relying on keyword searches? Humanize the process, and you’ll get better and more talented people.
Performance reviews and rankings
Let’s be honest: Performance reviews are a waste of time. Brilliant people deserve better than being slotted into some bureaucratic five-point scale once a year. It doesn’t provide valuable feedback — it’s just a ritual that’s dreaded by everyone involved. Forced ranking, sometimes called stack ranking, is even worse. Lining up your employees and comparing them with one another, best to worst, is one of the stupidest ideas I have ever encountered as a coach and business consultant. Why would anyone want to stay at a company that treats people this way? How hard it must be to trust your colleagues when you’re essentially in an organizational version of the Hunger Games. Does any meaningful information come out of such a process? Talented people should be supported in their strength and uniqueness, not compared with others or measured against arbitrary standards.
If you have mediocre people doing mediocre work, you are going to have a mediocre company.
If you don’t trust the people you hired, why did you hire them? If you don’t trust your managers to hire good people, why did you make them managers? Get rid of annual reviews and rankings, and allow people to be brilliant, motivated, and creative. Encourage them to set goals and maintain high standards, and support them in doing so. Trust them to produce, and if they are not producing, let them go.
In many positions, smart people don’t need policies to force them into showing up at the office. People know what work they have to do that day and where best to do it. One week, they may know they have something truly valuable to contribute or learn in a group setting at the office. The next week, they may see that their time is better spent meeting a deadline from home with availability by message or phone. Those who consistently fail to show up and contribute are likely not meeting other standards as well.
Ask yourself how productive you’d be in your personal life if you had to get someone else to approve all your purchases and decisions. You’d never get anything done! Do you really want your best workers to spend their time chasing people for rubber-stamp approvals? If you’re talking about a big project or new procedure, approvals are appropriate, but to require them on everything is ludicrous. It slows down work, wastes money, and tells people you don’t trust their judgment.
Speak to them, hold a conversation, engage. A quick online survey will give you shallow responses. The best way to learn what’s happening is to have honest, candid conversations about what is working and what is not.
If a dedicated employee doesn’t feel good enough to come to work, what’s the point in making them drag themselves out of bed to get a doctor’s slip? Just let people know that when they’re sick, they’re expected to stay home and rest until they’re well enough (and non-contagious enough) to return to work. For a serious illness, maybe a transition time of half days is appropriate. Similarly, if people want to take a personal day, don’t make them lie about it. Treat the great people you hired with respect. Trust that they know how to honor their time and work hard delivering on their promises, and encourage them to take a down day if they need it for whatever reason, no questions asked. Requiring documentation is another case of sending a message that you don’t trust the people you’ve hired.
Frequent flyer miles
Work travel isn’t easy — leaving your life behind and living out of a hotel room in a place where you may not know even a soul can be true drudgery. And with airport check-in lines that stretch out for hours, TSA impositions, and constantly canceled flights, it can seriously feel like years are being shaved off your life. That’s why frequent flyer miles should belong to the person who earned them, not the company. It’s a no-cost way for you to reward the person’s sacrifice. Rules stating otherwise are not only stupid but grossly unfair.
I have worked with companies that put complete faith in employee engagement surveys, but frankly I believe they’re a sham. If you want to know how things are, just walk around and ask people face-to-face. Speak to them, hold a conversation, engage. A quick online survey will give you shallow responses. The best way to learn what’s happening is to have honest, candid conversations about what is working and what is not. If that’s impossible, you have a big problem with connection and communication — the two most important things that drive engagement. Look to the source and speak to the heart of your people. They don’t need to speak through fancy surveys; they can get to the heart of the matter on their own if you give them a chance.
Making people check their phones on the way in so they can’t be used for confidential documents or information, again, shows only a lack of trust. The main reason for having a phone is so you can be easily contacted. Why not trust your smart people to make smart choices?
These are among the stupidest rules of all. In offices that have such policies, the rule is broken by everyone, including the person who created it. It’s one thing to ask people to limit their time or to put reasonable restrictions on what kind of sites they can visit, but to forbid access to information is just plain dumb.
Many organizations still have the throwback rule that employees have to be in a position for six months before they can transfer or be promoted. This might have worked in the past — even baby boomers who weren’t happy with their jobs went along with the rules — but these days the work force is different. If someone wants to get around the six-month rule, they will simply defy it or quit.
If you came up in an organizational culture governed by rules, especially dumb rules, you have to ask yourself if you belong there.