A Simple Contract Can Motivate Employees to Create a Kinder, Gentler Workplace

Yes, you can legislate good behavior. Quint Studer, author of Wall Street Journal bestseller, Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors that Will Take Your Company to the Top, says employers can create and use a standards of behavior contract that boosts morale, customer satisfaction and profitability.

Consider the things your employees do that you wish they wouldn't, such as popping gum, talking too loudly, forgetting to turn cell phones to silent or vibrate during meetings or sharing their religious or political views with coworkers. If you assume there's nothing you can do about such behavior, think again, says Studer. You can legislate good behavior, and, what's more, the vast majority of employees will be glad you did.

“Don’t assume people will feel that you’re infringing on their rights when you create a set of behavioral rules,” says Studer. “Most of them are as irritated by the offenders as you and your customers are. Besides, most people appreciate having 'official guidelines.' It eliminates their own confusion as well as that of their coworkers.”

You might assume that some behaviors are common sense, but Studer points out that common sense is a subjective concept. Still, it's very important that every employee display behavior that's consistent with company standards and aligned with desired outcomes.

“Obviously, you want employees to leave a positive impression on customers,” says Studer, who is best known for using evidence-based leadership to help companies “hardwire” leader behaviors that effect culture change and create lasting business results. “And it's also important for morale to have everyone behaving in appropriate ways. Employees who frequently behave in ways that their coworkers deem inappropriate are certainly not contributing to a happy, unified, productive team. And here's the real bottom line: If you don't spell out which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, you can't hold people accountable for them.”

Studer's solution is simple: He recommends that organizations develop a standards of behavior contract and have everyone, from CEO to receptionist, sign it. This document can address any and all aspects of behavior at work: from interaction with clients to phone etiquette to “good manners” (knocking on doors) to “positive attitude” markers (smiling or saying thank you). Studer offers these tips when creating such a contract:

  • Seek input from all employees in creating the document. Put together a team to spearhead the initiative and create the first draft. Just be sure that everyone has a chance to review the document and provide input before it's finalized. Do not have Human Resources write it and impose it on everyone else. You want to create buy-in, and that requires companywide participation.
  • Align desired behaviors with corporate goals and desired outcomes. Before you start writing, take a look at your organization's long-term goals and areas that need improvement. You must be able to measure the success of your standards by seeing an impact in many of the key metrics of your operation, whether those are increased customer satisfaction, reduced rejects, or other measures.
  • Be crystal clear and very specific in your wording. Don't write, “Display a positive attitude.” Do write, “Smile, make eye contact and greet customers or coworkers by name.” Don't worry about insulting people's intelligence. Sometimes people really don't know what is appropriate behavior and what is not.
  • Hold a ceremonial standards of behavior roll out. Once you have finalized your standards of behavior document, it's time to implement it. Hold an employee forum or companywide meeting in which you introduce the standards and distribute pledges for everyone to sign. You might want to create an event around your CEO and leadership team signing the pledge. You may even hold activities designed to educate employees about some of the points. Make it fun.
  • Hold people accountable when they violate a standard. Make sure all employees know they'll be held accountable for the behaviors outlined in the document. How you hold them accountable is up to you. Sometimes a meeting in which you show an employee the signed pledge and point out his or her error is sufficient. Other times, you might need to write him or her up or take more drastic disciplinary measures. But one thing is clear:
  • Create a designated “Standard of the Month.” Every month, highlight a specific standard. This will boost awareness of the standards in general and will get people thinking about how that specific one applies to their daily lives.
  • Update the Standards of Behavior. The standards are dynamic and will need to be updated from time to time. One or two directives may not work as intended and may need to be changed. You may also discover new standards that need to be added as your company grows and evolves in new directions.
  • Have new applicants sign it right up front. Before you even interview prospective new employees, have them read and sign your standards of behavior. You will be able to eliminate people in the beginning if they visibly balk at conforming to your corporate culture. But more important, when you do hire someone, there will be no doubt in his or her mind what you expect.
Studer says just knowing that a standards of behavior document exists – and knowing that their signature is affixed to a pledge to uphold it – is enough to keep employees on their toes. It creates an extra boost of awareness that really does affect day-to-day behavior. It creates the same behavior expectations for the entire team. Best of all, it functions as a tidal pull on problem employees, bringing them up to a higher level of performance.
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