10 myths managers believe … and why they’re wrong

Managers have a surprisingly number of deeply held beliefs that are sometimes just plain wrong. Here are 10 of the most common.

1. Myth: If you want to know what your employees really think, give them an anonymous survey.

Fact: Many employees don’t believe anonymous surveys are really anonymous. And they worry about jeopardizing their standing if they say anything negative. If you really want to know what your employees think, the best way to find out is to create an environment where they know it’s safe for them to speak with you candidly.

2. Myth: Low employee turnover is a sign that you’re doing something right.

Fact: Strong organizations generally have “good turnover”: They let go of employees who don’t meet a high bar while retaining those who do. Little or no turnover is often a bad sign since no one is perfect in hiring, and low turnover can indicate a manager who doesn’t correct her hiring mistakes or hold employees to a high bar.

3. Myth: A good way to reward employees for hard work is with a team dinner out or a party.

Fact: Managers often assume that employees see staff parties or social events as a treat – and some do. But not everyone wants to socialize with their coworkers, especially outside of work hours, and some people resent being asked or expected to attend such events when they’d rather just be doing their work. If you’re seeking ways to reward employees, make sure that you’re not inadvertently giving them something they won’t enjoy and might even resent.< 4. Myth: The First Amendment guarantee of free speech means that you can’t interfere with what employees say at work, even if they’re making others uncomfortable.

Fact: The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting people’s speech, but not a private employer. Employers can indeed interfere with employee speech at work – for instance, directing them not to discuss politics or push their religion on others. (An important exception to this is that employers cannot interfere with employees who are discussing wages or working conditions with their coworkers.)

5. Myth: It’s not worth checking references, because no job candidate lists references who will say anything bad about them.

Fact: A surprising number of candidates offer references who end up sharing damaging information about them, or who provide a lukewarm endorsement at best. What’s more, checking references shouldn’t just be about getting a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a candidate anyway; it should be about asking probing questions to ensure you’re really hiring the right person for this particular job. Your candidate might be a lovely person with supportive references, but if her strengths aren’t in the areas you need, that’s information you want to hear.

6. Myth: When you’re called for a reference for a past employee, you shouldn’t comment beyond just confirming the person’s title and dates of employment.< Fact: Giving detailed, honest references is legal. It’s true that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they’ll only confirm dates of employment and title. As a result, many people have come to believe that it’s actually illegal to give a bad reference. But corporate policies aren’t the law. They’re often not even followed by the companies that have them. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references – and can be an enormous help in hiring the right person.

7. Myth: An employee can agree to waive overtime pay when they work extra hours, as long as it’s truly voluntary.

Fact: Non-exempt employees – those who are legally entitled to earn overtime when they work more than 40 hours within a week – must be paid overtime. They can’t waive that right, no matter how voluntarily. Nor can you substitute comp time, unless it’s taken within the same week. If you manage non-exempt employees, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the laws around how they must be compensated, since it’s not always intuitive.

8. Myth: It’s okay to put off doing performance evaluations or even skip them altogether, since employees hate them anyway.

Fact: Many employees crave feedback and are counting on the evaluation process to give them a formal opportunity to discuss their work. Plus, if you procrastinate on evaluations and don’t provide them on time (or at all), you signal that you don’t care about your staff members’ performance or development. That’s not a signal you want to send.< 9. Myth: If you let people work from home, you won’t be able to tell if they’re really working or not.

Fact: You don’t need face time with someone in order to know if they’re working or not. If you focus on what results they’re achieving, you’ll be able to measure their performance whether they’re sitting down the hall from you or miles away. And you’ll often have a more productive, more satisfied staff as well.

10. Myth: It’s okay to call someone while they’re on vacation if you don’t do it regularly.

Fact: Employees might tell you that you can call them while they’re away, but they’re generally not happy about it if you do. Unless something is an earth-shaking emergency, respect employees’ need to truly unplug and relax – and protect them from coworkers who might interfere with their time away too. Not only will you make them happier to be working for you, but you’ll probably see a pay-off in productivity when they return too. Most people do better with breaks now and then.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Judy*

    #8: It’s not that we hate evaluations, it’s that we hate having to do our own. To gather all of our accomplishments, to write our summaries, etc. How pleasant it would be to actually have a manager evaluate me, rather than to figure out how to present my case so that he believes I should have a good rating. The fact that I have to write my own goals, and have no way of knowing if my co-worker is writing goals similiar to mine, or more or less “stretchy” than mine.

