10 Myths Managers Believe … and Why They’re Wrong

Managers have a surprisingly large number of deeply held beliefs that are sometimes just plain wrong. Here are 10 of the most common.

1. Myth: If you want to know what your employees really think, give them an anonymous survey.

Fact: Many employees don’t believe anonymous surveys are really anonymous. And they worry about jeopardizing their standing if they say anything negative. If you really want to know what your employees think, the best way to find out is to create an environment where they know it’s safe for them to speak with you candidly.

2. Myth: Low employee turnover is a sign that you’re doing something right.

Fact: Strong organizations generally have “good turnover”: They let go of employees who don’t meet a high bar while retaining those who do. Little or no turnover is often a bad sign since no one is perfect in hiring, and low turnover can indicate a manager who doesn’t correct her hiring mistakes or hold employees to a high bar.

3. Myth: A good way to reward employees for hard work is with a team dinner out or a party.

Fact: Managers often assume that employees see staff parties or social events as a treat – and some do. But not everyone wants to socialize with their coworkers, especially outside of work hours, and some people resent being asked or expected to attend such events when they’d rather just be doing their work. If you’re seeking ways to reward employees, make sure that you’re not inadvertently giving them something they won’t enjoy and might even resent!

4. Myth: The First Amendment guarantee of free speech means that you can’t interfere with what employees say at work, even if they’re making others uncomfortable.

Fact: The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting people’s speech, but not a private employer. Employers can indeed interfere with employee speech at work – for instance, directing them not to discuss politics or push their religion on others. (An important exception to this is that employers cannot interfere with employees who are discussing wages or working conditions with their coworkers.)

5. Myth: It’s not worth checking references, because no job candidate lists references who will say anything bad about them.

Fact: A surprising number of candidates offer references who end up sharing damaging information about them, or who provide a lukewarm endorsement at best. What’s more, checking references shouldn’t just be about getting a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a candidate anyway; it should be about asking probing questions to ensure you’re really hiring the right person for this particular job. Your candidate might be a lovely person with supportive references, but if her strengths aren’t in the areas you need, that’s information you want to hear.

6. Myth: When you’re called for a reference for a past employee, you shouldn’t comment beyond just confirming the person’s title and dates of employment.

Fact: Giving detailed, honest references is legal. It’s true that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they’ll only confirm dates of employment and title. As a result, many people have come to believe that it’s actually illegal to give a bad reference. But corporate policies aren’t the law. They’re often not even followed by the companies that have them. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references – and can be an enormous help in hiring the right person.

7. Myth: An employee can agree to waive overtime pay when they work extra hours, as long as it’s truly voluntary.

Fact: Non-exempt employees – those who are legally entitled to earn overtime when they work more than 40 hours within a week – must be paid overtime. They can’t waive that right, no matter how voluntarily. Nor can you substitute comp time, unless it’s taken within the same week. If you manage non-exempt employees, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the laws around how they must be compensated, since it’s not always intuitive.

8. Myth: It’s okay to put off doing performance evaluations or even skip them altogether, since employees hate them anyway.

Fact: Many employees crave feedback and are counting on the evaluation process to give them a formal opportunity to discuss their work. Plus, if you procrastinate on evaluations and don’t provide them on time (or at all), you signal that you don’t care about your staff members’ performance or development. That’s not a signal you want to send.

9. Myth: If you let people work from home, you won’t be able to tell if they’re really working or not.

Fact: You don’t need face time with someone in order to know if they’re working or not. If you focus on what results they’re achieving, you’ll be able to measure their performance whether they’re sitting down the hall from you or miles away. And you’ll often have a more productive, more satisfied staff as well.

10. Myth: It’s okay to call someone while they’re on vacation if you don’t do it regularly.

Fact: Employees might tell you that you can call them while they’re away, but they’re generally not happy about it if you do. Unless something is an earth-shaking emergency, respect employees’ need to truly unplug and relax – and protect them from coworkers who might interfere with their time away too. Not only will you make them happier to be working for you, but you’ll probably see a pay-off in productivity when they return. Most people do better with breaks now and then.

