Rethinking The Ideal Employee

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues
Rethinking The Ideal Employee

We seek a motivated go-getter to join our team. Workaholic. Has no life. Has no relationships. Available by cell phone 24-7. Glad to work evenings, weekends, holidays, and at the beach.

Willing to return early from vacations to handle fires. Our competitive pay is inversely proportional to hours worked. Add your heart and soul to our growing pile — um, I mean enterprise.

If recruiters really subscribed to truth in advertising, we’d see more verbiage like this. Just think how much time companies would save by not interviewing — or accidentally hiring — people like me. Don’t get me wrong. I like to work. I love to work. But I want the freedom to unplug from my electronics and enjoy my family, friends, and hobbies.

Who Is Your Ideal employee?

Twenty years ago, I fit the workaholic profile. My employer suggested putting home telephone numbers on our business cards. I was single then, thought I could earn points by pulling all-nighters in the office, and did everything in my power to recruit like-minded individuals.

The law prohibits asking certain personal questions during job interviews, but it’s usually possible to get the information you want anyway. For example, see how a candidate responds to “tell me about a project where you went above and beyond to deliver.” If you hear “we worked a month of 100-hour weeks,” or “I drove 400 miles through a blizzard on Christmas Day to deliver the prototypes to our customer,” or “I had an accident the day before a big presentation and went directly from the hospital to the client’s conference room, bandages and all,” then you know you probably have the ideal employee. At least, your definition of ideal.

My Definition Has Changed

I know I’m about to state three big and perhaps unrealistic assumptions. But let’s assume for a minute that a company has articulated measurable business objectives — not the pie-in-the-sky fluff that many organizations pass off as a vision. Let’s further assume that the company has cascaded these objectives into measurable goals for individual employees and teams. Lastly, let’s assume that we pay based on performance.

For a workplace that meets these assumptions, I’m fine if employees race out the office door at 4:00 p.m. or work from Starbucks, because I am paying them for the results they deliver, not the hours they clock. Yes, I want people who are eager to do a good job, but I also look for avid extracurricular interests, such as raising children and/or playing the trombone in a professional jazz band.

Here’s why. Every moment away from work is an opportunity to absorb new information and impressions that can contribute to breakthrough thinking on-the-job. Every conversation at a child’s soccer game or while working out at the gym has the potential to yield new business connections and insights.

All-work-and-no-play erodes an organization’s effectiveness. Outside inputs — like hobbies, friends, family, and faith — produce fresh energy and ideas to fuel creativity and business success. If all your contacts and inputs come from within your organization, you become so insular and ingrained in the system that, over time, you can’t see other ways of doing things. You become stagnant and unimaginative.

College admissions officers look for good students with solid GPAs and demonstrated commitment to extra-curricular activities. Some corporate recruiters do likewise — they want impressive professional credentials, along with evidence of outside-of-work pursuits. But some senior executives are still stuck in the mindset that business success requires working long hours, and that long hours are the best measure of employee effort and commitment.

Join the conversation. What will it take to shift this wrong thinking?

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry Sr.  |  22 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Great presentation and valuable perspective Leigh. I appreciate how you lead into the concepts and then drive the point home. We, as employers, bosses, and business leaders, get way more than we pay for. Our people should not give their life for their career, they should get life from it. Great post. Thanks!

Leigh Steere  |  25 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks, Mike. I started writing this post in 2001 and recently found the unfinished draft on an archive drive. What’s interesting to me is I haven’t seen much progress on this topic. I hope we’re not reading the same call-to-action in 2031. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to the business cost of long working hours. Did you see: https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-research-is-clear-long-hours-backfire-for-people-and-for-companies?

John Smith  |  22 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh – excellent post and very on-target.

We tend to paint that “ideal” picture with the less tangible parts of the job as well. I think about how often I have been interviewed (and unfortunately a few times when I was on the other side of the interview as well) and heard the interviewer spin marvelous tales of a workplace where initiative and creativity were valued, where achievement outweighed consistency, and so on.

To a young person, this sounds like heaven on earth … until the reality hits in that they did not really mean “creative” or initiative, but really wanted someone to do what they were told, in an expected and traditional manner, and to not rock the boat.

Everyone wants to be world-class, as long as they can do it without risk:)

Much work to be done to get what we say we want into alignment with what we really want. It is not just being honest, but as you point out in your articulate post, we have to change what we expect and what we allow.

Good stuff, Leigh:)


Leigh Steere  |  25 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Alignment–great point, John. Sometimes, recruiters really believe their companies offer great work-life balance, flexible working arrangements, freedom to choose the “how” of getting a job done, and permission to be creative, even to fail. The key question: Does the company walk its talk, or is there a disconnect between good intentions and actual practice? Any disconnect is a breeding ground for employee discontent and cynicism.

John E. Smith  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh

Right you are about that disconnect between Marketing/Recruiting/Sales/Public Relations and those providing the services/making the products/doing the work:)

Sometimes our goals contribute to this misalignment. For example, if the recruiting department’s goal is to attract potential employess and they are judged on drafting a certain number per period, that might contribute to a tendency to oversell the benefits and culture, just to make the numbers. If Operation’s goal is to reduce time to shipping, that might contribute to a more pressure-driven environment.

For me, these examples reinforce the need for management around the organization to be in sync and talking to one another.


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