What makes a good employee? (gopher issues aside)


Just about everyone sees themselves as a good employee. About a third of us are deluded. I blame parents.

My theory is that our parents are the first “boss” most of us experience. They set the expectation that misbehavior has consequences. They make us understand the importance of punctuality, honesty, dependability and cooperation with others.

Back in the days when I spent a good chunk of my time training new college grads I could predict who would be a challenge by asking if their parents had rules that came with consequences. If they did, half my work was done.

So what makes a good employee? Talk to a manager trying to fill an open position and he will give you a list of the technical knowledge and qualifications he wants in a new employee. But ask a manager to describe a good employee and you will hear about character.


Being reliable means getting work assignments done on time and without being nagged. It means being the employee the boss can count on to be there and do the right thing.

The employee who is there every day, on time and doing consistently good work is the backbone of the business. When managers talk about a highly skilled — even brilliant — employee who is unreliable, they are sad and frustrated. They have an employee who could be fantastic but they can’t trust that employee to show up and do his job.

Everybody has personal obligations and lives that get complicated. We all have days or weeks when the problems come at us thick and fast. Time management problems a few times a year isn’t unreasonable — but every week?

I am obsessively punctual, and usually early. But when I found a large, dead gopher in my laundry room one morning I called my boss and told him I would be late. I wasn’t leaving my house until I figured out how that dead gopher got there and made sure it didn’t happen again.

This strange but true explanation was accepted without question because it was very rare for me to be absent or late. Dead gopher No. 2 was a surprise, and my boss remained understanding. But when I hadn’t solved the problem by dead gopher No. 5, the boss was no longer willing to accept my late arrival at work. And that was perfectly understandable.

By that point the dead gophers were unpleasant but not a surprise. To this day I am not sure how those dead gophers got into my house. My neighbors claimed that a large cat in the neighborhood dragged the gophers to the roof, into the attic vent and down through the air conditioning ducts. I remain dubious.

Willing and cooperative

Some employees are happy and willing to try a new idea or process. Most will reluctantly and with some loud grumbling give it a go.

It’s fair to ask why a change in job duties, work process or priorities is being made. But then you should be willing to give it a fair try and be willing to admit you may have been wrong in predicting massive failure.

The employee who is known to be cooperative and willing to accept suggestions and guidance, who is willing to work alongside any co-worker without complaining — that’s a good employee.

This doesn’t mean the employee isn’t willing to speak up and point out problems that need to be addressed. But he does it to make things right, not to show he was right and everyone else was wrong.


“I made a mistake.” “I didn’t follow directions.” “I didn’t check my work.”

These words are not easy to say but saying them saves a lot of time and energy and could even save your job. Good employees hold themselves accountable when something they are responsible for goes awry.

Putting the blame on a co-worker or pretending you were not the cause of a problem just wastes time and damages relationships. There are a few people who have developed a real skill at wriggling out of problems they caused. (They probably learned this skill in childhood.) But at some point the jig is up.

Early in my career I had a couple of bosses who made it clear that they would help me fix any kind of problem as long as I informed them as soon as I knew something had gone sideways. They used the opportunity to improve my skills and make sure I didn’t repeat my errors.

Many years ago I gave an employee three chances to admit she was making a lot of mistakes and was missing from the office way too often. I believe in second and even third chances.

She pointed at everything and everyone else but herself as the problem. She saw herself as a good employee.

I hate firing employees, but she made it easy.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


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