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Can You Create a Good Employee with Good Rules?

June 29, 2009

I work around 12 hours a week for TCC (Technology Computer Consultants) , which used to be STC (Student Technology Consultant), which is part of UITS (University Information Technology Services).   Despite having the illustrious title of technology consultant what I really do is sit in a computer lab on campus to make sure things aren’t stolen and to help people with whatever computer maladies may come their way.  Oh, and make sure the printer has paper and is functioning.  When I think about it actually that’s probably our most important task from the “customers” point of view.  I’m here to make sure their print out of their PowerPoint presentation that is due for class in 2 minutes ago prints correctly.  I also inform people that, no, I can’t restore their Word document that they were working on for 3 hours and didn’t save once that they lost because the computer crashed.  Sure I can try to find a local backup copy of some sort that Word auto-saves, but usually it isn’t fruitful and by this point they’re too pissed off to care.  But despite the interesting dealings with the students in the labs, 95% of the time I spend doing what I want on the computer.  And all of that is the good part of the job.  The bad part is the bureaucracy.

This morning I was running late.  My shift starts in the business building at 8am.  I like the early shifts since I get up to go jogging every morning at 6:15 so I’m up and reading to go by 8.  The problem is that I have to clock in before 8am.  I have no complaints about this policy per se, but I do have problems working in a very rigidly regulated environment.  If I happen to login at any point after 8am I am assigned ‘points’ by the student supervisor on duty.  If I get 12 points in one semester I’m fired.  Again, this isn’t a major problem in and of itself.  If you have a multitude of student workers who are spread around campus you would want a way to enforce rules necessary for your organization.  Getting to work on time is a must, and this is their way of making sure that happens.  The 12 points is really the administration’s way of allowing leeway for times when you can’t quite get there in time.  Yet at the same time I feel that the administration explicitly distrusts it’s employees.  If, like this morning, I arrive at the business building at 7:57, then go up to the 4th floor, get to my lab at 8:00, then wait for the computer to log in so I can log into the time clock and then officially clock in at 8:02, to me I have arrived to work on time.  Especially as I look around the lab and I am the only one here.  I am actually not doing any work related anything at this exact moment, and this being the summer I most likely won’t do much of any actual work for the entirety of my 4 hour shift.  None of this is taken into account when the student supervisor sees on her computer screen that the consultant working BU404 was 2:02 late. 

The administration has developed a system wherein they try to regulate excellence.  But you can’t create a great employee through creative rule making and harsh management. You cannot think of every circumstance to which you are trying to prescribe guidelines or rules.  I don’t think you can regulate somebody to greatness.  The best you can hope for is to create mediocre employees.  The TCC heads are trying their hardest to create a good reputation for themselves and this happens not because of the rules of what I’m not supposed to do while I’m on shift, but because they hire good people who care about doing a good job.  Let’s say TCC hires a very lazy person.  This person is told he may not listen to headphones, have any sort of book out on his desk, must get up from his computer and walk around the lab every 15 minutes, must report every time he does something for a “customer”, may not watch long videos (even without sound) on his computer, may not use ANY chat client/program, may not work on homework, may not go use the bathroom without first clicking on the ‘step out to take a dump’ bottom in his time-clock window.  So he follows those rules.  Then somebody comes up to him to ask for help in Excel.  He’s lazy, doesn’t really give a shit.  He is obligated by the rules to go help, but when he can’t find the answer just says I don’t know how to do it and leaves the person to fend for themselves.  He hasn’t broken any rules but has he been a good employee?  The student supervisor comes around on her shift to check on the lab and the lazy employee.  Everything is in order, everything being done by the book.  She goes through her checklist of important things to check, marks that our lazy employee has everything in order, then leaves.  He does not accumulate any points or gets any PDIs (Professional Development Issue, a terrible euphemism for ‘you just fucked up and I’m going to record how you just fucked up”) and by the records and rules is an excellent employee.  He even gets mention in the monthly ‘newsletter’ for not having been given any points for being a bad boy.  Compare him to another consultant who might clock in late a few times, or forgets to make a supply report on how many reams of paper are in the cabinet.  According to the records, this person is a ‘worse’ employee.  But suppose she is also very friendly and cares about what she does.  She goes out of her way to help everyone but goofs up a bit on all of the arcane little rules that are supposed to be making great employees. 

People are great consultants in spite of the rules, not because of them.  Tell the lazy guy he can’t listen to music or have anything on his desk because it will make him look unapproachable and he’ll follow the rules, still manage to be lazy, and not give good service.  Allow the girl who cares to listen to music while working on her Calculus homework and she’ll still do a better job than lazy guy.  She’ll do a better job because that’s just who she is.  Lazy guy will never do as good of a job because he’s just lazy.  Your rules can’t make the lazy guy a go getter and more lax rules wouldn’t make hard working girl lazy.  I’m not saying all rules and regulations should be abandoned.  I’m just trying to say that you shouldn’t deceive yourself into thinking that you have great employees because you have a great bureaucracy.   You should have strive to have a positive work environment.  And to me, part of that means trusting the people you hired to do the job you hired them to do.  Your great employees will leave if the environment sucks.  Then you know who will be left?  The lazy ones.  The shitty ones.   The ones you wish would quit.  They’re so unmotivated that they’ll stick around no matter what kind of shit you throw at them.  They’re so miserable in the first place they’ll put up with just about anything and not care.  It’s the good employees, the ones that care, the ones that get the work done  who make your organization shine.  It’s those people that will leave you for a place where they’re appreciated. 

The biggest problem I have with working for TCC, then, is how hard my bosses try to regulate me into doing a great job.  Instead of trusting me to do a good job and then reviewing my performance, they tell me exactly how I should do my job.  The result is an employee who must focus on the rules of the job instead of how he would do a better job.  You can never figure out how all of your employees should handle all situations.  So why pretend as though you have? 

Great people make great employees, not great rules.