New Brunswick·World of Work

Making and breaking promises in the workplace

Informal survey group draws a distinction between the promises made through policy versus the promises made to each other as colleagues.

Consequences exist for not living up to promises in policy or keeping word to colleagues

Integrity is often identified as a core value by employers. It gets defined as "walking the talk" or "doing what you say you will do."

Although those descriptions are quite fitting, I was taken recently by a manufacturing firm who simply say in their statement of values "we keep our promises."  More specifically they "keep their promises" as a way to build and strengthen relationships, but the clarity of the promissory statement got me thinking about the promises we make and break in the workplace.

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I put the question to a group 35 leaders from front line to middle management and executives in a recent workshop in yet another one of my unscientific yet highly informative surveys. What are the promises we make at work, why do we break them when we do and what of it?

Not surprisingly the top-of-mind promises had to do with the hiring and orientation process, from promises about career and salary progression, the type, intensity and frequency of initial and ongoing training as well as any number of promises made at time of courting a prospective employee about workplace climate and helpful co-workers.

Policy promises

Many mentioned that employers routinely promise safe work environments including respectful workplaces free of harassment and bullying, many explicitly state that they offer competitive compensation, the tools to do the job and more, yet my survey group drew a distinction between the promises made through policy versus the promises we make to each other as colleagues.

Promises made in policy are held to variable standards from one organization to the next in my experience. Whereas one employer may take its written word in the form of its personnel policies and code of conduct as sacrosanct with serious repercussions for breaches, other employers willingly admit their policies serve as a guideline from which reasonable people interpret and adjust based on the situation, bendable promises if you will. I think we can all agree a promise made in policy about ethical conduct may be taken more seriously than the policy over cleaning the office fridge. 

People promises

Although breaking policy promises are not to be dismissed, the promises we break with each other as colleagues, with our direct reports as leaders and with our clients can have even more insidious consequences. As one workshop participant said, "Twisting policy is one thing but willingly not keeping the promises we make to each other in a supervisor-employee relationship or between colleagues sows seeds of mistrust and is a breeding ground for disengagement and unhealthy relationships."

One seasoned and very forthcoming middle manager told me "I used to say I would get back to people while knowing that my workload would not make it likely or I would do so with the hope that people would understand that unforeseen circumstances would happen and prevent me from keeping my promise. Its only when I received direct feedback from a number of sources that I was known as not trustworthy that I cleaned up my act. It has taken me years to rebuild people's confidence. I never used to think of my commitments as promises but that's clearly how others interpreted the engagements I undertook. I now say no a lot more often, but follow up with a vengeance when I say I will do something."

Under promise and over deliver.

He went on to say he now has "under promise and over deliver" as his mantra and he religiously coaches that approach with his staff.

In spite of the best of intentions, promises will be broken in the workplace. Circumstances change, conditions are altered and the unexpected does get in the way. Healthy organizations and credible individuals deal with such reversals by owning up, being as transparent as the circumstance allows, apologizing when appropriate and moving on positively.

Individuals who work in trusting workplace climates with high trust built over repeated and multiple instances of kept promises, both in the form of policies and verbal commitments, typically give each other the benefit of the doubt when the odd promise is broken or bent. A reputation for broken promises can be damaging but like many other things can be turned around, one kept promise at a time.


Pierre Battah

Human resource management consultant

Pierre Battah is Information Morning's Workplace Specialist. Battah & Associates is a management consulting firm specializing in Human Resource Management.


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