We’ve heard the slogans: “People are our most important asset.” “We want to be an employer of choice.”

And we know most companies fall far short of those aspirations, for lots of reasons.

Sometimes, it’s because their leaders say the words but really don’t understand why they should have an engaged workforce. To them, it seems like one big distraction. They really don’t believe that companies with engaged employees are more profitable and productive, and by double digits.

In other cases, company leaders genuinely want to improve but don’t know how to do it. They want to have an inclusive, respectful workplace but they keep hiring managers with antiquated ideas about how to treat people. They haven’t yet figured out that good managers don’t just have nice resumes, they also have excellent characters.

And chances are, they’re not thinking about their employees in the right way. If they really want to have respectful, inclusive workplaces and engaged employees, leaders and managers must embrace one concept above all others: they must presume that their employees have integrity.

As simple as it sounds, this presumption of integrity simply doesn’t happen in most companies. Too many businesses treat employees with varying degrees of distrust and suspicion, and their work environment is full of the evidence:

  • Managers hire security guards and install cameras because without those, employees would steal the company blind.
  • Supervisors monitor company email and computer use or surely employees would spend hours watching Netflix.
  • Rather than focus on work output, managers install surveillance software to measure employee computer activity. Because, apparently, it’s more important to make sure an employee is constantly staring at their screen than it is to have them turn out quality work in their own way.
  • Supervisors time employee lunches and bathroom breaks so they don’t brutalize the company’s bottom line by spending a couple of minutes touching up their makeup.
  • Managers clamp down on social media use, even though that’s how many employees stay in touch with family, because a couple of cat videos might bring down the stock price.
  • Leaders create strict leave policies that can even prevent employees from attending funerals, because they believe their people will use any excuse for time off.

Does any of this sound familiar? When managers fail to presume employees will act with integrity, they go to extreme measures to control them. They treat them as devious adversaries, not as respected partners working toward a shared goal.

Outside of work, that’s not how we treat these people. For the most part, we trust people to behave legally and honorably, to do their part to maintain a functioning society. But, when they get to work, all that changes. Managers seem to think those trustworthy citizens turn into swindlers and cheats between 9 and 5. And that makes employees feel distrusted and angry.

But all of this can be avoided. Try to get your company’s leaders to shift their thinking just a little. Encourage managers to presume their employees will act with integrity, to assume they are honest people who have the company’s best interest at heart. Then, consider what rules and policies need to change so that managers stop controlling employees and start inspiring them. Glancing through the employee handbook with this new perspective might be eye-opening.

Then watch as employees rise to meet the expectation that they will behave honorably. See them become more engaged and more supportive of the company and its mission.

This kind of transformation will require managers to take a risk, though the risk is quite small. It will take transparency, so employees know that management is taking a fresh approach and can adapt their perspective too. And it will take time—time for managers and employees to learn to trust each other. But once it works, the result will be a much more positive workplace, a focused, engaged workforce, and the improved productivity and profitability that result.


To learn more about how to be a successful manager, read Don’t Be a Jerk Manager: The Down & Dirty Guide to Management. It’s the management training you never got, available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.com. The audiobook is available from AmazonAudible and iTunes.

Do you think you might be a jerk manager? Take the quiz!


Photo by Tim Collins on Unsplash