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.