Just Not With Their Ears

by Jennifer Miller on December 14, 2010

in Guest Blogger, Human Resources

The following post is written by one of my mentors Sarah Gutek, a former Human Resources Executive. It’s a delight to have her contribute to The People Equation.

Does this scenario sound somewhat familiar?  You’re getting ready to go into a staff meeting when Esther from accounting reminds you to make a big point to your sales team about getting their expense reports to her by the third Friday of the month.  This is the fourth time you’ve had to remind your team of the expense reporting standard.  Apparently many are ignoring the standard. You wonder….aren’t they listening?

As anyone who has ever been a supervisor or manager knows, there are lots of nuances to the art of managing people.  Theory would say that if a standard is set out very clearly and it’s reasonable, you should expect employees to follow it. However, employees are very quick to pick up on discrepancies between the “official” standard and the actual standard.  No matter how often you verbalize it or how often you put it in writing, the standard is not what you say it is, the standard is what you accept.  If Esther in accounting accepts late reports, and expenses are still paid on time, well, then that’s the standard.  

As VP of Human Resources, I found the “Waterloo” of all standards had to be trying to establish and enforce a dress code policy. I sent out dress code memos with seemingly fail-proof examples: pictures of appropriate and inappropriate outfits, and exact guidelines of acceptable skirt and pant lengths.  As you can imagine, it was difficult to be all-inclusive — especially when it came to women’s fashions.   It even got to the point that I found myself crafting a memo stating that, if one’s underwear was showing when seated, one was not dressed appropriately for work. “Good grief!” I thought. “How can anyone reasonably think that visible undergarments in the office is part of the standard?” Clearly this is one instance where no matter what the dress standard states, the real standard is what the supervisor will accept.

It’s important to have standards. The lesson for supervisors  is: be sure that you’re willing and able to enforce the standard in an appropriate and effective way — because your employees ARE listening …. just not with their ears.

Guest post bio:

Sarah Gutek, EdD., is a former Vice President of Human Resources for a national financial services firm. Sarah currently consults to executives on strategies for developing high-potential employees. She is thankful that she no longer has to enforce employee dress codes— written or otherwise.


photo credit: istockphoto.com © Alex Slobodkin

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Henry Sr. December 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Thanks for the great reminder that the standard is what you accept. I’m not a big proponent of documentation or memos. I’m also not a big fan of a co-worker’s underwear being visible. However, I’ve never known a standard or a memo that keeps that from happening. The only thing I’ve ever known to keep that from happening is the relationships between the potential offender and people who will or will not tolerate it.

That’s why front-line supervisors are so important. When a standard isn’t enforced, the people who comply with it are punished. Your organization discourages the very behavior it claims to promote.

Everyone can use periodic reminders or maybe even formal training and encouragement on their own responsibility to help their co-workers raise the bar or at least maintain it. Otherwise, you discourage the people who conform and you encourage the people who break the standards.

Thanks again for the great post!

Beth Colburn December 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Sarah, so nice to read your post! I know there are many situations where enforcing a standard is uncomfortable, especially as they pertain to “personal” personnel issues (body odor was always a difficult face-to-face conversation!). Interpersonal skills development is so important in “raising up” managers so they can appropriately and professionally enforce standards by addressing the behavior without attacking the person. Mike, I agree that without consistency, discouragement seeps in and, where there is discouragement, there are morale issues; where there are morale issues…..well, we’ve all “been there, done that”! Bottom line is that we all agree how important it is to uniformly enforce the standards and “walk the walk; talk the talk!

Jennifer December 14, 2010 at 8:30 pm

@Mike– “Your organization discourages the very behavior it claims to promote.” Funny how we leaders get it backwards sometimes, isn’t it?

@Beth–you raise an important point– sometimes the “enforcement” is uncomfortable and easier avoided (short term) but the long term gets you nothing but morale problems.

@Lisa–is it performace review time in your neck of the woods? (grin).

Thanks to all of you for stopping by!

Sarah Gutek December 14, 2010 at 10:44 pm

@ Mike – you add a great dimension to the discussion — it is the relationship between the offender and the supervisor who will not tolerate lower standards that makes it work. That, of course, brings us full circle back to not tolerating lower standards, one of the main functions of leadership.

@ Beth – great to read your comment. Sometimes the uncomfortable nature of enforcing standards makes us hesitate or put it off only to find the lower standard has become the rule. Hope you’re doing well, Beth.

@ Lisa – after twenty plus years in a leadership position, I had four or five critical principles that helped me deal with most any situation. And, I did have to remind myself of those from time to time. The easy thing is to “go with the flow and just let things happen.”

Thanks for your comments.

Sarah Gutek December 16, 2010 at 12:10 am

@ Deirdre – you’re right, providing context for a standard or rule is critical. The more people understand about the context — and not just consequences, the more likely you are to get voluntary compliance to standards. Thanks for your comments.

Jane Perdue December 16, 2010 at 10:05 am

Sarah – having walked in your shoes, your post brings to mind two key elements: one being relevancy and the other accountability, with management being the role model in both. Those with direct reports have an obligation to help employees understand the “line of sight” between the standard and their contribution to the organization — the what’s in it for me explanation. The concurrent responsibility is holding folks accountable. Management looking the other way when infractions occur undermines both credibility and authority.

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