To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, "Stuff
Happens". Drawbridges get stuck, alarm clocks with
perfectly good track records fail, people lose their
carkeys, their babysitters don't show up, they have
bad days, transiently forget how to do something
they mastered years ago, say things they don't
mean, and, in short, are subject to all the foibles of
being human. Just ask Mel Gibson.
Leaders who are fair usually give people the benefit
of the doubt. And in return, they usually receive the
benefit of Discretionary Effort. Or what we
A good model for extending the benefit of the doubt
comes from an interesting source: Netflix, the Los
Gatos, California-based online mail order DVD rental
In the special circumstance of 2005's Hurricane
Katrina, Netflix took proactive steps to help their
customers affected by the storm, who had a lot more
to worry about than their DVD account. The company
ascertained from the Postal Service the ZIP codes
whose residents were not receiving mail, and notified
each of them by e-mail that they could at least take
Netflix off their list of concerns. Their accounts would
be suspended until such time as the customer wished
to resume the relationship. They needn't worry about
items that may have been lost in transit, in either
direction, or in the storm, and they wouldn't be
charged the monthly fee until they wanted to start
their service again.
According to Steve Swasey, the company's
Corporate Communications Director, replies flooded in
from the affected customers, expressing appreciation
for Netflix taking even this small step to be of help,
and not add to their troubles. The irony of this wasn't
lost on those Netflix customers who were still getting
power bills for electricity not delivered to
uninhabitable or non-existent homes.
But this is how Netflix regards all its customers, even
in ordinary circumstances. It's simply the way they
do business. The benefit of the doubt. Trust. The
company's management understands that a DVD may
occasionally be lost or damaged during shipping
through no fault of the customer, even in good
weather. Therefore, its policy is to replace lost
movies at no charge. (In my case, the company was
very understanding when my letter carrier delivered a
Postal Service baggie containing shards of "Walk The
Line", with accompanying official USPS apology
sticker, mass-produced expressly for such "mishaps".)
However, the Netflix policy also states "If an
excessive number of lost DVD reports are filed on an
account, we will place the account under review and
notify the customer via email."
In other words, stuff happens. But we're not here to
enable you to steal DVD's from us.
We like the fact that their policy doesn't state a
specific number of allowable losses. That game would
be pretty easy to crack, wouldn't it? Instead, their
policy operates from a foundation of trust, and
extends to those who continue to earn that trust.
The same practice works well with people at work.
We start from a foundation of trust. If we've hired
right, most of the people we've hired will enrich their
trust account a little bit (sometimes a lot) each day.
Then, when the drawbridge gets stuck, and they
arrive later than usual, we barely remember. If the
drawbridge gets stuck three times a week, a little
coaching is probably in order.
As we suspected, Netflix's policy of trust with its
customers also extends to its employees.
"We hire adults, and expect them to behave like
adults," said Swasey.
The "we hire adults" attitude is particularly evident in
Netflix's vacation policy, which is best defined by the
fact that they have no vacation policy for their
salaried workforce. (Production workers in their
distribution facilities have a vacation policy that
balances time off with customer demands.)
"Our policy is this," Swasey said, "As long as you get
your work accomplished, take as much time as you
want, whenever you want." Netflixers have to let
their manager know when they're going to be gone -
they don't have to ask permission - they simply need
to let the boss know, and then they are free to take
vacation time at their own discretion. No
one "vacates" during a big project, or when a
particular task is mission critical. But when projects
are completed, work is done, milestones are reached,
Netflix says "Take some vacation time if you want.
And have a good time."
This skeptical American writer, steeped in a culture of
2-3 weeks max vacation at any given time, asked
Swasey, "What if someone wanted to take, like, a
month or more at one time?"
"Oh, sometimes people take several months at a time.
That's no problem," explained Swasey. We have a lot
of software engineers and other professionals whose
families live overseas. When they finish a big project,
they go home to visit, sometimes for a couple of
months or more. Plus, in our business, people can
work online from almost anywhere. And our people
We should have known that Netflixers weren't taking
undue advantage of the vacation non-policy. The
company, with its simple and extremely well executed
business model has one of the best-oiled distribution
systems on the planet; it grew from nothing in 1999
to more than 5 million subscribers in 2006, and posted
sales of $682 million in 2005. Online customer service
trackers ForeSee Results and FGI Research ranked it
the number one website for customer service in 2004
and 2005, and Fast Company gave Netflix the
magazine's 2005 Customers First Award. But wait,
there's more. Netflix has stayed well on top of its
market, despite Blockbuster Video's attempts to
capsize it. And, get this - Wal-Mart - not known for
throwing in the towel (selling them, yes, but not
throwing them in) abandoned its short-lived try at
the DVD rental business, and told its customers to go
It would be hard to rack up successes like that with
an AWOL workforce. Or one that wasn't putting forth
some pretty serious Oomph.
© 2006 Contented Cow Partners, LLC. Permission
required to reproduce.