10 things your employees won’t tell you but wish you knew

There’s plenty that employees don’t share with their bosses, from the fact that they hate your inefficient weekly meetings, to resenting being asked to kick in for workplace charity drives, to wanting you to give them some damn feedback already, and plenty more.

While in an ideal world, employees would speak up about difficult or awkward topics, in reality most people won’t raise such issues, for fear of harming their relationship with their employer.

Here are 10 things most employees won’t tell their bosses, but wish that they knew.

1. They really, really hate sitting in meetings. There’s nothing worse than knowing you have a looming deadline but being forced to sit in a long and needless meeting—but it’s also incredibly common. Most employees report that they waste far too many hours a week in meetings without clear agendas or purposes, and that they’re forced to sit around listening to idle conversation when they could be working productively at their desks.

2. They don’t always want to attend office social events. Managers frequently assume that employees will view office social events, like staff happy hours or holiday parties, as a treat—and then get offended when employees don’t want to go. Most employees would prefer that employers make it clear when events are mandatory, rather than implying they’re optional and then penalizing people who don’t attend. And managers should realize that not everyone wants to socialize with their co-workers. Requiring employees to attend events that are ostensibly to build their morale may have the opposite effect.

3. They resent being asked to chip in for gifts or workplace charity drives. Charity drives are great, but participation needs to be strictly voluntary, both officially and unofficially, and in too many offices there’s inappropriate pressure to participate. And many workers don’t want to budget for going-away or shower gifts for coworkers and resent being asked to give up their hard-earned cash.

4. They might say they’re willing to take your call while they’re on vacation, but they’re not happy about it. Too many managers take their employees’ vacations lightly, calling or emailing them for things that are far from earth-shattering emergencies. When this happens, employees end up feeling that their managers don’t care about their personal space and don’t respect their boundaries. They may take your call, but they’ll resent it.

5. That team-building exercise? They hate it. Workers often complain about team-building events; activities that friends might enjoy together often aren’t appropriate for the workplace. And if the activity is meant to fix a morale or communication problem, they can actually make things worse, by signaling that management doesn’t understand the root causes of the problem.

6. They really want feedback. Good employees want to know where they’re doing well and where they could be doing better. A common complaint is about bosses who only provide feedback in annual evaluations, rather than steadily throughout the year.

7. They’d like to give you feedback too. Solicit feedback. Ask for input on everything from how the staffer thinks last week’s event went to what you could be doing to make her job easier. Good managers know their employees have a different perspective to share, and they value it, rather than ignoring it or feeling threatened by it.

8. They want you to be straightforward. Hinting, rather than speaking straightforwardly. Some managers feel kinder or more polite sugarcoating a difficult conversation, but it’s not at all kind to let someone miss an important message. When a manager sugarcoats to the point that her message is missed, or presents requirements as mere suggestions, staffers end up confused about expectations. And the manager ends up frustrated that their suggestions weren’t acted upon. Most employees prefer straightforward communication so they don’t need to figure out what they’re really supposed to hear.

9. They want you to make hard decisions. As a manager, your job is to solve problems, not avoid them. And while you might think that your employees don’t particularly want you to have tough conversations, make decisions that may be unpopular, or enforce standards and consequences, the reality is that managers who avoid these things usually end up upsetting good employees – because good employees will get frustrated and disgruntled by a manager’s passivity and avoidance of conflict. Think, for example of managers who won’t address performance problems or fire under-performers; if you’ve ever worked somewhere where laziness or shoddy work was tolerated, you know how frustrating and demoralizing that can be. And it plays out in other ways as well, such as a manager who hesitates to make necessary course corrections mid-way through a project but then is unhappy with the final product. Good managers know that their job is to solve problems, not avoid them, and good employees know that too.

10. If you don’t ask about what’s going on, you might not know. Don’t assume you know what’s going on. Probe around and ask questions; you might be surprised what you uncover. Things you want to know: How satisfied are your employees? How’s their workload? What would improve their quality of life at work? What part of their job are they struggling with? What can you do to help them improve and/or manage around this? Are there obstacles that are making their jobs more difficult? What are their goals for their job and their longer-term future, and are there things you can do to help with that? And if you don’t go out of your way to encourage people to talk to you about these things, many won’t speak candidly to you without encouragement.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria*

    When I first saw this headline, I thought it was: “10 things you don’t tell your employees but wish they knew,” which also sounds interesting!

