Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini became a victim of public scrutiny in August after telling the New York Times about a test she uses to measure a candidate’s commitment during the hiring process. Her system involves texting at an odd hour of the weekend to see how quickly the candidate will respond.
Not surprisingly, the internet jumped on the soundbite. In vein with the premise of Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” the executive is being tied to a single comment in a rather extreme fashion. Regardless of your take on Nardini’s vetting process, I’d argue that the conversation that has resulted is a net-positive for those of us in the business of building teams and companies.
I must admit: The concept of “overwork” is a bit foreign to me. I grew up in Belgium, where society takes a much different approach to work-life balance. Last year, for example, France passed legislation making the case that employers cannot penalize their employees for failing to respond to emails during non-working hours. These types of policies are designed to protect workers against conditions that serve to threaten their well-being.
On this very subject, Vox recently published an opinion piece that makes the case that today’s employers are like “dictators,” creating societies within the workplaces in which regulations (or “laws”) are placed on employee-citizens that are designed to subjugate them to “tyrannical” conditions. Of course, the counter to this argument — and to Nardini’s policy at Barstool — is that employees choose to work at private companies at-will, and if the systems aren’t a fit for their lifestyles, they can always leave.
From a business owner’s perspective, I would argue that policies and “tests” that promote over-work are counterproductive in the long term. Squeezing out productivity from employees during off-hours or cutting into their personal time might serve a short-term purpose, but in the long term these cultures are harder to sustain and make it difficult to attract and maintain top talent. Here’s why.
Work-Life Balance Correlates to Overall Happiness
Earlier this year, my company ran a study based on data compiled from a sample of 5,000 Butterfly users (employees) in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Our aim was to understand the correlation between key drivers of engagement in the workplace — like team dynamics, leadership and work-life balance — and overall happiness. Our results showed that work-life balance had the strongest correlation with employee happiness, ranking above things like office environment (I.e., “work perks”) and even managers.
Companies have been using tactics like free beer and company merchandise to recruit millennials, but our study and other observations (like those made in Dan Lyons’ book, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble”) suggest that superficial perks aren’t what’s keeping young talent happy and productive at work. Instead, millennials are looking for balanced lifestyles promoted by strong managers who care about their well-being and professional development.
The notion of servant leadership was birthed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. His philosophy was that the strongest leaders are those that live to support and serve the needs of their teams. Managers with a “servant-first” mindset, therefore, are compelled to make sure that their employee’s highest priority needs are being met first — in other words, it’s about being there for your employee at 9 p.m. on a Sunday and not the other way around.
As a co-founder of a company that has grown from three co-founders to more than 15 employees in less than two years, I can’t help but scratch my head at the idea of expecting my people to be there for me during odd hours. In my mind, it’s about letting my team know that I will be there for them, regardless of the time of day or reason for their outreach.
In fact, this idea that managers should be sourcing feedback from their teams on an ongoing basis is the founding principle of the employee intelligence startup I co-founded with my colleagues David Mendlewicz and Marcus Perezi-Tormos.
Value Achievement Over Activity
Setting aside the cultural implications of expecting employees to sacrifice work/life balance for the “cause,” this philosophy also misses the mark when it comes to what truly makes great businesses survive and thrive. As a basketball player, I’ll reference Hall of Fame coach John Wooden’s quote: “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
In the context of business, the act of logging extra hours or being on call during evenings and weekends does not guarantee results. It can lead to burnout and diminished productivity.
No co-founder, myself included, is naive enough to believe that great businesses are built by clock watchers. Disrupting an industry, launching a new product, or overtaking fierce competition takes hard work, and a lot of it — but this work should be measured by tangible goals and milestones — not hours.
Piling onto the scrutiny of a single soundbite from one CEO is not going to solve the broader issue of work martyrdom, but constructive conversations can help. While leaders will differ in their individual styles, I would offer that managers should explore ways that they can prove to their teams that they are committed to their employees’ personal growth and overall health. And, as always, actions will matter much more than words.
Simon Rakosi is co-founder of Butterfly, an employee intelligence and management coaching platform that uses AI to help develop leadership skills at all levels of an organization. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.