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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Thum, Ph.D., CCXP

Red Tape: Getting Real About What Keeps Employee Experiences from Being Great

If you work in or around customer experience, there’s a phrase you’ve undoubtedly seen 1,000 times on social media:

“A great employee experience leads to a great customer experience!”

I have a confession about that phrase.

I cringe every single time I hear it. Every. Single. Time.

Even though there may be some truth to it, it’s a completely generic phrase. It’s vague. It doesn’t mean anything.

What, exactly, goes into great employee experiences? What, exactly, gets in the way of employee experiences being great?

Nobody ever seems to say exactly. So, it’s no wonder customer experience pros are inundated with ROI challenges from colleagues.

So, let’s talk specifics and root causes. Because abstract sayings aren’t going to get us anywhere.

I’ve spent the last year studying bureaucratic red tape from a customer experience perspective and an employee experience perspective.

Red tape as in dysfunctional and outdated rules, processes, redundant paperwork, silly procedures, wastefulness, and unnecessarily long wait times. Hearing “that’s not my job” from someone at a call center and then having to call or e-mail someone else to get something done only to hear it again from the next person you reach out to.

These are the things that make most people want to scream.

Don’t say you’ve never been there.

Most people think of red tape as a government thing. But red tape isn’t exclusive to government. For example, as a customer, have you ever had to decipher a hospital bill you knew was incorrect and then go try to get it fixed?

Friction, sludge, no redeeming value are some of the words associated with red tape in scholarly literature.

That’s because what you go through to navigate red tape can get expensive monetarily, psychologically, physiologically, and time-wise.

Red tape is a customer problem. But it obliterates the employee experience.

It has been argued that red tape is hardest on customers.

But bureaucratic red tape has a compounded impact on employees. Most employees usually must administer red tape of some kind to customers. It’s their job to know the rules, communicate them, and enforce customer service policies or rules, for example.

But then employees have rules, procedures, and processes of their own to deal with at work. Things like:

  • Rigid hierarchy.

  • Piles of paperwork to get reimbursed for travel expenses.

  • More piles of paperwork to get approval for a training seminar.

  • Rules that make it hard to get a promotion.

  • Rules about communicating with colleagues in other departments.

  • Unnecessarily long processes to hire and fire.

  • Long requisition processes to get the materials to do a job.

What is the big deal?

Research has shown, time and time again, that too many red tape rules, too much sludge, and too many dysfunctional processes are harmful to the employee experience. Research has shown red tape can:

  • Create cognitive uncertainty for employees.

  • Send employees into rule-bending mode.

  • Lead to cheating or gaming performance data.

  • Make employees want to leave their jobs.

  • Lead to employees deliberately working against leadership.

  • Create job stress.

  • Cause mistakes from being overburdened.

  • Inhibit innovation and employee motivation.

  • Make employees feel powerless and alienated.

  • Slow down productivity.

  • Cause job dissatisfaction.

  • Impact performance.

  • Stand in the way of employee participation in organizational change.

Unfortunately, few leaders seem to want to do anything about the red tape that causes poor employee experiences. In fact, most seem to be looking the other way while the rules pile up.

Why are leaders looking the other way?

You might think that since red tape is a problem for employees, it’s a problem for leadership. But red tape is usually so deeply embedded in organizational culture that it isn’t on the radar as a trouble spot.

And there’s easy debate—too easy—about how red tape isn’t really a problem. Some people argue that red tape rules and burdensome processes are needed because they:

  • Reduce risk.

  • Create structure.

  • Create certainty.

  • Create a level playing field.

  • Preserve program integrity.

  • Repel cheaters.

  • Prevent fraud.

And they’re not necessarily wrong.

Structure can be a good thing. For example, a study of workers in Ghana showed that 50.3% found red tape to be a negative for job satisfaction while 49.7% said it was a positive. So, some people do indeed prefer the structure of bureaucratic red tape in their work.

But there is one irrefutable fact.

Regardless of where one lands in their views on red tape:

The onus is on leaders to lead change, create high-performing, efficient organizations, and make decisions that contribute to employee satisfaction and retention. Red tape stands in the way of reaching that goal.

Here are some things leaders can do:

  • Measure employee perceptions of red tape. Scholars have developed and validated a scale that can help leaders to measure red tape perceptions among employees.

  • Conduct a sludge audit. Sludge audits help you to evaluate the time and related expenses of filling out forms, waiting for decisions, and repeating processes.

  • Streamline and automate processes. The streamlining work you do may have a ripple impact to customer experience, as well.

  • Apply rules consistently. Advocating for consistency in how rules are applied can reduce the cognitive uncertainty that causes employee job stress.

  • Be mindful of when, where, and how you're creating rules. Are they really necessary? Are the rules created on top of more rules?

On the upside

Leaders have many good reasons to consider the impact of administrative red tape on citizens, customers, and employees.

Some red tape may be good for reducing organizational risks and protecting stakeholder interests. However, there’s no denying what is in the research. Red tape can also have a detrimental impact on employees who are responsible for delivering services to customers.

In your quest to lead change, create great employee experiences, perhaps it is best to think of it like this:

Red tape may not be a bad thing if it motivates you to innovate your processes.

So when you say employee experiences lead to great customer experiences, make sure you clearly express what the problems are and what can be done.

Back to specifics

As customer experience professionals, we can’t be vague. Otherwise, it’s too easy to be viewed as part of the organization’s problems, instead of being viewed as part of the solution.

I have collected dozens of scholarly resources on this topic. Reach out to me for a list of references that were used in creating this post.

Join me on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

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