The following is an excerpt from Broken Windows Broken Business.


Often the worst broken windows are people.

Yes, I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.  When an employee – any employee – becomes a detriment to the company, for any reason, that employee has become a broken window, and the ripple effect from his or her failure, however slight, can be devastating to your business.

Your employees are human being, and as such, they are given to human frailty.  They will make mistakes, and those are not broken windows. Employees who learn from their mistakes, who become better at their jobs because of those errors, are the best possible workers you can employ.  I’m not saying you should fire every employee of your company who has ever made a mistake, because you would have to begin with yourself.

However, there is a significant tendency in business today to forgive more than is rational.  We understand why someone is not producing as well as that employee should, we see the problem, and we explain it to that employee.  The employee nods and promises to do better.  The problem? That employee doesn’t improve – he or she continues to make the same mistakes, have the same bad attitude, display the same ineptitude or indifference toward the consumers who use the business.  And no matter how devastating emotionally it might be for the manager who oversees that employee, there is only one way to make sure that problem won’t recur – the employee must go.

The Los Angeles city government employs 37,000 people. In a fifteen-month period in 2003 and 2004, it fired only six workers for doing a poor job.  Instead, the system institutes what some people call the Dance of the Lemons, moving incompetent workers from one job to another, losing none of them.  This Lemon Dance perpetuates the problem – in fact, compounds the problem – because it guarantees that the worst workers will work in multiple departments.  Because laws, civil service regulations, and city ordinances protect incompetent workers, the city doesn’t get the service it needs from its employees, who can’t be fired.  This is about as ridiculous a situation as you could imagine, but it’s far from an isolated case.

I’m not advocating cruelty, and I’m not suggesting that you don’t treat your employees like people. But continued, persistent bad performance can’t be tolerated if you’re going to have the intense, obsessive dedication necessary from every employee in order to have success in any business.

The context is irrelevant: What’s important is that employees are not so much as admonished for their behavior, which certainly alienates at least one longtime customer and probably irritates considerably more than one. It is an example of the lax, laissez-faire attitude that has infected American businesses in the area of customer service. And the vast majority of such offenses can be traced to employees who have not been given a reason to care.

The concept of training for employees is far from revolutionary. This has been going on since there has been business, starting with the apprentice system and moving on from there (Donald Trump notwithstanding). But the concept of training employees to actually serve customers in a fashion that has all but gone out of style – with courtesy, a helpful attitude, and a smile – has sadly become revolutionary in today’s business climate.

A lot of large businesses will tell you (through their publicists) that they work hard and long on employee training.  They’ll point to concepts worked out by experts in motivation and customer service and how each of these concepts is posted on the wall of every other outlet the company owns.  McDonald’s love to tell you about its dedication to cleanliness and speed.  how clean and fast is the McDonald’s that you frequent?

The whole concept of employee training in almost every business needs to be overhauled, and here are the concepts that need to be stressed:

  1. Customer service
  2. Customer service
  3. Customer service
  4. Employee motivation
  5. Advancement for excellent performance
  6. Punishment for poor performance
  7. See 1, 2, and 3.

Enjoy this article?  You can get the rest in Chapter 7 of Broken Windows Broken Business.




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    • "I first heard about this book while reading another book. I thought the principle was interesting. This book hits a grand slam, everything starts with something small and then builds upon something greater. Michael Levine shows how ignoring one small bad thing can/will often lead to a bigger problem. A must have."
      Mustafa Tair Mumin
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    • "Throughout his riveting narrative, Levine cites hundreds of workplace situations which send "signals that no one is watching." At least not consciously, perhaps, but many of them are absorbed and retained in the subconscious mind."
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