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  • Sarah G.

    Love this – very insightful!

  • Paul King

    Number 3 is spot on! Too often we have to attend a “team building” luncheon or even and have to pick up our own tab. If we must attend, the company should at least pick up the check. If we don’t go, we’re seen as not being a team player. Besides, it’s much more satisfying to get something done and reply to some important emails, than watching my co-worker across the table from me chew with his mouth open.

  • dave b

    Number 2 is a landmine either way. A truly ineffective employee needs to be re-assigned or released, but even the most justified termination risks sending the message to all employees that they are disposable. This is perhaps the fastest way to achieve high turnover, although it is the capable people who will find other opportunities and decide to leave. The best the manager can do is bend over backwards to try to be and look fair, and hope that the slacker’s coworkers agree with their judgement. This is much more likely if termination is used surgically, and only when absolutely necessary.

    • You can’t really have a high-performing organization without occasionally having to fire people — since no one is perfect at hiring. In my experience, as long as excellent employees are rewarded and treated well, they will be relieved that low performers are let go. It tends to actually help the morale of your high performers, who want everyone pulling their weight.

      • dave b

        While I agree that it is sometimes necessary to let laggards go, the consequences on the remainder of the workforce should not be underestimated. Most managers identify a few “excellent” employees, a few laggards, and fail to pay much attention to the bulk of the employee pool who simply do their assigned job in a competent fashion. This middle group is unlikely to be aligned with the manager’s opinion unless the case is obvious, and unless the manager has made a valiant effort to bring the laggard up to standard.
        One of the greatest risks to our companies is that we as managers listen primarily (or exclusively) to our “excellent” employees, and therefore get a very distorted view of the employee pool as a whole. These “excellent” employees are often identified as such because the manager sees them as having similar behavior traits or competencies as themselves. The excellent employees are therefore likely to accept or adopt the manager’s opinions much more readily than employees without those traits.

        In my personal experience, we as managers often assume that our decisions are much more widely judged to be reasonable than they actually are. While few of my reports have had the courage to challenge me on my decisions, I have paid close attention to the reactions to other managers’ decisions, and many of these decisions have been roundly denounced as unjustified by the rank-and-file, often with long-lasting impacts to morale and respect.

        • But ideally managers should be striving to have an entire team of excellent people. They shouldn’t be the outliers. That’s what a high-performing team means! If you’ve only got a few high-performers, it’s probably worth taking a look at how you can change that.

          • dave b

            I’m afraid your world bears little resemblance to mine. Each of my subordinates brings areas of excellence and areas of weakness to the overall effort. I see my job as finding ways to balance those strengths and weaknesses so that the net result is excellent, rather than trying to rate the individual team members as superior, average or inferior.

            My point in the original post and throughout this chain is that the rank-and-file often do not agree with the manager’s decision, and the result of that disconnect is a loss of loyalty and respect. As managers, we are not here to win popularity contests, but we do owe it to our companies to be aware of the impact of our decisions on the morale of the staff. Otherwise we risk creating an environment with demoralized and demotivated employees, where the only perceived path to success is to become a “yes-man” and “yes-woman”. I cannot imagine that such an environment would be a team of high performers.

          • In my experience, transitioning out low performers (as long as it’s done in a compassionate, respectful way) is more likely to have a positive impact on morale than a negative one. High performers want to work with high performers, and people generally can tell when someone isn’t pulling their weight. And of course you don’t want yes-men on staff; that’s a separate issue entirely.

          • dave b

            Of course high performers want to work with high performers. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to work in an environment where management and the rank-and-file agreed on who the high performers actually were.

          • I think that speaks to a pretty significant problem then!

          • dave b

            Perhaps we have discovered another lie managers tell themselves: “My subordinates think my decisions are fair, justified and necessary.” The price of this one is a loss of trust and confidence.

          • I think it just depends on the environments you’re working with.

  • I agree with #3–make sure you don’t “reward” employees with something they don’t really want. I think most people enjoy a company holiday party, but it’s still an occasion where they have to be “on.”

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