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Jun 10, 2016

There’s no greater disservice to employees than trying to sell them a piece of fiction about the nature of their relationship with their employer.

Fact is, success at most organizations requires hard work done to demanding standards. We in HR have to be careful that our efforts to attract and retain great employees don’t cause our messages (either directly or through our programs) to disconnect from truth and reality. This is the central point of a thought-provoking Harvard Business Review post from 2010,  “Respect Employees: Be Tough on Them.”

Author Andrew O’Conner writes:

I’m a hearty fan of Bob Sutton, who has waged a one-man crusade against abusive bosses and companies, detailing the anxiety and depression they inflict. But the reality is that it doesn’t take an abusive boss to make employees feel anxious and depressed. Sometimes all it takes is a relentless corporate focus on great results.

I wish it weren’t so. We probably all wish it weren’t so. But our wishes shouldn’t delude us. While it’s fine to provide a few foosball tables and organize a few company outings, it’s not fine to pretend that employees come to work in order to have fun and be fulfilled. That fiction does them a disservice. They’re here to do unremitting work, maybe for years on end, and the labor is going to take something out of them. And they may get laid off for their trouble.

I don’t agree with O’Conner’s point that nasty environments can bring out the best in us. I’ve worked in a few nasty environments and can assure him that the experience didn’t bring out my best work or greatest discretionary effort.

Work is work

But I think his point on selling fiction about the nature of the work relationship is an important one. Nothing wrong with fun, fulfillment or perks — but maybe our priority should be on creating work environments of truth, integrity and mutual respect, and then ensuring that employees are rewarded well for the results they work to deliver. Sometimes work isn’t fun or fulfilling.  Sometimes it just needs to get done.

One of my favorite bosses ever once sat our consulting team down, ostensibly for the purpose of introducing the new performance management program, which sat on a platform of our new corporate values. He clicked up a slide highlighting the new values and their definitions. And then he said something like this:

I’m supposed to tell you that these new values are the foundation of how we will be managing and appraising work at our firm. But is there anyone here who isn’t 100% clear that it is all ultimately about your billable hours? Yes? Good. Enough said.

He was right and he won my complete respect for being honest in the face of the fiction that corporate HR (presumably with the backing of our leadership team) was trying to foist on us.

The message to you and me? Maybe this: Be clear and truthful about the nature and demands of the work organizations require  from their employees — and then be sure that those employees are rewarded in a way that reflects the results they deliver and the challenges they must overcome to deliver them.

Honesty is priceless. We deserve no less.

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