27 September 2023

Written verse: The value of putting unsaid promises on paper

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Catherine Mattice* says there are expectations on both sides when a new employee joins up and it’s best to get them out and on the table from the start to head off misunderstandings.

When you first start at an organisation, there is usually a lot of paperwork.

Sometimes it feels like you are signing your life away.

From superannuation forms to acknowledging receipt of the employee handbook, you and the organisation make a lot of explicit promises to each other.

For example, you make a commitment to refrain from sexually harassing a co-worker, while the organisation makes a commitment to investigate any sexual harassment claims that are filed.

What’s often forgotten, but probably more important, is the psychological contract both parties sign when a new hire starts.

Think for a second about that implied contract.

While the new hire is signing that paperwork, they are thinking: “This employer better furnish a safe and respectful work environment free of harm, and where I can be my best self.”

On the other side of the table, the employer representative is thinking: “This employee better work hard to achieve goals, and to behave in the best interests of the organisation.”

If this unsaid contract is perceived to be broken the relationship between employer and employee is damaged.

The employee disengages, unintentionally or intentionally reduces effort, and maybe even quits.

The employer might also take disciplinary action to try to force better performance.

If the behaviour of the abrasive leader in your organisation is not being addressed, employees come to believe the employer is failing to uphold their side of the contract.

This is even though that particular requirement was never explicitly stated.

Something interesting about this contract is that, because it’s unsaid, it’s unstable.

Perceptions about what each party owes the other is just that — a perception.

My advice is to make the implicit contract explicit.

Ask what employee expectations are and then write them down.

When new employees start, make sure managers sit down with them and discuss their working relationship, what they expect from the employee, and what the employee expects of them.

I recommend they put all that in a written document and sign it.

Another way employers can keep their end of the bargain is by creating a healthy workplace policy that sets expectations on how everyone should behave.

This is better than telling them the consequences of behaving poorly.

Consistently discuss performance expectations for both parties.

By making performance conversations more collaborative and by documenting them, managers and employees can remain apprised of what the psychological contract is and what changes were made over time.

It all boils down to creating an environment where employees are comfortable expressing their concerns and their own expectations, and leaders can do the same.

The contract is then less likely to be perceived as broken, and when it is, you can have a collaborative conversation about it.

Remember, open communication is the key.

* Catherine Mattice is a professional consultant and trainer who assists organisations in developing systemic action plans to build positive corporate cultures. She can be contacted at www.civilitypartners.com.

This article first appeared on Catherine’s blogsite.

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