THE BLOG
04/22/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

A May Day Message for the Traditional Workplace: Stop Treating Your Employees Like Children

Traditional workplace, report to the principal's office. You are in some serious trouble. Your infraction? A long history of invasive, control freak behavior. You've gotten away with it forever, but between Marissa Mayer's reneging on Yahoo's telecommuting policy and Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, you are finally busted.

Here's your problem in a nutshell: You treat your employees--fully grown, well-educated adults--like they're in kindergarten, and not even a nice kindergarten that fosters respect and independence, but a really creepy one that treats adults like they're babies and then complains about their immaturity.

To be clear, I'm not talking about jobs for which reporting to a certain location is essential--like jobs in teaching, health care, retail, or manufacturing. I'm talking about jobs that require only a phone, a computer, and internet access to perform. In other words, I'm talking about the majority of garden-variety professional jobs.

When it comes to these professional jobs, you go after people who have exceled in college or graduate school. You want them. You really, really want them. But once you get them, you set about stripping them of every vestige of what enabled them to excel in the first place. And then once they are totally under your thumb, you wonder why they aren't more inspired and productive anymore.

Want to argue? I'm not surprised. Because of your position of authority over people's livelihoods, you rarely have to listen to what others have to say. But since I'm self-employed and office out of my house you no longer have any power over me. I'm not afraid of you anymore.

What you need to realize is this: In college and graduate school, students are expected to show up for class, complete homework and papers on time, and perform well on exams. Sometimes students collaborate with one another on projects because it is required. Other times they form study groups on their own initiative. But when, where, and how they get their work done is up to them. Professors don't care if a student writes a paper at 10:00 a.m. in a carrel in the library or 10:00 p.m. at the table in the dining room. They only care how well it's written and whether it's turned in on time. Students learn how well or how poorly they perform their responsibilities when grades come out. Report cards are the student equivalent of paychecks.

Once these students graduate from college and enter the professional workplace--your world--they are treated as if they've stepped onto the set of Billy Madison. They are required to report to an office where you can supervise and monitor them all day long. You act as if you don't trust them to get their work done (because you don't) even though they have already demonstrated they can.

Sometimes you try to make things more fun by doing zany things like putting a ping-pong table in the break room or letting employees wear blue jeans to work on Friday. But these efforts simply underscore how deep your control issues run and how thoroughly you view your employees as your charges.

When it comes to gender equality, your gestures ostensibly aimed at leveling the playing field end up singling women out for disparate treatment. For example, "mommy track" or the gender neutral term for it, "flex time," offers reduced hours at reduced pay and pushes the promise of promotion years down the road. Talk about an offer that's easy to refuse. Yet despite the obvious downside to this "deal," many women take you up on it because they quickly conclude that it's physically impossible to both spend enough hours at the office to keep you happy, and enough time at home to keep their families healthy.

Some defend this type of policy as a step in the right direction. I see it as way of further boxing women in as well as a creepy intrusion into how employees divvy up the responsibilities at home. By agreeing to these terms, women not only give you permission to pay them less, they allow themselves to be classified as people who prioritize "women's work" over their careers. This makes it easy for you to justify denying them the chance to reach the top of the company ladder.

Real workplace equality would permit men and women to decide for themselves where and how to get their work done. If given the choice, some people would prefer to work from the office, while others would elect to work from home. Most would probably settle on a combination of the two. With this flexibility, employees could divvy up their home life responsibilities privately and there wouldn't be the need for the "mommy track" label.

I know this loss of control terrifies you, but think about it like this: If you call someone who works from home and you get his voicemail, it may be that he's on a conference call about another project, or it may be that he's picking up his daughter from school. Either way, the only thing you really need to know is that he will call you back as soon as he's able.

Sure, there will be times when face-to-face conferences are needed; and just as the vast majority of your employees managed to show up for class when they were in college, that same majority will also show up for these meetings. And yes, you will encounter people who simply aren't responsible or productive. But when confronted with a nonproductive or irresponsible employee, the solution isn't to make everyone report to the office; the solution is to fire the employee who is falling short. After all, do you really want an employee you have to babysit? (Marissa Mayer, feel free to mull that over either from your office or the baby nursery next door.)

Oh--one last thing: For a guy who insists upon warehousing people for chunks of their lives, the least you could do is make the surroundings decent. Bluntly put, you have terrible taste--from the acres of employee holding pens also known as cubicles to the cheesy office decor, work is not a nice place to be. Most universities have some halfway decent art here and there that provides an interesting backdrop for students when they are on campus. But you surround your employees with posters designed to shape their behavior--and not even benign posters like you might see in a normal kindergarten classroom with nice sayings like "Sharing is caring" and "Cookies are a sometimes food." No. Your employees are insulted with messages like "Fortune favors the bold" and "Bring on the competition." If that's the vibe you're going for you should really consider replacing Blue Jean Friday with Warrior Wednesday and encourage people to dress like gladiators. In all seriousness, these posters have an effect all right, but I doubt it's the one you wanted. They serve as fodder for office punch lines at best and gin up resentment that actually kills motivation at worst.

So, congratulations. You've succeeded in getting people to spend their days under your surveillance, but it hasn't come cheap. It has cost a chunk of their dignity and independence, necessary components to fostering drive and creativity. You get the body, but you've killed the soul. And it's not just your employees who pay the price for your overbearing policies. Providing offices for everyone is expensive and that hurts your bottom line. And making employees fight rush hour traffic driving back and forth to work everyday contributes to the not-so-slow death of the planet. That's quite a victory. You must be proud.

Look, it's not that I don't recognize what you bring to the table. You have work that needs to get done and you're willing to pay people to do it. That gives you the coveted "job creator" status and makes you one of society's most valuable members. But that doesn't give you the right to treat your employees like children--especially when doing so hurts everyone: you, them, and the planet at large.

Take some deep breaths and ease up a little (or a lot). Trust your employees to behave like the responsible and educated adults that they are. They'll be more productive and you'll have both more time and money on your hands. And that will free you up to go shopping for some new office décor to spruce things up for when folks do come in. The timing for all of this is perfect--after all, May Day (also known as International Workers' Day) is just around the corner!