CH 1 Lesson 4: Mistakes to Avoid When Establishing Employee Standards

All organizations – large or small – should have clear, accessible, documented employee standards. But to make those standards helpful instead of hurtful there are important mistakes to avoid. We’ll discuss a few in this lesson.

Importance of Employee Standards

Jacob is the Vice President of Human Resources at a Fortune 1000 company. After a recent employee satisfaction survey, he and the CEO met to discuss concerns. Employees from a number of departments voiced that they felt other employees were treated better, pointed out inequality among expectations, and generally highlighted discrepancies in standards for employees. After their meeting, the CEO asked Jacob to recommend some changes to their corporate-wide employee standards document.

Supervisors and managers at every level of any organization should have clear expectations for their employees, called employee standards. While the specifics may differ based on the type of work or department, the general content of the standards should be clear and actionable, as well as documented and accessible.

Jenny is starting her own tennis club. Her plan, in addition to her role as the primary instructor, is to hire three other teachers and someone to help with the administrative side of things. Her focus will be establishing employee standards from scratch for a small group of employees. Let’s make sure she doesn’t make some of the classic mistakes!

Common Mistakes

When establishing employee standards, there are shared mistakes and specific mistakes. Shared mistakes are those that any organization can make regardless of size, complexity, industry, mission, or any other differentiating factor. Specific mistakes are those that an organization might make that are specific to them.

Overly Prescriptive, Overly Vague

For example, one of the most common shared mistake is being overly prescriptive. For Jenny and her tennis club, this may occur if she says ‘Employees must maintain a minimum tennis ranking of 4.5 to work at this facility.’ That may be an appropriate standard for her teachers, but what about her administrative employee? Does Jenny really care if her bookkeeper and administrative helper is good at tennis?

Because Jenny’s club has only a few employees, this mistake could be addressed by either citing that standard for instructors only, or if she wanted to be more general, by simply saying ‘Employees must maintain the skills required for their job, as determined by their supervisor.’

Remember Jacob? Imagine how much more problematic the mistake of being too prescriptive could be for Jacob. He has more employees, in many different positions, with different levels of education, experience, and primary responsibilities. Being too prescriptive might be one of the causes of the complaints from employee survey. Employees in positions that can be judged based on clear expectations often try to assess others in less clear positions, and underestimate the other employee’s compliance with the standard.

However, the flip side of being too prescriptive – being too vague – is also a common mistake. If Jacob were to make ‘work hard’ or ‘do your job well’ an employee standard, the lack of actionable guidance, assessment, and clarity make the standard pretty much useless. The same would be true for Jenny’s tennis club. The point is this: employee standards do not, and cannot, stand alone.

Possible Solution

So, how can Jacob and Jenny make an employee standard about working hard without being overly prescriptive and without being too general? Imagine employee standards as an upside down triangle. At the top of our imaginary triangle is the most broad level employee standards which are applicable to the whole organization. The next level is expectations set by the supervisor of a unit or department, specifically for that unit. Since they are specific for that unit, they can be more prescriptive. Finally, the bottom of the triangle is the individual employee and their performance evaluation, goals, and personal standards.

Back to Jacob and Jenny and their employee standard related to working hard. Instead they could have a standard that said, ‘All employees are expected to have an annual evaluation with their supervisor, and all departments should have clearly stated roles and responsibilities for each member of the department.’ It’s not too specific, but does give some direction for which departments and individuals are responsible. It outlines clear roles at the department level and annual evaluations for all employees. These requirements ensure it’s also not too vague.

Other Common Mistakes

Now that we’ve discussed a couple of the most common mistakes and why they are important to avoid, let’s briefly highlight other mistakes.

  • Being unrealistic. Saying ‘We strive for perfection,’ may be true, and may be part of a vision statement for the company, but no employee will ever make perfect decisions and have perfect performance, so it isn’t an employee standard.
  • Ignoring the standards. To truly establish employee standards, they need to become something employees think about while working. This requires supervisors to refer to them often and specifically relate them to an employee’s work.
  • Taking away employee individuality. Standards having to do with dress and appearance are very sensitive. Instead of specific rules against dress, piercings, and tattoos, focus on what should exist, such as ‘professional dress and appearance,’ and only do it if it’s worth the potential complaints and/or problems.

Lesson Summary

Organizations should have employee standards that help employees understand how they should perform, behave, and work. However, writing and establishing employee standards isn’t always as easy as it may sound; there are many common mistakes made when writing them. Some are common across all companies, called shared mistakes, and some are specific to a single company, or specific mistakes. Common mistakes are:

  • Being overly prescriptive, which can lead to unfair or unnecessary standards
  • Being too vague, which can’t be quantified or fairly assessed
  • Taking away employee individuality
  • Being unrealistic with standards
  • Ignoring the standards in action

Employee standards need to be considered in context, which the upside down triangle model is intended to do. Consider broad, organization-wide standards at the top, department or unit standards in the middle, and employee-specific goals at the bottom. Doing this will help optimize the quality and direction of employee standards.

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