    1. A Bug!*

      It’s a trick headline! The article’s body is “Communicate with your dang employees instead of wishing they were psychic!”

  2. Jamie*

    #10 particularly struck me. There is nothing wrong with a casual check in, but if you really get the sense that one of your employees is overwhelmed, struggling with obstacles, just asking “how’s it going?” won’t elicit the kind of response you need.

    Schedule a time to have a conversation. Give them some heads up so they can get bullet list going of things they’d like to touch base on. I’m not talking about anything formal, just carve out some 15-20 minutes to focus and talk about whatever is going on. Bigger issues won’t be solved all at once, but at least you’ll know what they are.

  3. Blinx*

    “many won’t speak candidly to you without encouragement…”

    And many will never, ever speak candidly to you at all. They don’t trust you. They view you as a mouthpiece for the higher-ups, and that you really don’t believe the “party line,” but know you have to say it anyway, because YOU are also afraid.

          1. Blinx*

            Then I will have to guard against this type of thinking at my next job! Also, it gives me a good topic to ask questions around. Plenty of places say they have an “open door policy” — I can ask about if/how management would like feedback, how is the information treated, and are employees who provide candid feedback looked at differently.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Most employers will give you the right answers to those questions in an interview, regardless of actual practice. You’re more likely to get real info from paying attention to other cues they send; I don’t think the questions themselves will tell you much (and an over-emphasis on those questions might come across oddly).

  4. Anda T*

    #4, for all the world… #4. My boss would call and leave messages while I’m on my vacation with nothing more than call be back right away. What was it for? To find the extra printer paper. Yeah. She had no respect for my time, and I ended up having no respect for her as my manager.

    Come to think of it, that whole damn list can be applied to my now former job. I have never been so happy to collect unemployment and freelance in my jammies.

  5. Surlyhrgirl*

    The only one I’m unsure about agreeing with is the soliciting feedback about “everything” from employees. I disagree with the word “everything.” If a manager were all “what do you think about this? and this?” then I would start to think that he/she didn’t know what he/she was doing, and therefore wouldn’t be able to make the hard decisions referenced later. If it’s only about some things, then sure.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That said, “Ask for input on everything from how the staffer thinks last week’s event went to what you could be doing to make her job easier.” That’s just the sentence construction; it doesn’t literally mean “everything”!

  6. The Other Dawn*

    #4 is the biggest one for me. A former boss would call me all the time while I was on vacation. I was very resentful of this.

    I make it a point never to do this to anyone I manage. I’m the manager and I’ve had their job, plus I wrote the procedures. It’s my job to figure it out. However, I don’t mind if my direct reports call me while I’m away. It rarely happens though.

    1. Henning Makholm*

      I think “never” is too strong a goal to shoot for here. I would rather work for a boss who I can trust to make a reasonable decision about whether the emergency is acutely critical enough to interrupt my vacation, than for one who on principle refuses to do so ever.

      I can imagine crises where, given a choice, I would prefer to get a call on my vacation over having to deal with picking up the pieces after I get back — because it would only take me a few minutes to help formulate a damage-control strategy that will make those pieces much easier to pick up later.

      Such things shouldn’t happen on every vacation, or even on every other or third one. But knowing that I can be contacted if true catastrophes happen actually makes it easier for me to relax and not worry about work on the majority of vacations where they don’t.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I understand what you’re saying, but in my case I don’t think “never” is too strong a goal. I work at a bank and we have many resources we can turn to if we need help with processing transactions, fixing accounts, answering questions, etc. Plus, I’ve done all the jobs that my subordinates are doing now and I wrote the policies and procedures. There’s really nothing that can happen that I haven’t encountered before or wouldn’t have the resources to handle myself.

  7. Jim*

    About meetings, I’d say too few meetings is just as bad as too many and equally unlikely to be mentioned to a manager. It absolutely crushes an employee’s morale to feel cut off from what’s going on elsewhere in the team and/or company. These are the kinds of problems that simmer.

    1. Scott M*

      Meetings aren’t the solution to feeling cut off from the team. If your work is truly seperate from the team, then meetings aren’t going to help. But if you are already working closely with your team you don’t really need meetings.

