Any article about employees or bosses discussing their bossiness is going to be on my radar. Since, you know, I practice employment law and stuff. So of course an article entitled, “Why I Regret Being a Nice Boss” is going to pique my interest.

Laura Smith basically discusses why she regrets being a push-over with her former employees. As a “nice boss,” she did not address issues like tardiness or poor performance with her workers, and this caused resentment amongst others who were following the (amorphous, apparently) rules. I think she has several good points, but I quibble with her title. I cringe at the confirmation bias some bad bosses out there will have when they read that title, and walk away not getting the point.

You can still be a “nice” boss while maintaining a functional workplace. Being a “nice” boss shares some elements with being a “nice” human. Courtesy, respect, empathy, and all of those other wonderful qualities that we cherish in people that we want in our lives. It does not mean you have to be a push over, or not tell employees how they can improve. Smith sums up her flawed management style:

I allowed my coffee shop to become characterized by permissiveness. Some took advantage of this permissiveness by making up excuses for being late, or by trying to do as little work as possible. Those who didn’t take advantage became resentful of the other employees, and of me. It brought out the worst in everyone.

What Laura Smith described above, however, is not a “nice boss.” It is a weak or lazy manager. (Sorry Laura.) Part of my problem with the “nice boss” angle (and I know this was more of a creative title than anything else) is that it implies being an asshole boss is somehow better. It isn’t. Down that road is pain and inevitable lawsuits by unhappy employees. I cannot tell you how many clients walked in my door with some crazy tale about their asshole boss. Their stories about their horrible bosses are usually legal (for now). But they are walking in my door and an experienced Plaintiff’s employment lawyer (me) is asking them questions. In the course of many of these intakes, lo and behold, I find things out. “Oh, you had to work for how many hours a day? You did what during your meal breaks? Your handbook says what?” This happens all the time.

In that way, functionally Laura Smith’s “nice boss” and an asshole boss are actually very similar. The so-called “nice” (i.e., lazy and passive) boss is going to breed resentment and hostility amongst employees who perceive a willy-nilly rudderless workplace.  Employees are going to leave that workplace feeling mistreated. To me a “nice boss” is instead an active and fair boss who employees want to do good work for. Employees know what is expected of them. They know their good work is recognized. They know bad work is going to hurt the business, and they do not want that to happen.

Laura Smith counsels write ups and a more “paternalistic” micro-managing style. If that works for you, and if you can do it fairly, fine.  I can see how in food service that might be a good way to do it. Amongst franchised formula restaurants, it is standard. So you can paper up your workplace with forms and write ups and performance improvement plans like IHOP or Walmart or any other big business that has adopted the HR “death of a thousand forms” formula.  You should realize that these forms exist, however, for (a) CYA purposes; and (b) for eliminating thinking from the management equation. I see them getting employers into trouble more often than I see them improving a workplace or improving an individual worker.

In a small business you have the luxury of immediacy. You do not have to worry about employee relations across a business spanning thousands or even millions of people. You can establish more meaningful personal connections with your workers in real time. If someone is late, let them know that they cannot do that when they walk in the door. If someone does not take a break, let them know they need to take a break. (And then pay them the hour you owe them per California Labor Code 226.7.) If someone is slacking, ask them if they need help getting their work done. If someone is doing a good job, you can tell them right away. Rewards and incentives do not even always have to be monetary. I know a firm that rings a bell when someone settles a case. They ring a bell. Yay. But I imagine it feels good to be the one that gets that bell rung, regardless of any financial incentives.

I know this is tough because for many years in my old firm I supervised junior associates and law clerks.  In truth, I was not a great supervisor. I am pretty sure I was too blunt. I gave assignments, I checked them out when they were done, and I offered feedback. I sent people back to do things that were not done, partly because I did not adequately explain (or sometimes, even know) what I wanted. The extent of my management-fu was the occasional praise sandwich. (My wife tells me the proper metaphor is a shit sandwich, since you’re sandwiching in the “shit-critique” between two slices of “praise bread.” You don’t call a turkey sandwich a bread sandwich do you? But praise sandwich sounds more…appealing.) It took me a while to learn how to motivate people to want to do good work. This is an art I still have not come close to mastering. The never ending crush of business is enough to deal with.

One thing I am sure of, however: I never tried to be “nice.” If we go by Laura Smith’s definition of a “nice boss,” I am fairly certain my former subordinates at least appreciated that.