From the September 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Fast Track: The Six Most Common Problems with Employees

Owners, read this column, then give it to your employees.

Let's hope it doesn't come to this--I love being self-employed--but if I ever have to break down and get a job, I'll be the best darn employee ever. After 10 years of working with the employees of independent advisors, I've seen every kind of employee/employer issue that you can imagine, and more than a few issues that you can't. Don't get me wrong: Owner advisors aren't perfect, and bring plenty of their own issues into the office. But in my experience, for the most part, it's the employees themselves who either create or greatly exacerbate the vast majority of the problems with their employers.

Sometimes, it's simply cluelessness about how their actions are perceived by, or affect, others. Other times, employees' self-destructive, counter-productive behavior is the result of deliberate actions, usually taken for specific reasons, which isn't well-thought-out, or is simply inappropriate for the workplace.

The irony is that most of the time it's a very small matter that really doesn't mean much to the employee. I can't tell you how often I'm shocked at what small, emotional things employers complain to me about their employees, and how these little things can gradually build into an annoyance that damages--sometimes permanently--an employer's relationship with an employee. In turn, this unhappiness with an employee often leads to micro managing (which doesn't help the situation), then to how the employer views an employee's skills and abilities, and eventually to a complete breakdown of the relationship. Here are the most common problems I see, and what you can do about them, to become the great employee that I hope I never have to be.

Common Employee Problem #1: Passive-Aggressive Behavior

In the workplace, this is most commonly exhibited by simply not following through on things employees are supposed to do, either because they don't want to do it, want to do something else, or are upset with their employer or coworkers. This kind of passive-aggressive behavior is usually the result of an unwillingness, or even an inability, to confront the issue head on. Unfortunately, rather than being viewed for what it is (an ineffective way of saying that "I'm not happy"), this behavior is usually taken as an indication that an employee either doesn't have the ability or motivation, or both, to do his job. Then, when an employer sees someone not getting simple jobs done, he isn't likely to give the employee bigger, more interesting tasks.

Rather than silently protest by not doing their jobs, employees would be far better off to confront the issue, usually by talking with their employer about why they don't want to do something. If it's boring, say so; if you think it's a bad idea, tell them; and if you're just unhappy about something else, talk about that. By bringing an issue into the open, it has a chance to get solved--simply avoiding it is never going to help, and in fact will only hurt you. Most employers are very reasonable, if you give them a chance. My advisor/clients ask me to do things all the time: Sometimes I don't want to. I've learned that if just I tell them it's boring, or it's not my strength, and it will take more time for me to get around to it, they usually understand, and I feel motivated to make myself do it.

Common Employee Problem #2: Hiding Behind E-Mails

I think this is a modern extension of being passive-aggressive or, at least, avoiding conflict. Rather than confront an issue--such as a boring task or more vacation or a client problem--face to face, many employees today write an e-mail, even if the boss's office is next to theirs. Unless you're dealing with a complex issue that you want your boss to read through and take time to digest, an e-mail is usually a bad idea. (And even on a complex issue, you're almost always better off to explain it to them in person first.)

The problem with e-mails is that most people aren't very good writers, so they are easily misunderstood, and can include nuances that the writer didn't intend. Yet once they're down in print, it's almost impossible to take them back. In a face-to-face conversation, you see if the other person understands your point, and explain it further if they don't. With an e-mail, you're often going to have to live with their first impression. It's also easier to turn someone down in an impersonal e-mail, rather than in person; so if you really want someone's consent, ask them in person.

What's more, e-mails create a permanent record, which often isn't a good idea. I recently dealt with an employee issue at one of my client firms. A particular employee had a history of asking for more vacation than was the firm's policy, and always sent her request in an e-mail, at the last minute, so as to make the employer seem insensitive if he refused. Sometimes he agreed, but in the instances when he didn't, she followed up with an angry e-mail response.

What she didn't realize was that she had created a permanent file of all the times she asked for extra vacation, and all her nasty responses. She was a good employee, but over time, whenever her boss thought about her, all he thought about was that file, which he reviewed again, every time she asked anew. Her actions created a bad track record, but her e-mails made sure her behavior was etched into the mind of her employer. I advise my clients and their employees never to send an e-mail on important issues.

Common Employee Problem #3: Over-Valuing Privacy

Legally, employers can't ask about major personal things: being pregnant, getting divorced, problem children, aging parents, etc. That's to ensure that employment decisions are based on events that occur in the workplace. Often employees are uncomfortable sharing their personal problems with their employer. But if an employee is going to ask for special accommodations at work--time off, flexible hours, even higher pay--they should seriously consider sharing the reason why. Employers almost always will be more sympathetic if they understand you have a problem that is truly beyond your control. Rather than just focusing on your recent job performance, which is all they have in front of them if you don't tell them otherwise, they'll make allowances for circumstances that don't truly reflect your motivation or your abilities.

Your co-workers will also be far more willing to pick up your slack if they understand that you're dealing with a serious problem. Many of us are reluctant to bring our problems to the office, but many independent advisory firms are more like a family than a job; you'll probably be surprised at how much the people you work with care about you, and will support you if you let them.

Common Employee Problem #4: Having to Always Be Right

Many people have a hard time being wrong, or being perceived as "wrong" by their boss or co-workers. Sometimes it's out of fear for their jobs or careers: They need to learn that their employer won't hold being wrong against them, and will, in fact, support them in their learning process. Other times it's simply ego. But in any case, there are few things more annoying than someone who spends an inordinate amount of time arguing that they are right, or researching evidence to support their position. Moreover, it's almost always time away from everyone doing their jobs.

The key here is to learn to pick your battles. Not every issue is worth going to the mat. You need to determine how important each point is to the firm and its clients (and it's not a bad idea to let other people have the last word once in a while, especially when it doesn't cost you anything--See "Remember, the Last Word Isn't Yours sidebar). When something really doesn't matter, it's a sign of maturity to be able to simply let it go.

Common Employee Problem #5: Emotional Competence

To gain the respect of your employer and co-workers (and clients, if you work with them), you need to be able to control your emotions in the workplace. Showing excessive anger, adding an emotional tone to your voice, and heaven forbid, shedding tears, undermine how others perceive your professionalism, your objectivity, and your competence. Frankly, tears are the worst: They can be manipulative, and will almost always cause you to lose a measure of respect from both the men and women with whom you work. If you get so emotional in a discussion that you can't communicate effectively, take a break, and pull yourself together. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Our Own: There's no crying in a professional office.

Common Employee Problem #6: Dealing with Micro Management

Nobody likes to be micro managed. As we've seen, employees often bring it on themselves by failing to complete their job duties. But some employers are just micro managers, and in my experience, it usually stems from a lack of confidence in the employee. The solution is effective communication: Make sure your employer knows what you're doing and why, as often as they want to. You'll find that will be less and less, as his confidence in you increases. And for heaven's sake, if your employer asks you to do something, do it right away, or explain why you feel you should do something else first--let your boss decide on the priority. I can't tell you how much credibility employees lose every day by reprioritizing their tasks without telling their boss why.

The bottom line is that many, if not most, employee/employer conflicts could be avoided if employees got their brains around the simple fact that it's the owner/advisor's firm, not theirs. Ultimately, their job is to make them happy by doing what they want. Write fewer e-mails and deal with conflicts head on, but recognize that you don't have the final decision. Let them know what you're doing, why, and when, if you can't do it right away. Don't be overly emotional, or egotistical, and if your boss needs to be right, let her. If you find yourself butting heads with the boss more often than not, then save both of you lots of headaches, and get another job.


Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at angieherbers@cox.net.

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