It's one thing to have a bad boss. It's an entirely different story when your bad boss is one of many at your firm. That could indicate a deeper problem suggesting your company's management culture needs an overhaul.
Companies with poor management practices typically have employees who are disengaged and want to quit the firm, says Allan Steinmetz, chief executive and founder of Boston-based Inward Strategic Consulting. A recent survey from Harvard Business School says 95% of high achievers regularly update their resumes and check out other employers in part because they're unhappy with their current company's career development programs. According to a 2010 survey from Manpower Group, 21% of more than 14,000 workers globally said they were unclear of their company's strategy and/or how their individual role contributes to that strategy.
While a disengaged workforce is a symptom of substandard leadership, just what constitutes bad management? Here are a few problematic practices experts believe should be axed:
Few things cause employees to tune out faster than a top management team that keeps the company's future direction to itself. Such practices cause the rumor mill to work overtime, particularly during times of change or economic stress.
Burton Goldfield of California-based TriNet, an HR outsourcing firm, experienced this firsthand when he visited a firm TriNet was acquiring. In order to meet with the entire staff, he set up two separate group meetings in a small conference room. "The rumor was that half the company was going to be fired depending on the session they were in," he says.
Scheduling difficulties caused some people to be moved back and forth from one session to the other, which they thought meant they were being moved from the "hired" to the "fired" pile. "It is amazing how quickly rumors start based on some distorted kernel of the truth," he says.
According to a 2009 survey of 328 employers by Towers Watson, only 58% educate their people about the firm's values and culture. Just 26% of companies surveyed planned to tell employees how the company was faring through the economic downturn.
Goldfield ultimately fixed his communication problems with a weekly, three-minute podcast. He interviews new hires, talks about new offices or a product the company is launching or what competitors are doing. He even interviewed his wife on their 30th wedding anniversary. "Almost the entire company listened to that one," he says.
Leading by (Very Specific) Example
Micromanaging is a mistake many new managers make and there's no better way to alienate your workforce. Employees told there's only one way to do things -- yours -- will stop thinking creatively about how to solve problems.
"There are a lot of highly competent people who have been promoted because they have done things well, and when they become a manager they think they have to show others the way to do things," says Mike Noble, managing partner with Massachusetts-based Camden Consulting Group, an HR consulting firm. "They think, 'My way is the only way, and everyone else can follow my lead. If they are not doing it my way, they are probably doing it wrong.'"
Having one approved method to get things done sets subordinates up for a fall and, ultimately, the firm. "Everyone will defer to you as the expert or the final arbiter on things, and will stop developing new skills because they just expect you to provide the answers," Noble says. "This might close the door on better ways of doing things," he says, which could come about with the advent of new technologies or people with a different set of competencies.
Team-Building that Isn't
Fostering a connected team is an important practice, but before implementing group runs at lunchtime or post-work happy hours, be sure members of your team won't feel left out. Those with a physical ailment or are, say, a recovering alcoholic, won't feel comfortable running races or swapping stories at a bar.
"Saying, 'We are a great team-building company,' when everyone goes out to run on the West Side Highway -- that's not in any way in my mind a team-building company," says Goldfield of TriNet. "Running may be the passion of the CEO, director or manager, but some people will follow begrudgingly or try to keep up, when that's not the intent of the team-building."
Getting to know your team members is generally an effective way to build collaboration and a sense of joint purpose. Social gatherings have become a linchpin for career success. Some 63% of employees surveyed by Robert Half International earlier this year said that productivity increases when employees have social relationships with their professional colleagues.
Little or No Training
According to a 2011 report from Accenture, 55% of workers in the U.S. say they are under pressure to develop new skills, but only 21% say their companies have provided training to learn those new skills within the last five years.
"A lot of organizations aren't doing the hard work to train their employees and expect them to come into the workforce with skills," Cantrell says. "Most workers don't know what skills are required in different jobs. If you don't know what they are, how do you go get them?"
Programs that cost companies money, such as training, mentoring and coaching, are valued highly by employees, according to HBS. When employees don't have access to development, they often leave. Companies with poor management practices see this as an impossible conundrum. If they invest, they fear employees will leave for better jobs elsewhere, but employees will quit if they don't feel invested in.
Just as lousy as no training is training that doesn't work. Typically, these are programs that provide the exact same training for every employee, no matter their existing skills.
"There's an assumption that everyone needs training and that everyone is starting from the same level of competence, but that very rarely is the case," says Noble. "Companies want to provide training for everyone so employees feel included, which is an honorable motive, but it can sometimes backfire."
