I Had No Clue How to be an Employer

The Employee, Employer Relationship

In my role as a small business mentor, I see some problems repeat themselves frequently, and one of the most common causes of struggle is the employee <-> employer relationship. As an inexperienced business owner, I screwed up, over and over again, in a variety of ways that I now know to be extremely common.

Nothing in my life before becoming an employer prepared me for the process of employing other people. The employer <-> employee relationship acts nothing like

  1. the parent <-> child relationship
  2. the friend <-> friend relationship
  3. the girlfriend <-> boyfriend relationship
  4. the teacher <-> student relationship
  5. The ender <-> junior relationship

and yet I tried to shove my early employee relationships into one of those common buckets. I tried treating employees like friends, and then I couldn’t figure out how to tell them to do things the way I wanted them done. I tried treating employees like students and then had no idea how to hold them accountable for their performance. I treated employees like children and then micromanaged them into quitting.

Instead, over the last 11 years, I’ve had to learn about the deeply weird relationship of employer <-> employee. Even though I adore many of them, my employees will never be my friends. And while I do a fair amount of teaching, they are not my students or my children. Instead, I find my role as an employer is one of mutual expectation setting and equal effort.

Now I see the relationship as conforming to these rules for each side –

Employer –
  1. Create an atmosphere of safety and certainty. Employees need to know the basics, pay and hours and such, but also the certainty of a specific task-oriented job description. Employees want to be able to measure themselves and to evaluate if they’re doing well or poorly and to do so they need to know what they’re responsible for accomplishing.
  2. Give feedback regularly and specifically. I find employees don’t respond well to non-specific feedback, “your work sucks!” or “you’re doing great!” tells them nothing about what they need to continue doing or stop doing or improve on. “I need you to get our average time to quote down from 3 days to 2 days this month” or “that was a very well written blog post!” works much better.
  3. Deliver on promises. As an employer I make commitments, and it’s easy for me to avoid them or ignore them since I am “the boss” yet if I do so, I am not fulfilling my role as the employer.
Employee –
  1. Deliver agreed on results. The main role of an employee is to deliver results for the work product.  If it’s widgets per hour or sales per day or boxes unpacked, the employee needs to know, understand and produce results.
  2. Put equal effort into the relationship. If a relationship wasn’t going well early in my career,  I would blame myself and put a lot of effort into trying to “fix” the relationship. I now understand that relationship management is a 50/50 proposition. The employee and employer both need to care about having a good working relationship in order for one to exist.

The roles require both sides to deliver.



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