We’ve heard the slogans: “People are our most important asset.” “We want to be an employer of choice.”

And we know most companies fall far short of those aspirations, for lots of reasons.

Sometimes, it’s because their leaders say the words but really don’t understand why they should have an engaged workforce. To them, it seems like one big distraction. They really don’t believe that companies with engaged employees are more profitable and productive, and by double digits.

In other cases, company leaders genuinely want to improve but don’t know how to do it. They want to have an inclusive, respectful workplace but they keep hiring managers with antiquated ideas about how to treat people. They haven’t yet figured out that good managers don’t just have nice resumes, they also have excellent characters.

And chances are, they’re not thinking about their employees in the right way. If they really want to have respectful, inclusive workplaces and engaged employees, leaders and managers must embrace one concept above all others: they must presume that their employees have integrity.

As simple as it sounds, this presumption of integrity simply doesn’t happen in most companies. Too many businesses treat employees with varying degrees of distrust and suspicion, and their work environment is full of the evidence:

  • Managers hire security guards and install cameras because without those, employees would steal the company blind.
  • Supervisors monitor company email and computer use or surely employees would spend hours watching Netflix.
  • Rather than focus on work output, managers install surveillance software to measure employee computer activity. Because, apparently, it’s more important to make sure an employee is constantly staring at their screen than it is to have them turn out quality work in their own way.
  • Supervisors time employee lunches and bathroom breaks so they don’t brutalize the company’s bottom line by spending a couple of minutes touching up their makeup.
  • Managers clamp down on social media use, even though that’s how many employees stay in touch with family, because a couple of cat videos might bring down the stock price.
  • Leaders create strict leave policies that can even prevent employees from attending funerals, because their lazy people will use any excuse for time off.

Does any of this sound familiar? When managers fail to presume employees will act with integrity, they go to extreme measures to control them. They treat them as devious adversaries, not as respected partners working toward a shared goal.

Outside of work, that’s not how we treat these people. We encourage them to become parents and homeowners. The state issues them driver’s licenses. We welcome them into our stores and banks and neighborhoods. We don’t believe they’re too shady to do any of these normal things. We assume, correctly, that most people will do the right thing most of the time, in the home, on the road, and in society.

But, when they get to work, all that changes. Managers seem to think those trustworthy citizens turn into swindlers and cheats between 9 and 5.

It’s certainly possible that a few employees are lazy or dishonest, but the vast majority of them are not. Yet, we make draconian rules to prevent abuses we imagine will happen, subject the entire workforce to those rules whether or not they deserve it, then monitor, measure, and discipline with abandon.

We think that makes more sense than rooting out the bad eggs while treating the rest of our employees with the trust and respect they deserve.

But it makes no sense at all. No trustworthy person enjoys being treated like a criminal. And the result is a workforce that feels marginalized, abused, and angry.

It just gets worse if employees try to work through the company’s own processes to express their concerns and they are rebuffed or ignored. Then these marginalized, angry people also feel silenced.

So, they talk to their friends and they post on Glassdoor, and, sometimes, they protest, organize, and talk to the press.

At a minimum, reputations suffer. When things get really bad, lawsuits abound, and regulators get involved. Everyone spends massive amounts of time and money on something that doesn’t move the business forward one bit.

But all of this can be avoided. Try to get your company’s leaders to shift their thinking just a little. Encourage managers to presume their employees will act with integrity, to assume they are honest people who have the company’s best interest at heart. Then, consider what rules and policies need to change so that managers stop controlling employees and start inspiring them. Glancing through the employee handbook with this new perspective might be eye-opening.

This kind of transformation will require managers to take a risk, though the risk is quite small. It will take transparency, so employees know that management is taking a fresh approach and can adapt their perspective too. And it will take time—time for managers and employees to learn to trust each other. But once it works, the result will be a much more positive workplace, a focused, engaged workforce, and the improved productivity and profitability that result.


Photo by Tim Collins on Unsplash

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