    2. EM*

      I agree. My last job we had like 2 or 3 formal meetings the ENTIRE 2 YEARS I worked there. It would have been nice to have a maybe monthly staff meeting just to communicate things like proposals that were out, work expected to come in, scheduling issues, workload issues. Instead we only knew things if we happened to overhear it, or sometimes not at all until the last minute when work was being dumped on our desks.

      1. twentymilehike*

        EM, I know exactly how you feel! Here we have just about zero communication. I often find out about new products we offer or changes we’ve made from the customers, because my boss is all about spilling all our internal affairs all over the industry, but sometimes we go days without talking to him.

    3. Anon1*

      Agreed. I had a manager who wouldn’t hold staff meetings. So my teammates would call me and say, “what do we do here?” Why me?? I didn’t know. So I called an informal staff meeting to discuss it and invited the boss. She took the reins from me as I kicked off and voila. We had staff meeting. A team needs to talk!

      But let me add another problem: including some team members in staff meeting but leaving others out. There can be good reasons for it but count on people reading an us and them message.

    4. Kelly O*

      I will add that there have been times I’ve been excluded from meetings in a fairly significant way, and it does not help morale. Especially when you’ll be called into someone’s office so they can explain a confidentiality agreement to you like you were twelve years old, but not called in when a procedures change is being considered that directly affects you. (Or when you have a meeting and tell someone who is not even part of the group that they can “sit in” on this one as they’re standing right next to the person who is supposed to be your assistant, and you completely ignore that assistant.)

  8. Twentymilehike*

    THANK YOU for this. Would it be inappropriate to just email this whole thing directly to my boss? I’m bookmarking this for eternity.

      1. Twentymilehike*

        Oh that would be rich. I can hear it now, “Who is this Alison Green, and why is she emailing me? Is this spam? Do i have to respond? What happened to my computer? I think it’s broken … Will you look at it? I have to go to lunch. Be back in four hours.”

  9. Esra*

    Ah how I wish management in my office would ask for some feedback from staff. They don’t seem to see how crushingly low morale is, and definitely have no idea that 75% of the people there are actively looking for other work.

  10. Kelly L.*

    So much #6. A pet peeve from a former job is that the managers would save up grudges, seething in silence about some random thing I did but never telling me I’d done it wrong, then springing it on me months later at a performance review when I barely even remembered doing it.

    1. Kelly O*

      Oh gosh, I hate this one!

      Not only do you get blindsided by the “come into my office” but then you get to hear about all the things you’ve done wrong in the last six months.

  11. Anonymous*

    6A. They really want feedback backed up by supervisory action. If you praise employees for doing job A, but only give raises to employees who excel at job B, then don’t be surprised when employees stop doing job A.

    For instance, I work in communications. Over the last seven years, it has become more and more important to use social media. I began doing some social media work, which was met with indifference. Then the website and social media got more important, but the only people who were hammered at work were those who missed deadlines for getting printed documents out. A request to have a website problem fixed took over six months before software repairs were made; in the meantime, being 10 minutes late getting stuff to the printer earned a scold.

    Then in the subsequent review, there were goals set for doing more with social media, but the goals were ignored during the following year’s review for a discussion of the traditional duties of the department and job after department downsizing due to revenue drops. The next year, a slam again for not meeting social media goals, with no interim encouragement (as in, no resolution of problems brought to supervisor’s notice, including continuing problems marketing the branch office that lacked a fully functional website). Too many years of being jerked around makes employees feel like their supervisors are the jerks.

  12. Lily*

    I have a question about 8, being straightforward. My boss often says, “if I were you …” which sounds like a suggestion to me, but (most of the time) I treat it like a requirement anyway. How does your boss phrase:

    1. a suggestion
    2. a requirement

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ask. Say to your boss, “Sometimes when you say ‘if I were you…’ I’m not clear on whether it’s a suggestion for me to consider or if you’d prefer that I do it that way. I don’t want to be ignoring you if it’s the second! Can you clarify?”

      1. Lily*

        You’re right! I was thinking that he must be okay with my performance because he wasn’t speaking up, but not all managers speak up.

  13. akaCat*

    A quick, temporary cure for #4 if you can afford it: go on a cruise.

    It typically costs in the neighborhood of $10 per minute to call someone on a cruise ship (calling out may be significantly less.) At $10/minute, all but the wealthiest CEO is going to think twice about calling.

Comments are closed.