    As my manager, shouldn’t you know what the goals for my job are? I get that the one personal development goal should be tailored, but really, shouldn’t there be a few completely written for me?

    1. Lisa*

      I agree, asking us to fill out our own makes me feel like nobody was watching me all year. Makes you feel not worth their attention and time, and that they just don’t care even more than when they postpone reviews. Its one thing, if you are asked to do your own, and the manager fills out one for you too. Otherwise it still feels like they are pushing their job on you.

    2. the gold digger*

      I’ve decided I don’t mind doing my own evaluation, although it helps to have objectives at the beginning of the year instead of at the end. I’m talking to you, big paper company.

      If I do my own, I keep track of what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. I don’t mind doing that because I have to do that for my resume anyhow.

      What I hate is the required self flagellation: what are my flaws and how will I address them? I finally learned to put a technical issue for my “opportunity for development.” As in, don’t bother with trying to figure out why you are an imperfect human being (which we all are) and how you will change your character; just say that you really need to be more proficient in excel and will take a class to address the deficiency.

    3. Anonymous*

      This. We have to fill out our own form where we have to come up with 3 things to improve upon. Well, nobody said anything to me all year, so I am assuming everything is all set… So maybe… Show up on time more often? Learn Spanish? Why don’t you tell me what you think I need to work on!! Or stop having me make up stuff

      1. Anonymous*

        Exactly! I once got in an argument with our HR person about this, asking how I was supposed to rate my achievement of goals when I hadn’t been given any. It was like the classic “but this one goes to ELEVEN…” argument: I was supposed to make up my own goals and then rate how well I’d done, with zero guidance or oversight on what those should be. The fact that I saw this as a completely pointless “evaluation” did not compute (or of course, sit well with her!). If there had been any real level of involvement from my manager(s) or HR indicating they were putting some kind of thought into their side of things, I might have played along, but since I rarely got to hear THEIR evaluation or goals for me, I deemed it a waste of my time. It was also pretty demoralizing at a certain point, as it just felt like my role wasn’t significant enough to them to even bother discussing my performance.

        Actually, I take that back: I tried to discuss the goals situation with one manager, he indicated that several of my job duties should be listed as goals. Way to set that bar high…

        1. Kelly O*

          Oh lord don’t get me started on the whole “no goals” issue.

          Last year I came up with areas of improvement, goals for the year, the whole deal.

          Nada. Nothing. No one cared, no one asked about anything. No criticism, but no longer term picture either.

          You want to talk about squelching someone? That will do it every time.

        2. Anonymous*


          Maintain mean diaphragm cycling frequency between 0.5 and 1.5 Hz
          Maintain synchronized ventricle contractions between 0.5 and 1.5 Hz
          Cash pay cheque twice a month

          1. Mike C.*


            I always strive to maintain a minimum of homeostasis during working hours. That means beating heart, regular breathing and I strive to maintain a normal body temperature.

            How does your manager let you get off so easily? :)

            1. Anonymous*

              I don’t understand how you can work at a firm which so blatantly discriminates against snakes and toads….


      2. Anonymous*

        As a manager, I want my direct reports to remind me of all the times they rocked the casbah when they write their self-review. Unfortunately, those are more easily forgotten than the times something went wrong. The self-review is your chance to brag about things you’re proud of and may have slipped your manager’s mind by now. (Managers have you and your career on their mind less often than you do, I’m sorry to say. They have their own tasks/career/boss on their mind.)

        I like it when reports tell me “Remember when I did and it turned out really well, and you didn’t have to do it and the client was really happy? That.” If I could have done it myself, and it was many moons ago, I probably don’t remember it as well as you do, so remind me!

        I’d also keep the self-flagellation to a minimum. If a teensy mistake has already been forgotten, don’t bring it up. If there’s something we both know you need to work on, it will be brought up when I write your review.

