by Liz Ryan
Every few years, a management book or philosophy emerges to change our thinking about the best ways to lead employees.
From The One Minute Manager to Who Moved My Cheese?, new and revived leadership concepts have shaped the way we organize, evaluate, inspire, and reward team members. With so many competing management theories in the mix, some ill-conceived practices were bound to take hold—and indeed, many have. Here's our list of the 10 most brainless and injurious:
1. Forced Ranking
The idea behind forced ranking is that when you evaluate your employees against one another, you'll see who's most critical on the team and who's most expendable. This theory rests on the notion that we can exhort our reports to work together for the sake of the team 364 days a year and then, when it really counts, pit them against one another in a zero-sum competitive exercise. That's a decent strategy for TV shows such as Survivor but disastrous for organizations that intend to stay in business for the long term. What to do instead: Evaluate employees against written goals and move quickly to remove poor performers all the time (not just once a year).
2. Front-Loaded Recruiting Systems
All the rage in the corporate hiring arena, so-called front-loaded hiring processes require candidates to surmount the Seven Trials of Hercules before earning so much as a phone call from your HR staff. Those trials can include credit checks, reference checks, online honesty tests, questionnaires, sample work assignments, and other mandatory drills that signal "We'll just need you to crawl over a few more bits of broken glass, and you may get that interview." Don't be fooled by job-market reports—talented, creative employees are as hard to snag as ever. Insulting and demeaning hiring practices are a big reason. What to do instead: Dismantle your Kafka-esque recruiting system and give hiring power back to your hiring managers. They'll thank you for it, and the quality and speed of your recruitment will skyrocket.
3. Overdone Policy Manuals
You know who's making money for your employer right now? Workers who are selling, building, or inventing stuff. You know who's spending the business's money right now? Other employees (most easily found in HR, IT, and Finance) who've been commanded to write, administer, and enforce the 10,000 policies that make up your company's employee handbook. Overblown policy efforts squelch creativity, bake fear into your culture, and make busywork for countless office admins, on top of wasting paper, time, and brain cells. What to do instead? Nuke one unnecessary or outdated policy every week and require the CEO's signature to add any new ones.
4. Social Media Thought Police
It's reasonable to block Youtube in the office because of the bandwidth it consumes. The recent e-mail message I received from a worker who'd just been informed of her employer's "no LinkedIn profiles permitted" policy sets a new low for organizational paranoia. Memo to your general counsel: Human beings work in your business, not robots or replicants. People have lives, brands, and connections beyond your walls, and those human entanglements are more likely to help your business than to hurt it. What to do instead: Treat people like babies only if you want them to act like babies. Let the rest of them update their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts appropriately, and if they're not getting their work done, deal with that problem on its own.
5. Rules That Force Employees to Lie
You won't be shocked to hear that a majority of working people believe their employers don't trust them. We throw gas on the fire when we install rules that encourage our employees to lie. A great example is the time-honored policy that says "Congratulations on the upcoming birth or adoption of your baby. We'll pay your insurance premiums while you're on maternity leave if you're planning to return to work afterward. If not, you'll be terminated when your leave starts, and pay your own premiums." Which Einstein dreamed up that brain-dead policy? What to do instead: Pay the same percentage of insurance premiums for all employees in a category (e.g. new moms) without requiring pointless declarations of their intentions. Don't allow any new rules (sick-time policies are a prime offender) that reward employees for withholding information.
6. Theft of Miles
Saving money is in, but taking it out of employees' hides in the form of stolen frequent-flier miles is the hallmark of a Mickey Mouse outfit. If your employees are trotting the globe to advance your cause, let them keep their hard-earned air and hotel miles. (Have you flown economy class recently?) What to do instead: Tell your travel agent to book one-stop flights in place of non-stop ones, saving a few bucks.
7. Jack-Booted Layoffs
It's no shame to have to reduce your workforce, but why treat departing employees like convicted felons? Anyone who tells you that an RIF requires perp-walk guided exits is someone to add to the next layoff list himself. One-on-one pink-slip discussions and dignified, non-immediate departures are the new norm for ethical organizations. If you have to march your loyal, redundant co-workers out the door, it says lots about the kind of workplace you've built. What to do instead: Deal with performance problems independently of staff reductions. Treat those employees you're forced to let go like the mature professionals they are.
8. 360-Degree Feedback Programs
I have a second-grader, and if my second-grader has something to say to his little friend Dylan, I encourage him to say it directly. I don't tell him, "Fill out this form, and we'll have the other kids fill out forms, too, and then we'll tell Dylan what all the kids think of him, anonymously." Apart from the fact that my kid doesn't know what "anonymously" means, this is very bad coaching for a budding communicator. The 360-degree feedback system is a crutch for poor managers. We need more forthright discussion among our teams, not sneaky group feedback mechanisms masquerading as career development tools. What to do instead: Ditch the 360 system and teach your employees how to give one another constructive criticism. (Teach your managers how to do it, too.)
9. Mandatory Performance-Review Bell Curves
The evil twin to forced ranking systems is the annual review protocol that commands managers to assign their employees in equal numbers into groups of Poor, Fair, Good, Above Average, and Excellent employees. If a CEO has so little faith in his or her managers that she'd plan for, much less settle for, a workforce where 50% of the people range from so-so to dismal, that CEO requires too little from the management team. Forcing performance-review (and salary-increase) distributions into a bell curve exalts and institutionalizes mediocrity. What to do instead: Set high standards for employee reviews and raise them every year. Counsel or remove managers who can't move past Easy Grader status, and trust the rest of your managers to review their employees fairly. If you can't trust your leadership team members to assess their employees, how can you trust them to manage at all?
10. Timekeeping Courtesy of Henry Ford
If you employ white-collar "knowledge workers" in your organization, you're better off giving them challenging assignments and standing back than managing them like assembly-line workers. An obsession with arrival and departure times is not the way to signal to your employees, "We're expecting great things from you," and neither are picky payroll practices that require salaried employees to use fractions of sick and personal days to attend to pressing life situations. Nothing spells "you're a cog in the machine" like a policy that happily allows you to work until midnight on a client project, then docks your pay when you're half an hour late arriving to work the next day. What to do instead: Set goals with your salaried employees, see that they meet them, and leave the how-and-where issues to your brilliant team members to manage for themselves.
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.