Keil Hubert: Great Expectations

Clever employees will always find loopholes in your defence measures. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that stopping employee misbehaviour is better accomplished through clear expectations rather than trying to block specific activities.

You can’t stop people from deliberately misbehaving in the workplace. You can make it clear exactly what will happen to them if they do misbehave, but that forewarning is not, in and of itself, capable of actually blocking a person’s wilful actions. If it’s within the range of human behaviour, it can manifest in the office: that includes non-work activities including sexdrugsviolenceinterpretive dance, and all manner of terrible decisions.

From an office policy standpoint, pre-emption is absolutely crucial for the survival of a company. If you don’t tell people what they can’t do, you can’t very well get onto them when they do whatever it is that you don’t like. Unfortunately, pre-emption is only one attribute of a comprehensive employee behaviour containment program. There’s also enforcement: when you draw the proverbial line in the sand, you absolutely must follow through on whatever threats you made when someone inevitably dares cross your line. Most importantly, I think, is communicating clear expectations: it’s critical to make sure that your people understand where your line is, and why it’s there.

As an example … my oldest son came home from work this last week with an interesting tale. One of his co-workers had recorded a video of her having sex, and decided to ‘share’ the video with the rest of the kitchen staff. This act went beyond a social ‘over-sharing’ violation – as my lad told the tale, the gentlemen in the kitchen immediately chastised the young lady for bringing such content into an restaurant that catered to families and children. The video was (for all intents and purposes) pornography, and pornography has absolutely no place in their business. The cooks demanded that the young lady turn it off and remove her phone from the establishment and then insisted that she never bring prurient content into their restaurant again. [1]

I asked my son if the manager on duty had sacked the lass on the spot for her act of amazingly poor judgment. He said that she wasn’t let go; in fact, the same lass had – later in that same evening – complained to the manager that she was the ‘victim’ of sexual harassment since (in her addled state), she felt that her co-workers were demeaning her by refusing to ‘appreciate’ her efforts at cinematography. Ten points for chutzpah, I suppose, but negative one hundred for deplorable conduct.

That last part of the story left me completely confused; from a management perspective, the lass endangered the reputation of the company by her deliberate, wilful, introduction of salacious content into the workplace during her shift. It wasn’t an accident, and she wasn’t somehow compelled to do so. For whatever reason, she chose to do this. I would expect that the ‘wilful’ factor constitutes grounds for a stern reprimand at the very least. As an old-school director, I’d be inclined to consider suspension without pay for her so that she might have time to reflect on how her decision was putting her continued employment at risk. I don’t work there, so I can’t be sure what their operating culture might be. [2]

To the point, though: the key aspect of this event, I believe, was that the offender’s actions were not the result of an accident. Regardless of where the inappropriate content came from (e.g. did she film it herself or simply select it from a website?), the lass chose to unlock her mobile, choseto navigate to the content, and then chose to draw other employees’ attention to it. As she made each of these ill-advised decisions, there was (as far as I can tell) no counter-narrative running in her head arguing that each decision step was contrary to good order in the workplace. She expected that her action would get a laugh, and didn’t consider that it would be viewed negatively.

I asked my son if his restaurant had a written policy governing acceptable workplace conduct, and he said that he had no idea. I asked what the company’s standards are for acceptable use of personally-owned electronics in the workplace, and he said that he didn’t know whether or not they had any standards. He went on to explain that the company’s ‘on-boarding’ process for new employees is quite rudimentary: here’s the sink, start scrubbing.

By way of comparison, my last company had a very robust and comprehensive suite of employee policies regarding acceptable professional conduct, and they insisted that every employee complete a training program and pass an exam regarding the company’s policies before they were allowed to start work. Managers at all levels were encouraged to provide written notices to employees about policy issues, interpretations, and changes. I took it a step further by posting professional conduct expectations for all employees in a glassed-in bulletin board so that everyone could see how and why managers were held to a higher standard than line employees were, and so on.

Over the course of my professional roaming, I’ve found that most companies exist somewhere between those two end points: they probably have some policies concerning professional conduct, but said policies often only cover a limited range of specifically-prohibited behaviour. After all, it’s impossible to cover every possible flavour of malfeasance, especially when it’s impossible to predict how technology will change our ability to do stupid things.

Does that mean that policy is a waste of time? I don’t think so. I believe strongly that effectivepolicy is absolutely necessary to protect a business from its own employees, and that effective policy can be very difficult to write. I also believe strongly that bad policy – which is childishly easy to craft – usually does more harm than good, especially when it comes to holding employees accountable for their deliberate misdeeds.

Therefore, the logical question to ask is ‘what makes a policy good or bad?’ The answer is pretty simple: bad policy (where ‘bad’ equals ineffective or counter-productive) focuses on equipment or functions. Good policy is expressed in terms of behaviour and intent. Some basic examples:

I worked for one company that made network users sign a form attesting that they would not use their company e-mail service to send or receive pornographic images. That makes sense, only until you tease the fringes of the idea. What about using your desktop e-mail client or a web browser to access your private, third-party e-mail service? Whoops. If your company (or your country) runs on the general principle that ‘anything not expressly forbidden is permitted,’ then Evil Bob™ can review his subscription at his desk without fear of being chastised because the policy writer restricted the prohibition to the server, rather than to the behaviour.

