“I Don’t Trust You”: Ending Employee Policies That Communicate Distrust


Bloomberg Businessweek posted an article today here by Liz Ryan that sarcastically expresses in actual language what so many management policies communicate through their origination and enforcement: We don’t trust you. From blocking employee access to the Internet, to penalties and fines, companies often build elaborate policies and punishments that all add up to one message to employees: We hired you, but we don’t trust you.

Now true: there are employees who need guidelines and some rules to play by, and some work groups more than others. The solution in this case is to build a sandbox rather than eliminating the sand altogether. For example, businesses concerned about employees wasting time on Facebook can place a computer with Internet access in the employee break room for personal business. A universal blockage on all personal Internet use communicates another message altogether. We all need some structure, but human beings are human beings regardless of education or status, and I happen to believe most are trustworthy and want to do their best for their employer. If you don’t believe that about your employees, perhaps it’s time to review your recruiting and hiring practices rather than putting into place burdensome procedures, fines and penalties that simply convey, at the end of the day: “We don’t trust you.” And distrust breeds distrust. Trust breeds trust.

For example, I recently was at retail business where the sales associates must request a key from the receptionist before they can unlock the boutique case containing the items the store sells. What happens if the receptionist goes to the restroom or lunch? The customer just has to wait because, the manager feels, the sales associates (who are working over 60 hours per week on commission) just can’t be trusted to return the key.

Why did these policies originate in the first place? Because of one person in many cases. Because one sales person didn’t return the keys, now every sales person must get the keys from the receptionist. Because one employee looked at porn at work, now all Internet access is blocked rather than terminating the one employee who abused the system. Because one person faked illness, now every one, regardless of how well we know you or how hard you work, has to have a doctor’s note.

Policies made out of reaction to the actions of a limited group of employees are almost always the wrong policies.

The solution to employee disregard for their responsibilities or the company is discipline or termination, not the construction of policies for all others that are founded on fundamental distrust.

Liz Ryan goes on to write most insightfully:

“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.”

What do your leadership systems communicate to your employees? What you incentivize is what you will get. Trust breeds trust. Distrust breeds distrust. And besides, if you don’t trust your employees, don’t expect them to provide exceptional experiences for your customers. Employees can’t give trust to customers if they are not trusted by their manager. For one thing, employees who are so scared that might do the wrong thing will not engage customers with delight and creativity. It really is that simple. Perhaps it’s time for a review of our policies for our employees. Perhaps it’s time to trust them. And to show it.

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