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“You can’t see everything.”
That was the advice my dad gave me after I had been in the business full time for more than five years rather than my part-time status while going to school. He gave me this advice because I had just vented to him about something I saw an employee doing that I felt was grounds for discipline.
Yes, I was and still am a hawk about playing by the rules.
“What’s important when it comes to employer and employee interaction is to focus on the deal-breakers,” Dad said, chuckling. “In other words, there is gray in the world — only some things are always black and white. If you want to pursue every tiny infraction, you’ll end up with nobody to do the work. You’ll have to do it all by yourself while you slowly go crazy.”
I was young and felt this statement to be unjust and unfair.
But my dad was wiser than me. His years of real-world business experience and success had taught him well. And if I had pursued my zealous approach, I’d have needed to clone myself because I would, indeed, be left to do all the work myself.
I also understood that his approach was very necessary because it was just he and my uncle at the helm when they started out building and running a fast-growing company. All this happened long before my brothers and I were even a twinkle in my father’s eye, let alone ready to join the business.
Our company was (and still is) a union shop that had some clear guidelines. But most things involving the day-to-day operations and employer-employee details were never defined in writing. There really was no training on any of it, no clear way of doing most anything.
Even when my brothers and I entered the business, for many years it was only when the worst offenders continued their bad behavior did we ever go through any kind of disciplinary steps mandated by the union contract. And because we had nothing in writing for most policies and procedures, it almost always ended up in arbitration. To avoid that, we would just choose to let those workers off with a verbal warning or ignore it.
But don’t think my dad and uncle had no discipline. They did. They both believed in the three deal-breakers they would enforce each time with each person at the company: If you lie, cheat or steal, you’re gone.
For a long time, this rule of three was what my brothers and I lived by, too.
If the behavior was bad enough, employees could expect more in the way of ramifications. The good news is the union backed us up on these three nonnegotiable points if we had documented evidence to prove our allegations were true. It, too, wanted to protect the integrity of our company, the customers and its members because this type of behavior put us all at risk.
As time went on, my dad allowed my brothers and I to have more control of the day-to-day operations and a say in how things were done.
We spent the time and money defining and documenting objective standards that we put into the writing of our unique operations manual. The rules of the game were made clear to all in never-ending meetings and training sessions.
We created steps of discipline to handle things beyond lying, cheating or stealing because these were the only one-strike offenses for termination. The day-to-day discipline began to revolve around living by the known policies and procedures. We became more willing to “see everything” because chances for employees to get back on board were built into the steps of discipline and the training.
Why did we do all this hard work?
The primary reason is we felt like hostages at our own company; we wore blinders to employee behavior, which were growing ever more uncomfortable. And we didn’t feel it was fair to our employees to not be clear about what the rules of the game are.
The hard thing about having policies and procedures in writing is that you think they’re being obeyed but you don’t know. You may not leave the office to observe how your techs behave on a jobsite or you don’t have mystery shoppers to tell you what’s really happening with your customer service reps.
The late, great George Brazil of George Brazil Home Services once told me, “Don’t expect what you’re unwilling to inspect.” He, too, knew the value of having known rules, policies and procedures, applying them consistently with each person at a company. And he knew that owners and managers need to get out in the field and verify that workers are complying with those rules.
If you want to feel less like a hostage and take off your voluntary blinders, you must document your policies and procedures. Get great at recruiting, hiring, orienting, training and retaining staff. This is what allows you to hold people accountable to more than just lie, cheat and steal. It’s what will ultimately let you build a company and team you can be proud of.