Another place that I worked at had a more restrictive policy that expressly forbade the ‘receipt, transmission, or possession of pornographic images.’ That’s better … but it’s still insufficient. You’d have a tough time enforcing the image policy on video content, and you likely couldn’t doanything about recorded audio (e.g. Skype sex) or simple text (e.g. horrible fan fiction). Under such a document-focused policy, our miscreant Evil Bob™ would be allowed to peruse and post all the prurient prose that he pleased so long as didn’t traffic in images. [3]

You get the idea. Technology advances faster than most folks can keep up with. Trying to stop behaviour by forbidding or blocking certain specific manifestations of said behaviour is like adding bricks to the Maginot Line. It only takes one good leap forward in tech to make your defensive posture obsolete when you over-focus on a specific threat.

This is why I’m in favour of writing policy that speaks directly to employee behaviour. Write it, run it by the lawyers (and your employees’ union, if applicable) for safety’s sake, and then teach it to the employees. Turn it into a dialogue so that everyone’s reasonably sure that they understand what’s expected of them. When you discover a new grey area, make it a subject of public discussion – decided on how to handle the new wrinkle, then correct your published policies and move on. Treat people fairly, and transparently – the way that you’d want to be treated.

If my son’s employer hired me to correct their policy gap, here’s what I’d probably start with:

Universal expectations for all restaurant employees (version 1, effective today’s date)

The function of this restaurant is to make a profit for our owners. We accomplish that by serving good food at reasonable prices in such a fashion that our customers want to bring their friends and families here often. That means that we have to earn and maintain our customers’ trust and respect.

The primary purpose of every work shift is to prepare, cook, deliver, and clean up after our products while keeping our customers happy. While you’re getting paid to work here, everything that you do should be focused on those priorities. When in doubt, and whenever you find yourself at a loss for what to do, talk to the manager on duty.

Also, remember that you’re an important part of our team. You have rights, and that includes the right to a safe, respectful, professional workplace.

Specific employee expectations:

1. Be at your shift on time. Failure to show up puts a burden on the rest of the team. If you have to be late or can’t work, call the duty manager as far in advance as possible before your shift begins so that they can find a replacement.

2. Be legal. Always remember that we’re subject to local laws and food service regulations. These are not optional. Deviating from them can endanger our reputation and, therefore, the survival of our business. If you think that something may be illegal, report it immediately.

3. Be in the company uniform. Unless otherwise directed, you must wear your shirt/coat/apron/hat featuring our restaurant logo. Be clean and well-groomed, so that you represent our brand well. We’re okay with creative self-expression, but not filth.

4. Be prepared to work your entire shift. Once you’re at work, focus on work until the duty manager relieves you. Do not make personal arrangements that conflict with your shift unless approved by the duty manager in advance. Don’t allow outside concerns to enter the workplace.

5. Be proud. Everyone that sees you in the restaurant and sees you in our livery associates you with our brand. Be cheerful, polite, respectful, clean, and decent at all times when representing our restaurant, no matter whom you choose to be when you’re not at work.

6. Be decent. Sex, religion, politics, and other controversial topics have nothing at all to do with our restaurant or our food. Keep your comments professional, and keep your non-work-related content away from work. Don’t say, play, or show anything that would offend a reasonable customer or a fellow employee.

7. Be accountable. Be at the right place at the right time with the right equipment, ready to accomplish whatever you’re directed to do by the duty manager while you’re on shift. As soon as you complete a task, report back for your next one. The whole team is counting on you.

Notice how all of this can fit on a single sheet of A4? That’s the general idea. You write the basic guidelines, have every employee sign a copy when they start work, and keep the latest versions posted in a public space so that everyone – workers and customers alike – can understand who you are and what you stand for.

Yes, I agree with what you’re probably thinking – this approach is a little vague. Guidelines like this are open to interpretation and require applied judgment. Operating in the abstract can be frightening, especially if you’re afraid of direct confrontation. I submit that this approach solves a lot more problems than it causes, however, because nearly any form of improper conduct can be traced back to one of the employee behavior expectations statements and explained efficiently by a junior manager.

The girl at the restaurant, for example, could be rehabilitated on the spot the moment that she was caught in flagrante delicto with her homemade sex tape:

‘Miss Evil Bob™, that video you just played in the kitchen has nothing to do with our restaurant. Even if it’s legal, it’s not decent, and it doesn’t facilitate getting your job done – or anyone else’s job. I’d be mortified if a reasonable customer saw that, and humiliated if they then associated our brand with it. Because you chose to show this under our roof, you’re off the clock effective immediately. When you come back to work tomorrow, either leave your mobile in your car or keep it in your pocket. Do you understand why?’

The intent behind this approach is to make difficult concepts relatively simple to explain, and flexible enough to stay relevant even as technologies, customs, fads, and languages change. You can still have detailed process guides and dreary regulations, if you like. First, though, I advocate laying down the fundamental principles of who you intend to be (as a team), what you stand for (and against), and how you expect people to behave. Get those basic ideas nailed down at the very beginning, and then adjust them over time to cauterize the loopholes.

Ten years ago, we all worried about people using their office PCs to look at smut; very few people predicted that we could get full-motion video smut on personal mobile phones, and that nothing we put on the network could stop a determined miscreant from misbehaving. Instead of trying to list all the different platforms that shouldn’t be used to watch inappropriate content, simply make it clear that inappropriate content has nothing to do with the work, and therefore has no place in the office.

[1] No, I’m not going to identify the establishment, since it doesn’t add anything to the tale.

[2] Unless something has changed from the time I penned this column to the time it posted, I still haven’t (yet) accepted a new position. Anyone looking to discuss this column in greater detail, say over a pay packet, is invited to skim my CV over here at LinkedIn. Or to contact me directly.

[3] Apologies offered for the awful alliteration.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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