I’m a writer and to pay the bills, I was a full-time temp for a decade. I took on temp assignments lasting from a few days to several months and have worked in various positions in numerous industries, from finance to tech to the arts and everything in between. I’ve seen how people work in a range of environments (warehouse, bank, boutique, call center, and so on.)
And I’ve had a lot more bosses than your average employee – dozens more, in fact.
Along the way, I learned a lot about management styles. I observed how a boss’s behavior can either foster a pleasant and productive workplace, or a dysfunctional, toxic workplace.
Here are the top ten things I’ve learned that business owners and managers should definitely not do if they want to hire the right people, manage them well, and keep them motivated to do a great job.
1. Don’t gloss over negative aspects of the job during the interview process.
When you’re hiring for a difficult-to-fill position, you’re not helping yourself by omitting the realities of the job. In one interview, a business owner vaguely mentioned cold-calling, which sounded doable, but I was not a good fit for what the job really entailed: convincing strangers to purchase software they didn’t need and I didn’t understand.
On the other hand, I’ve been happy in jobs that would have bored some people to tears, like alphabetizing papers all day or sitting at a quiet front desk in case a rare visitor wandered in. In those cases, the interviewers were specifically seeking someone like me, I’m a creative type – a writer by trade – so I wanted a day job that wasn’t too mentally taxing.
2. Don’t let workplace “mission creep” destroy an employee’s job description.
As a temp, I was often hired for a specific project (e.g., sort through these 100 boxes of returned mail) then kept around to do, well, whatever popped into my supervisor’s head (e.g., go on coffee runs, assist someone in another department with compiling reports, or write bios of everyone for the company’s brochure.)
As a temp, this was occasionally stressful and frequently a waste of everyone’s time, but it was worse for the permanent employees in a similar boat.
Interminably covering the duties of an absent coworker, or constantly given tasks that were never part of their original job description, these workers were unsatisfied but unwilling to refuse their boss’s requests.
Plus, they weren’t as efficient as they would have been if they’d been allowed to master one job over time.
3. Don’t blend the personal with the professional.
This type of boundary-pushing often involves the incremental transformation of support staff into personal assistants. Before you ask an employee to shop for your dinner party or liaise with your child’s school as he sits in the nurse’s office with an injury (yes, I’ve done both) consider that a one-time favor can easily become a pattern that morphs into a new, unwanted job. (See #1.)
Even more awkward situations can arise when unrelated employees get sucked into the personal dramas of a family business. If you work with your spouse or kids, try to keep it strictly professional in front of employees who aren’t relatives.
4. Don’t allow a high school environment at work.
Many times, when I witnessed a good employee floundering at work, it wasn’t directly related to a manager’s behavior but to cliquey or cruel co-workers. As a temp, it didn’t bother me too much if someone else accused me of misplacing a file that hadn’t been misplaced, or tattled on me to HR for accidentally transferring a phone call to the wrong department, or decided to play silly power games.
But for the permanent workers in those places, who wouldn’t be leaving for a new job soon, this petty behavior sometimes took its toll.
Because office bullies are usually more subtle than their grade school counterparts, this behavior can be hard to spot from a distance. But take note if one employee complains to you about another, or if several form a group to the exclusion of one or two. These can be signs of bullying, which you can nip in the bud before immature colleagues drive out a valued employee.
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5. Don’t assume your employees are mind-readers.
In your business, you naturally want – and need – things to be done your way. But if you find new hires or even long-term employees often disappoint you in this regard, consider that their previous bosses may have expected something very different.
As obvious as it may seem to you that phone messages should be relayed as soon as possible or that all customers should be greeted when they walk in, it’s not necessarily obvious to your staff, and it’s easier to spell it out upfront than deal with confusion or conflict later.
Make it clear how you want things done by creating workflows, checklists and processes when necessary. This will ensure that everyone knows exactly what needs to be done.
6. Don’t increase an employee’s workload without increasing their pay.
It can happen when new hires join the workplace, and the boss sees them as an opportunity to get more done. It can also happen when there’s no budget for a new person, so long-term employees are forced to take on the burdens of a growing business.
Almost always, when I or another employee I knew ended up with far more work than we’d originally agreed to, no one was intentionally exploiting us. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when managers continued to assign me additional tasks and increase my responsibilities (for instance, at the assignment where I started out answering phones and ended up writing rental contracts, planning events, and managing the custodial staff) they felt like they were rewarding me for my skills and hard work. But when you give someone more work and you don’t pay them more to compensate for it, you only end up with resentful employees.
Depending on their circumstances, they will either quit or sit seething quietly in their rolling chairs for years.
7. Don’t treat employees like prisoners.
At one of my temp assignments, customer service representatives had just five minutes to check our email (or, say, the weather forecast) on one shared computer, and weren’t allowed to eat at our desks, ever.
At another, receptionists were forbidden from reading magazines or using the internet while we waited for the phone to ring – which it did about twice a day. Everywhere I worked, I saw that although they followed the rules diligently, employees felt constrained by arbitrary restrictions on their downtime.
Though all workplaces have different safety and security concerns, and regulations will necessarily vary, modern life generally isn’t compatible with working nonstop or being unconnected to the outside world all day. And in my experience, the more freedom employees have to take a quick unscheduled break, run to a dentist appointment, or use a slow moment to make a personal call, the more willing they are to focus on work when work needs to get done.
8. Don’t take advantage of people when you discover their unexpected talents.
Say you hire someone to do data entry and discover they can also design websites. That’s great, but assuming they’ll gladly volunteer to re-do your site, on top of their other duties, is almost guaranteed to make them feel used.
A better way to capitalize on an employee’s unexpected skills is to do what my bosses at an insurance company did when they realized a young receptionist had potential. They began teaching her different aspects of the business, and encouraging her to advance her career, so both she and the company could benefit.
9. Don’t make people work in a dump; on the other hand, don’t rely on fancy perks to ensure employees’ happiness.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve noticed that people in drab, dimly lit, or dirty workplaces feel (and perform) worse than those working in more attractive environments. Even if you’re laughing right now because you own an oil change franchise, you can probably provide a few niceties for your staff and brighten up the break room with a fresh coat of paint and a comfortable sofa.
That said, I’ve worked for companies in gleaming offices that offered perks like catered lunches or endless free baked goods. That was nice, but it did nothing to cancel out the more distasteful aspects of those jobs.
10. Don’t be a jerk.
At all my former workplaces, the primary cause of unhappy, lazy, inefficient, or frustrated employees was a boss who treated people poorly. I will always remember (and pity) the manager who yelled at me when a subway delay made me five minutes late, and the boss who, in nine months of exchanging multiple daily emails with me and signing my weekly pay slips, never bothered to spell my name correctly.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to avoid being that sort of boss – just remember to treat your employees as human beings who deserve respect. They will appreciate it, and it will show in their work.