Managing employees: Trust, but verify

By Michelle van Schouwen

You may have one employee, or seventy. Your staff may work on the manufacturing line of your plant or at the counter of your retail establishment, or they may be charged with accounting or client development and retention. For many small business owners, it’s a challenge to encourage employees ranging from clerks to senior vice presidents to work as independently as possible while still assuring that they do their jobs well.

Finding the right balance between empowering employees to do their best work and to develop in their careers while maintaining wise oversight and control over the important stuff can be tough. It’s the tug-of-war between “trust” and “verify.” I’ll argue that you must always do both. The appropriate balance recognizes each employee’s abilities and contributions but also maintains that the employer has the ultimate responsibility for – and the most invested in – the well-being of the business.

[amazon_link asins=’0061121363′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’succeedingi0d-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’83b98229-9fc0-11e8-9d47-3b0a1f2f69d3′]-Let’s take the worst-case scenario first. Most of us have heard the terrible tales of a musical legend or athlete who turned over the management of his or her money to a professional, and then trusted that all was well. Eventually it became apparent that the manager has stolen or mishandled the money and the once-wealthy employer is broke or close to it. The same financial tragedy happens all too often to small business owners. Frequently, an employee with his or her hand close to the bank accounts develops a problem, such as a gambling addiction, and begins to “borrow” or embezzle to cover personal expenses. Typically, this continues until the situation is severe enough that the employer notices, which is often too late to prevent severe problems for the business.

In any instance where an employee (who could be even a long-term, trusted staff member or, sadly, even a relative in a family-owned business) has financial responsibility or authority, an employer must take commonsense steps to verify that all is well. One good guide is this article: The Top 20 Financial Controls to Protect Your Company from Fraud, Theft and Embezzlement.

[amazon_link asins=’0814437605′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’succeedingi0d-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’91f304ea-9fc0-11e8-91e1-d3ee80c9e2b6′]-In other instances where more “verification” is called for, the employee is in a position to materially and substantially impact the business’ well-being, for example, as the person managing a large account. As an employer, you can grant a competent staff member sufficient independence to do the job, establish a relationship with the client, make recommendations on major decisions, and make less critical decisions independently. Your responsibility is to stay engaged with the details and to make sure you are aware of what’s going on in all key areas of that relationship. Not doing so leaves you vulnerable to problems, which in this example include potential loss of an important client.

-In some cases, more “trust” is required from you as the employer. Especially when a (competent) employee’s actions won’t make or break the business, you shouldn’t be listening in on calls or reading emails, double-checking every little move, or second-guessing day-to-day decisions that your employee has already made. Instead, you can do frequent “check-ins” to see how things are going and to give direction for future procedures or changes in course.

-The “trust but verify” formula is also dependent on two other factors: the skill and responsibility level of any given employee and that individual employee’s worthiness to remain in the position. Less experienced or skilled employees appreciate being trusted, of course, but also require more daily oversight and guidance than more seasoned peers. And the employee who may not be well-suited for the job requires closer oversight because they should be (and should be aware that they are) essentially on probation to determine if they will be in your employ long-term or not.

[amazon_link asins=’0071714014′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’succeedingi0d-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’a1ec5f9e-9fc0-11e8-9e97-8bd6ccd49d69′]The trend in management has been to develop people to their full potential, and that is as it should be. However, after decades of managing people, I would say that for every four well-meaning and appropriately skilled employees, you will likely find a fifth who is not as competent and a sixth who doesn’t wish you or your company well. Plus, even the best employee can run into professional or personal challenges that require you to supervise and support him or her more closely for awhile.

As an employer, I’ve long refused to be “guilted” into thinking I should just let people do their jobs without “bothering” them. Here’s why: As the person who, in the end, is responsible for every paycheck and benefit, you need to know that the people you are paying are doing a great job for your company – and that means you must always balance trust with verification.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For the past 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA.

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