        Goals can be hard, especially if they’re supposed to be measurable. Some people do put down non-work things such as “Train for and run a marathon” or “Learn Spanish”, and that’s actually fine with me. If people don’t want to share personal goals that are none of my business, that’s fine, too. I probably don’t want to hear “Get engaged” or “Have a baby” or “Find a new job”.

        Work-related goals can be hard, because not everything is measurable or can be sped up/improved/whatever. If your job is to make chocolate teapot lids after each unique chocolate teapot is made, maybe you can pre-make them, or maybe you need to sculpt each one with fresh chocolate to match the teapot, so working ahead just isn’t feasible.

        For myself, I can do a dozen or more simple tax returns (W-2, mortgage interest, student loan interest) in a day. But if I’m working on one that has stock options exercised in a different country, and overseas businesses with multiple assets, it might take half a day. If it’s a business entity operating in several states and countries, it might take a week or more. So putting down “Do 50 tax returns a week” isn’t realistic if I’m doing the complicated/messy ones.

        It’s easier to come up with goals if you want to move up/take on additional responsibilities – you write it down, most of the time. However, I know that can get awkward if there’s no place to move up, or someone else already has the duties you want and they aren’t going anywhere. Sometimes you just want to keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re already doing it well. When in doubt, “Continue to improve in…” is a good standby.

  2. Mike*

    What I hate is having an evaluation 2 years after I start, being told it’d be a regular thing, having it be a pathetic evaluation, and then never hearing about them again.

    1. Bridgette*

      Yes! I dread my evaluation because I know that it will be done at the very last minute, my manager will rush through it and not give me time for feedback, and has made it quite clear he is not interested in two-way dialogue. And he never has anything constructive to say. I’m very thankful my reviews are good, but they feel empty. Like they’re just a pat on the head, and in the “needs improvement” section, he just puts “keep being awesome.” I know I can improve somewhere! Yeesh.

  3. kelly*

    #3 made me chuckle, as I’ve had previous employers who always seemed to set up company wide parties during the busiest weeks of the year(during the work day, attendance optional), and would then send out an email several days later asking why hardly anyone showed up?

  4. Not So NewReader*

    #3 myth. Dear Mr Employer, if you want me to actually feel rewarded for a job well done DO NOT guess at what I would like.
    Parties take away from my at home time. I do not golf. I do not eat candy. Flowers wilt and die.

    Give cash or paid time off- let me decide what I will be doing with that gift.
    If you really want to motivate me- do something to improve the work place. I see you working to better things, I will actually want to work harder for you.

    (Sorry, folks. Had to vent. It has been years of golf umbrellas, boxes of chocolate, etc.)

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah what is so hard about realizing that a handshake, a public “good job” and a check go a lot farther than a stupid dinner?

      1. Anon*

        I don’t know; I guess if my employer was spending $200/head that would be one thing. But between a check for $25 and a nice out-of-work dinner with the group of people I just finished a big project with (where we can unwind and celebrate the achievement), I’d choose the latter. I like working someplace where we mostly enjoy each other’s company, and that’s something I look for when job searching.

        1. Hari*

          THIS. +1!

          At my current employer, we have beer on tap, regular happy-hr fridays, welcomes/farewell parties for new employees so its apart of culture. However I will say no one is forced or looked down upon if they can’t make it.

        2. Vicki*

          Anon – Do you have a spouse/family? Are spouses/partners invited to those out-of-work dinners?

          There are many of us, like Not So NewReader who separate our Work and Home lives. A dinner with co-workers is time away from home and NOT appreciated at all.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I could live with it – if there was a variety of offerings. One time go out to dinner. Next time cash bonus. Next time paid afternoon off. There really is no one, single answer because of the differences in people. What puzzles me is how come companies do not realize different people value different things?

            I live in a fairly rural area. “Decent jobs” are an hour away. This means an 8 hour day is actually a 10 hour day. In the winter time, my work day can start at 3 or 4 am because of digging out of my driveway.
            Yeah. I want to go home.

      2. Not usually Anon*

        Amen. Heck, I’d settle for being allowed to take my accrued days off without being contacted constantly for non-emergencies.

