Good, bad or ugly — owner sets the example

Remember the movie “The Christmas Story” and the scene where Ralph drops the F-bomb while helping his dad change a tire? His mother is stricken and certain he must have learned that word from a friend. But the grown-up Ralph narrator says he learned it from his father, who used it all the time.

We once worked with a company where the employees constantly used profanity. Guess what? So did the business owner. Laddie called him on it one day when they were meeting and the client replied, “But I need that word!” Regardless of whether this owner felt he needed it, the fact remains that his employees were comfortable using profanity on the job because he used profanity. They merely followed his example.

Whether they realize it or not, business owners set the example for others in the company. They determine the company’s culture, establish rules and model how things should be done. This may seem like a simple concept, but sometimes business owners are oblivious to the behavior they’re modeling for their employees to follow. Here are some examples of not-so-great owner behavior we’ve seen.

The time-challenged. These business owners expect their employees to be on time when arriving at work or for meetings, but never manage to make it on time themselves. They customarily dash in 10 or 15 minutes late for staff meetings, which basically tells the staff that time really doesn’t matter in the company and they don’t have to worry about being on time themselves.

The time wasters. These folks set a poor example for their employees by spending inordinate amounts of time goofing off during the work day. When their employees see them playing solitaire on their computers, spending lots of time watching funny videos on the Internet, or standing around chatting about non-business topics all the time, they think they can do it too.

The email and phone call ignorers. These people habitually fail to return phone calls or emails from customers or employees within a reasonable period of time. They not only make their customers and employees feel they’re not valued, but they also set an example for their staff that it’s OK to ignore or put off responding to communication from customers or co-workers. This behavior can result in lost sales, dissatisfied customers and generally poor communication within the company.

The inappropriate dressers. These business owners show up wearing attire that is inappropriate for their work setting. Judy once worked for a woman in a highly respected profession who wore extremely tight and revealing clothing to the office every day. Many staff members found this embarrassing but others in the company followed suit because, after all, the boss dressed that way. The result was a highly unprofessional atmosphere.

The mistreaters. Some business owners think it’s acceptable to bully and belittle staff members, or generally treat them rudely. This is some of the worst behavior to model in a business because it implies employees also have a right to treat their co-workers badly. An owner who establishes this kind of business culture will have a company filled with dissention and might find himself in court someday, defending a harassment suit.

The temper tantrum throwers. Everyone gets frustrated on the job from time to time but these are business owners who can’t seem to control their emotions and throw tantrums at their vendors, employees, and maybe even customers. If this is the example they set, it’s a sure bet some of their employees will eventually throw a tantrum too.

The office slobs. We’ve probably all experienced visiting a business that was either messy and disorganized or downright dirty. Most likely, if you look in the business owner’s office or workspace, you’ll find it’s a mess too. As with every other aspect of business, the employees will tend to follow the owners’ example when it comes to cleanliness.

We’ve seen many more cases of clean, well-run companies, with contented employees and satisfied customers. But in nearly every company, the behavior exhibited by its staff is a direct result of the philosophy and behavior modeled by the owner. Your employees look to you for leadership and guidance. Remember — it’s not what you say but what you do that matters, and you set the example.

Laddie and Judy Blaskowski are partners in several businesses, including BusinessTruths Consulting. They are authors of The Step Dynamic: A Powerful Strategy for Successfully Growing Your Business.