How to Manage Employee Expectations

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Employee Expectations

Here’s a loaded question: Do you know what your employees expect? Of their jobs? Of the business? Of you? And if you do know (or think you know), are you doing anything to actively manage those expectations?

If your employees’ expectations haven’t caused any noticeable problems, no one would fault you for adopting an “if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it” attitude. But what you can’t see, or choose not to see, can rear its ugly head one day, so heads up!

Managing Employee Expectations Can Be a Challenge

Managing employee expectations, says wsj.com India editor Anirban Roy, is one of the biggest challenges a manager or business owner can face. Roy reminds us that we all have expectations, spoken and unspoken, realistic and unrealistic. In the face of heightened competition and financial challenges, we expect more and more of employees, as a group and as individuals.

The problem with this particular issues is perhaps best explained by Inc. contributor, Alyssa Daniegelis, who shares that having employees with expectations that have “gone awry” creates a work environment full of tension and anxiety. “Alliances form. A mutiny brews,” says Daniegelis. “At the failing end of the communication spectrum, the workplace resembles a Survivor tribal council.”

Likewise, employees want and expect more—more money, more appreciation, faster promotions. While you may be willing to give your employees their fair dues, you may not be able to do it in the increments or at the pace they desire, which is ultimately where the problems start.

What can you do to make sure those all sync up? It all starts with effectively managing your employee’s expectations. But first, it helps to understand what types of expectations your employees already likely have.

Realizing Universal Employee Expectations

Dawn G. Lennon, principal of Big Picture Consulting, calls managing employee expectations an art and lists a number of universal expectations employees typically have for employers. Amongst these are that employees expect the business to:

    • Stick to the job description
    • Train and develop them
    • Provide supervision and guidance
    • Have fair policies
    • Treat them with respect and care about them
    • Provided opportunities
    • Do what it says it will do!


All too often though, Lennon says, expectations go off the rails on both sides, and this sets the stage for dissatisfaction or worse.

Employee Expectations From the Business Owner’s Side

From a business owner's perspective, managing employee expectations is also important because it’s critical for company growth. When your employees feel that they’re “getting what they deserve,” they’re going to be happy in your employ. And if they’re happy to be in your employ, you stand to benefit by way of greater profits. As Forbes contributor Meghan M. Miro points out, the annual revenues of the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For increased “by an average of 22.2 percent.”

Having employees with met expectations (or at least realistic expectations) also has a way of making the work environment more positive. When your staff feels as if they’re able to do the job they were hired for, that they’re respected in that job, and that they’re an important part of the process, they’re going to have a better demeanor than someone who feels overworked, underappreciated, and undervalued. So how do you manage employee expectations?

Must-Do Practices for Managing Employee Expectations

Roy succinctly summarizes how to effectively manage expectations: Set them early; revisit them periodically; and provide honest feedback. Underneath these broad strokes, he says, are some must-do practices for managing expectations:

    • Be real and be specific, as in targets and timelines; quantify wherever possible.
    • Provide feedback all along the way, not once a year or when a project is all done.
    • Be transparent and straightforward, even when the news isn’t good.
    • Communicate about changes in the industry or company. Give employees a chance to adjust their expectations.
    • Provide a steady stream of factual information about what’s happening. This way, you don’t leave room for a lot of conjecture and interpretation.
    • Show your appreciation—honestly and regularly.
    • Develop clear career paths.
    • Ask for opinions, ideas, and feedback often. Then, be ready to share this information.
    • Lead by example. There’s no better way to set expectations than by demonstrating them yourself.

Other Tactics for Effectively Managing Employee Expectations

To effectively manage expectations, Lennon further suggests that you develop a toolbox consisting of education, explanation, information, dialogue, feedback and inquiry. Read more here.

Besides expectations regarding job performance and quality of life in the workplace, there are also more concrete, fundamental expectations that apply across the board to all employees—things that fall more into the “policies and procedures” category. These can be spelled out more definitively, and it’s important to do just that, even for the smallest of businesses. How?

Nolo.com suggests creating an employee handbook for the purpose of communicating the “rules of the road” for your workplace. The benefits? Consistency, clarity and even legal protection, should it ever come to that. You should clearly spell out what you expect of your employees (and what they can expect of you) in terms of things like hours, benefits, drug and alcohol abuse, attendance, safety, communication, bonuses, and conduct-related topics such as sexual harassment. The site cautions to be careful with the language you use, in that you don’t inadvertently create obligations that can trip you up later on. Two big problem areas: Disciplinary procedures and (unintended) promises of continued employment.

A recommended resource for generating your own handbook is Create Your Own Employee Handbook: A Legal & Practical Guide, by Amy DelPo and Lisa Guerin. It contains step-by-step instructions, policy language and forms you can use. And by all means, have everything fully reviewed and signed off on by your legal counsel.


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