        If I can have that you can keep the handshake and the public kudos – although I would still cash the check.

        I kind of segued into #10 – but I took three days off last week (more than I have ever taken consecutively in my entire career) and I realized why I don’t do that. It’s just. not. worth. it. I cringed every time my phone went off, my resentment grew to epic proportions literally overnight, and it’s really made me rethink this whole being on 24/7/365 thing.

        No one is indispensable – I know that better than anyone. I’m secure enough to not need confirmation of being needed constantly.

        I didn’t even work that much – maybe 8-9 hours over the course of the 5 days (time off + weekend) 5 of which I knew I needed to do before taking the time, but it feels like more because of the constant interruptions where I literally developed a rabid hatred for my phone and my job.

        Seriously, all managers out there, please memorize #10 on this list. Then stitch it on a sampler and hang it in your office. Or get it tattooed somewhere visible to you. But do not break this rule and then be surprised when people spend their time off weighing options rather than recharging.

        No one is indispensable. Letting your people feel dispensable when they are off is one of the best gifts you can give them…and your organization.

      1. Mike C.*

        My job hands out Tully’s cards for the onsite shops. It’s a nice treat to have one handed to you after helping out a manager in a tight spot.

  5. AG*

    This was actually a really insightful article!

    #2 applied to the last place I worked. We had so many “lifers” – most of them were pretty stale, and their manager had worked with them for so long that she couldn’t be objective about their glaring shortcomings.

    #3 definitely. Although we really liked the lunchtime holiday parties/potlucks and everyone was really upset when they were taken away for financial reasons.

  6. Bryce*

    A couple more:
    #11: MYTH:”Winner take all” incentives really motivate people.
    FACT: If, for example, you manage a staff of veeblefetzer sales reps, and you reward the sales rep who sells the most veeblefetzers this quarter with a vacation, or a big-ticket item, what you end up with is one happy sales rep and dozens of unhappy sales rep, plus sales reps doing things like poaching on each others’ turf to get the most sales. Far better to distribute smaller rewards to, say, the top 1/3 of your staff.

    #12: MYTH: “At-will” means “at will.” FACT: While it’s possible, and interpreted as legally OK to fire people at will, to reduce your chances of legal action against you and your company, as well as to be kind to all of your employees, you should provide employees ample warning of problems and make it clear that their jobs are in jeopardy if they don’t improve. (There are obvious exceptions, such as when employees are, say, stealing or sexually harassing people.)

    1. Mike C.*

      What’s wrong with first place being a car, second place being a set of steak knives, and third place your job?

    2. Suzanne*

      Amen to that! I worked at a place that fired people with no warning all the time. It didn’t make any of us better workers; it made us all extremely paranoid workers who spent every waking hour outside of work applying for and dreaming about another job. Did we put 110% into our jobs? Heck no, because we could see it didn’t make one bit of difference. If someone got a wild urge to fire you, they did.
      Did it enhance the reputation of the company? Double heck no, because we all went home and told every friend or family member we knew what a lousy company this was. And rated it very poorly on Glassdoor.com

  7. Joe Schmoe*

    Is a state government employer (Texas) exempted from no. 7? My mother is a state employee and she is non-exempt and has done comp-time accrual over months at times.

    1. Bridgette*

      +1. If you have already done a post like that, please link, but if not, we’d love to see it! I really love the “myths” posts, from all angles. It really helps illuminate a lot of things we incorrectly believe about the workplace, and it helps educate others. I love being able to discuss a lot of these points with my coworkers who think that their boss being annoying is “illegal.”

  8. Lulu*

    #3 is tough – in my experience you generally have part of the population who likes hanging out with their coworkers, isn’t in a hurry to get home, and enjoys the party. Then you have the other part who puts more value on “home time”, and sees anything not taking place during 9-5 as a negative because of that, particularly if there’s been a lot of overtime going on to wrap up a project. Even the 9-5 thing is problematic – our department used to try to organize afternoons at the movies as a theoretically fun thing, but this tended to backfire as there was still work that needed to be done in a certain time frame. So if people attended they felt like they were just forced to work OT, and if they couldn’t go they felt left out of the reward/team bonding.