It backfires, for instance, when companies put social-media savvy employees into the same Facebook training session as people who don't yet have a profile on the site. The pace and level of training for class-goers should vary based on the skill-sets of the people receiving it, and creating one-size-fits-all training programs implies that the firm doesn't have a grip on individual employee competencies.
Poorly Executed Performance Reviews
"One of the things I've heard most frequently is that people's HR or people practices were irrelevant to them," says Cantrell. People's schedules, rewards and performance assessments are often the same for people working in the same job, at the same level or for the same amount of time, Cantrell notes, "but people do very different work than one another," even if their titles are the same.
Cantrell says that assessing people once a year on generic criteria -- the traditional philosophy -- is outdated. A 2010 study of HR executives from Sibson Consulting and World at Work found that 58% grade their performance-review practices at a "C" or below, primarily because managers don't provide constructive feedback, and employees don't feel motivated by the results.
Some companies also misuse 360-degree feedback, a tool used by HR departments to get perspective on an individual employee from colleagues at, below and above the level of the specific worker. "We highly encourage 360-degree feedback, but say it should be used for development not for performance appraisals," says Noble.
As an evaluation tactic, 360s fail because the reviewers aren't always objective. "An employee giving feedback on their boss might think, 'Deep down I know that she has flaws, but if I tell her boss, they may come down on her and I don't want people to come down on her that way,'" Noble says. That problem can be averted if the employee knows that their comments won't impact their boss' standing in the organization, and vice versa.
Many companies just don't know what their workers are good at or how to develop them once they're hired. That makes it difficult to challenge employees to learn new skills that would enable them to develop their careers.
"Once people become employees, they report that it becomes hard for them to move around to different jobs in their organization," Cantrell says. Accenture's survey found that only 34% of employees believe that they can move into another job at their company. Only half believe that their employer gives them a clear understanding of the skills they need to grow in a particular job or career path.
Having an understanding of the skills and abilities of current employees can reduce the costs of recruiting externally for talent. To encourage employees to find new jobs internally, "employers can make job needs more transparent, and begin to develop more flexibility in their HR processes," Cantrell says.
Most employees like to feel their work has meaning. If they don't get this kind of satisfaction, they lose motivation, according to a number of research studies. One sure way to demean an employee's work is to move them off a project before it's completed.
That's what one of Cantrell's clients did. Its work strategy moved people on and off projects before they were completed, which didn't allow them to see the results of their work. "It completely de-motivated them," Cantrell says.
"From the employee's perspective, they want to feel like they have an impact," says Rick DeMarco, West Coast managing director for Inward Strategic Consulting. "If you pull them away before they see the result of their labors, they'll wonder what all that was for."
This practice also develops a workforce with a serious problem with follow-through. "A weakness in leadership today is that companies develop great strategists who can't execute a plan," DeMarco says. "Companies aren't teaching people to see something through from beginning to end, which builds a mentality of not finishing what's been started."
Having a thorough application process is critical to maintaining a level of sanity when an employer is looking to hire, but being too specific can hinder the entire process. Much has been said about how too-specific keyword searches among applicant pools is contributing to the so-called the skills gap, but the problem could begin before applications are submitted.
According to a July 2012 survey from Beyond.com, a job-search website, more than a quarter of 1,700 respondents said their biggest frustration with job seeking is finding job descriptions that are too vague, too specific, too confusing or incomplete. Unclear job descriptions could leave employers with fewer applicants because too many job seekers weren't sure if they actually met the position's requirements because the desired skills weren't clear to begin with.
Hiring For Skills, Not Competencies
A frequent complaint of job seekers is that resume-scanning software eliminates them from consideration for positions because they don't have the "right" degree or previous job titles. Accenture found that 38% of workers believe their employers don't consider talents and competencies when hiring. They only consider specific work experience and education, leaving many candidates who might have the capacity to quickly learn a job in the pool of the unemployed.
"Hiring managers try to find people by basically screening a resume for its experience and education," says Cantrell of Accenture. "Academic studies have shown over time that they aren't predictors of performance, but we continue to do it." Searching for competencies such as accounting, design, entrepreneurial mind-sets or computer science can be more of a predictor of someone's behavior at work.
"If you think about it, just because you have a degree in computer science doesn't mean you're a great computer scientist or that you were any good at it," she says. On the other hand, evaluating people based on the competencies that make up a good computer scientist presents a greater guarantee that you'll find someone good at the job, Cantrell says.
Write to Kelly Eggers at firstname.lastname@example.org