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Many years ago I had the pleasure of working for a mid-sized regional law firm based out of Washington, D.C.It was a thriving practice driven primarily by the skill and amazing work-ethic of the founding partners.
I was fortunate enough to work directly for one of the named partners who truly led by example. He expected his people to work hard because he worked hard.
He expected results because he achieved results. He expected dedication because he was dedicated to his firm and the people who worked for him.
But aside from leading by example he did have one quirky habit that I did not understand until years later. Whenever he scheduled a vacation he would always leave a day or so late or often would come back seemingly in the middle of when he was supposed to be out.
I never really gave it much thought until years later I ran into him at a bar function and the subject of vacations came up. As we chatted about our summer plans with our respective families I joked with him about how difficult it must have been to always leave late for a vacation or be interrupted in the middle. That is when a wry grin crossed his face.
“You never figured out why I did that?” he inquired. “No,” I replied, now realising a lesson would soon ensue. “I never missed a day of my vacations. But I also never told anyone exactly when I would be gone so that they never knew when I was coming and going.”
“Why?” I inquired although the answer was beginning to become clear.
“Because while the cat’s away, the mice will play, unless they don’t know when the cat will be back,” he said.
And there it was. He had never missed a day of vacation. He simply did not want the office to know when he would be out or return so as to keep them at their respective desks working away.
When The Trademark Company was just a fledgling start-up we had an employee that truly took advantage of my vacations. It started as a long lunch but by the end of the week had stretched to the point where she was barely in the office. When I confronted the employee initially she denied that she had taken any liberties. Later, her story changed as she was presented with evidence of her liberties.
That employee is no longer with us. But in these two stories I learned a lot about hiring and managing employees. First, some people will take advantage of managers’ absences to the detriment of work and the business. Second, you can either develop a system of cat and mouse with your employees to keep them working efficiently or you can hire the right people who will work just as hard whether or not you are in the office. In our experience, the latter is always preferable.
So how do you make sure that while the cat’s away the mice won’t play?
1. Hire the right people
During interviews try asking the question, “When I am on vacation or out of the office will it alter your behaviour?” By asking such a question in the interview it establishes an expectation that irrespective of where you are they are expected to perform their job in the same manner as if you were in the office. Discuss those expectations in the interview.
2. Put systems in place
If you have read anything else I’ve written then you should know I am all about the systems. One of the easiest ways to measure whether work decreased during your absence is by checking your systems. If your systems have been set up such that you know what is to be done in a given day by a given person and they have accomplished that every week while you were in the office but were not able to do so in your absence you may have an issue. Someone is playing.
3. Address the issue
If your systems or other evidence reveal that there has been a slowing of productivity while you were away identify why. If it appears that it was due to an employee’s failure to conduct themselves in a professional manner quickly address it in a private meeting. Remind the employee that you must be able to trust them to be professional and work at the same level when you are in the office as when you are not.
4. Separate when appropriate
Hopefully you never get to number three above. If you do, be prepared to separate the employee from employment with your company should they ignore your advice. Trust is invaluable in the employer-employee relationship. If you cannot trust an employee then it is better in the long run to move on and get someone into their position that you can trust.
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