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Three Foolish Workplace Practices

Open workspaces, under-use of simulations in hiring, and excessive group input.

Shawn Collins, CC 2.0
Source: Shawn Collins, CC 2.0

A surprising number of businesses employ foolish practices.

Open workspaces

Seventy percent of U.S. offices have open workspaces. That’s usually done to enhance collaboration. But even a child could have predicted that open workspaces would cause too much noise, temptation to chat, and, in turn, lower productivity.

Indeed, that has turned out to be the case. A New Yorker review of the literature found the open workplace to be a one-idea wrecking crew. For example, a large energy company studied the effects of its conversion to open-workspace: “The new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.” A review of 100 studies of open workspaces concludes that it damages “the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” Not covered in the New Yorker review, according to a 2017 survey, a majority of high-performing employees in open workspaces finds them distracting, and those high performers crave more private space.

Should your workgroup rise up and demand more more private offices, meeting rooms, and walls or at least cubicle-wall extenders that rise to the ceiling, plus foam paneling on cubicle walls? Or should you at least ask for an all-staff meeting to encourage decibel-dropping or at least the right to wear headphones?

In hiring, undervaluing job simulations and overvaluing resumes, degrees, interviews, and references

Hiring has changed little in eons. Sure, employers may post job openings on LinkedIn instead of a newspaper and use automated tracking systems to filter resumes .But the actual hiring decision-making is as out-of-date as an 8-track player. Hiring is still based mainly on resume, degree, interviews, and references. All are notoriously invalid:

Employers use resumes not just as a recitation of a candidate’s job history but as evidence of ability to organize, think, and write, which are key in most jobs. Alas, weak candidates especially are ever more likely to spring for a professional resume writer. So employers may be picking the best resume writer rather than the best candidate. And alas, with competition for good jobs fierce, a candidate knowing s/he is unlikely to be top-of-the-pile, can be tempted to write “consultant” rather than “unemployed.”

Employers use college degrees as a screening tool. After all, a degree ostensibly attests to perseverance if not to more job-related expertise than could be acquired by spending those years in the real-world. And requiring a degree is a quick screener: "Only interview candidates with the right degree and perhaps from one of the 'right' institutions." Alas, there’s often a Grand Canyon of difference between ability to do well in school and to do well on the job. Don’t we all know people who did fine in school and poorly in the real world?

Interviews are too coachable. It’s laughable that employers continue to use stock questions: “Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to work here? What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Tell me about a project you worked on.” Applicants can and do script answers to such commonly asked questions, too often using “creative writing.”

References are subject to more grade inflation even than are college grades. Even most abysmal job applicants can gin up a few people willing to attest to their magnificence, even if they have to convince their main squeeze to pretend to be their former boss.

Those selection methods are dramatically inferior to asking job candidates, in initial screening, to answer an emailed quiz that taps ability to do the job’s common difficult tasks, and in the interview, to participate in simulations of such tasks. That’s commonly done in selecting technical employees but it's more broadly applicable. For example, have applicants for management positions lead discussion of one agenda item in a mock meeting. If the employee will be expected to make presentations on short notice, on arrival at the interview, give candidates the information needed to prepare, and then during the interview, give a five-minute presentation.

Overusing team input and decision-making

A societal megatrend is to decrease hierarchy: question authority, "speak truth to power," trust The People more. A workplace manifestation is the increase in team input. Bosses who too often make decisions without substantial team involvement are likely to be viewed as atavistic or worse.

Alas, too many workplaces have been ground into torpor by too-frequent use of group input. That slows decision-making and costs more because multiple employees' time is used. Besides, leaders usually get promoted because they are better at decision-making—Team decision-making tends to dilute excellence. Meanwhile, competent employees lose motivation because they face a no-win: If they show their ability a lot, they're viewed as "full of themselves." But if they hold back, they're submerging their essence. Plus, with pay increasingly determined by group performance, high performers lose pecuniary incentive for working hard. To boot, when a decision is made by consensus, it tends to be tepid rather than bold, the decision everyone can agree on—lowest-common-denominator. The cliché about such workplaces is, “Here it takes three signatures to get to blow your nose.”

In an era in which change is so rapid, the turgid, consensus-driven workplace too often results in all its employees being treated equally: equally unemployed.

The wise boss resists undue pressure to collaborate and, case-by-case, decides whether the speed and boldness of solo effort outweigh the benefits of groupness. No, there is no “i” in team but there should be.

The takeaway

In light of this article, Is there anything you want to do?

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at