Is This Employee Right? (Re: the Employee is Always Right)

In response to Why Your Employee Is Always Right, a reader writes in:

We are a tutoring centre. Everyone works 5 days a week, and sometimes must work a few hours on a 6th day. These extra hours are called OT and paid at a higher rate above salary. Teachers also earn a bonus (5% of monthly salary) when they reach or exceed a certain number of teaching hours per month (80).

Verbally, in a meeting, we made it clear to staff that OT hours do not count toward the teaching hours bonus quota of 80 hours. We did not state this in contracts. One employee worked 82 hours last month. 4 of those hours were OT teaching hours. Now she is asking why we have not paid her the teaching hours bonus, and we’ve said it’s because while she worked 82 hours total, only 78 of those hours were normal teaching hours and 4 were OT which as we’ve said verbally does not count toward the bonus.

Now that teacher is saying she never heard us say that OT hours don’t count toward the bonus and asking that we pay her the bonus. She also asked one of our middle management “will I hit 80 hours this month?” and was reassured that yes, she would. She claims this is evidence that she should be paid the bonus, because it was confirmed, but we claim that all that was confirmed was that she would hit 80 hours, not that she would earn the bonus.

Is the employee always right, including this situation? What should we do?

Sincerely,
H.

H, great question.

Is this employee right? (Is the employee always right, really?)

Yes, this employee is right

First, your employee is right to be confused. She’s also right to advocate for herself. (She might also be right legally. I don’t know the labor laws in your area, so I can’t tell you if she is legally right as well regarding the pay dispute.)

Your communication was ambiguous enough to allow for legitimate confusion. You also need to expect people to interpret vague things in the way that benefits them the most. Why wouldn’t they? We all do.

Lead People the Way they Need to be Led

Second, it’s your job as a leader to lead your followers in the way they want and need to be led.

When I say “Your Employee is Always Right” I do not mean “right about the facts” but rather “right about how they feel” and “right about how they want to be led.”

Each follower follows in a specific way. It’s different from one follower to the next. Fortunately there are only a few basic patterns or styles for you to learn.

(If you’ve taken my “Becoming a Best Boss Self-Leadership Profile,” then you know your style. You can also make a guess about each follower’s style.)

Once you know how this person wants to be led, you can lead them that way.

My best guess is that you are (or whoever announced the policy is) primarily a Listener-Talker. That’s a very common pattern, and even more common in teaching environments. (I also acknowledge that your letter is clear and concise — I’m NOT saying you cannot write!)

This employee may be more of a Reader than a Listener. I am. About half of the population is. You should expect a person who’s more of a Reader than a Listener to maybe miss some things when receiving a solely verbal briefing.

Pay Policies Must be in Writing

Third, you cannot share compensation policies only verbally. You have to write them down. It’s unfair to all concerned — you, the employee, the company, everybody except the lawyers (who will make money on the confusion) — to only share key policies verbally, especially if you’re going to have to depend on people’s memories later.

Are you going to remember 17 months from now exactly what you said and how you said it? No way. You’ll remember what you meant. Or what you intended to mean. Or what you’re now pretty sure you must have meant.

That opens the door to massive confusion and it erodes trust on your team. Think of the last time you had a dispute over memory. Did your brother clearly promise to pick you up after school, then “forget” or even deny remembering any such promise… while he was off hanging out with his friends? What did that do to your trust in him?

As the boss, you’re often the judge in workplace disputes. You’re often also a party in some disputes. What do you call someone who’s both a party AND the judge? Conflicted.

If you rule in your own favor — and do nothing else — it will harm team morale.

Always Admit Your Mistakes

Here’s my advice.

You need to own, and admit to, your contribution to the confusion:

  • Important policy clarification was only given verbally
  • Middle manager said “80 hours” without clarifying which hours count toward bonus
  • Policy purpose wasn’t explained, which would have made it MUCH easier to understand

You also should pay her the way everybody else is getting paid. In this case, no bonus. (Assuming your HR and legal advisors agree. Do NOT act without competent legal advice.)

If it were me (and I’d gotten the legal green light), I would also thank this employee for raising the issue and helping me clarify it. I would thank her by giving her a one-time cash gift… of 5% of monthly pay.

That way I’m not profiting at my employee’s expense, and I’m also not setting a precedent where I have to retroactively pay everybody in this new way.

When you admit freely to your legitimate mistakes, you are not inviting people to run over you. Rather, you show by example that it’s okay to admit mistakes.

Good luck, H!

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