    For me, it was tough being the person who was generally charged with arranging all of the above, as I knew there was always a population not taking it as intended and just saw me as the agent of their punishment. Ironically, it was often the management who was part of the group that just wanted to see their kids! I chalked it up to managers who weren’t comfortable with people-management in general and just saw “morale” as something to get off their plates as quickly as possible.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d argue that it’s a flawed understanding of how you build morale. If you have a well managed team, you can have great morale without a single movie or workplace social event. And if you don’t have a well managed team, movies aren’t going to fix that.

      1. Lulu*

        Absolutely – they seemed to be cognizant of the need to maintain good morale, just grasping at straws on how to get there and either too busy or not interested enough to really figure out how best to do so (probably both). I think they hoped intent would magically translate into results. When my boss told me *I* was responsible for raising morale (as the lowest person on the totem pole…), I realized people-managing was pretty much on the back burner at that point.

  9. Elizabeth West*

    Ew, I dislike work parties outside of work hours. I don’t like hanging out with work people. That doesn’t mean I never do it, but as a rule, most of the people I work with aren’t interested in the same things I am. It’s more fun to have a potluck or something during office hours or all go to lunch together.

    As for rewards, I’ve gotten goofy Christmas mug / jelly / bath sets, gift cards to stores I never shop at, and certificates for a Thanksgiving turkey, which I don’t eat. Everything usually gets re-gifted or goes in the garage sale. The turkey certs I gave to a coworker who had extra people to feed. I’d much rather have actual money or extra paid time off, thank you very much. I must add though, I did like it when Exjob sent me flowers after I had surgery. That was nice.

    1. Bridgette*

      Yep, don’t much care for hanging out with coworkers either. There have been a few over the years I’ve made lasting friendships with, but even then, we didn’t often hang out outside of work. I have a new coworker who is really into “drinks after work” and doing stuff with each other, and while she is very sweet, it’s awkward. I think she came from other jobs where this was the norm, and she’s very outgoing as well. The rest of us are curmudgeons.

  10. Unanimously Anonymous*

    Here are my modest additions to Allison’s list:

    #11: MYTH: It’s perfectly reasonable to double your staff’s workload, but still expect them to get everything done – and done well – in a 40 hour workweek, with little or no overtime, ever.
    FACT: You’re sowing the seeds of your company’s destruction. You’re simultaneously destroying your employees’ morale (by stripping them of the ability to produce quality work they can proud of) and antagonizing your customer base (by showing a willingness to put out a product that’s “just good enough”). If you as an executive truly believe this is OK, you’re too stupid to be allowed to run anything bigger than a lemonade stand.

    #12: MYTH: If “studies show” that a little bit of stress is really good for employees, then a LOT of stress must be absolutely fantastic!
    FACT: Executives in all industries have been acting on this myth ever since the financial crisis hit in ’08. I’ve talked to friends and neighbors in numerous industries and they’re all saying the same thing – that the top dogs keep pushing for more, more, more, more, MORE while simultaneously stripping their staffs of the resources needed to do their jobs well. This will bite these companies in the hindquarters eventually; their stress-related medical/sickleave costs will go through the roof, and when (or should I say IF) the economy and job market get better, their turnover will skyrocket to the point where they’ll have trouble keeping their doors open.

  11. Anonymouse*

    #8– I’m glad to see this subject getting discussed, as it seems all kinds of dodgy delays with it (or worse— just plain ignoring it) are rampant in so many workplaces. Thanks for making it a point to bring it up for discussion.

  12. Talyssa*

    Number 1 is actually my favorite right now, because my company actually DID do a survey, and swore up down and sideways that it was 100% anonymous, conducted by a third party, no one would see responses, etc. Then when the results were returned to management, they not only got to see EXACTLY what everyone wrote (with no names attached) but it was broken down to such a granular level that they were passed down to managers that only had a handful of direct reports. Like, our team has about 10 people – all of the stuff we wrote was handed to our manager. As if somehow it wouldn’t be supremely obvious who wrote what? Not all of us were convinced that it would be truly anonymous anyway, but some people DID.

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