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6 Simple Ways Founders Can Inspire Their First Employees

Treat everyone with respect, from the chairman of the board to the part-time maintenance worker.

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Employees, especially startup employees, don't respond well to leaders whose actions don't match their words. Close-knit teams quickly recognize when their bosses say one thing and do another.

Alistair Berg | Getty Images

Hypocritical leadership lowers employee productivity, harms workplace morale and decreases the company's ability to innovate, per Interact. The more frequent the hypocrisy, the more dramatic the negative effects become. This will destroy your startup....and fast.

Leading by example is easy when things are going well. Anyone can be a team player when products are selling, clients are happy and developments are progressing. However, when times get tough or tempers flare, true leaders must rise to the occasion and deliver on the promises they've made.

Watch for these key moments when employees need founders to lead by example:

1. Risks and failures

Startup culture champions the risk-taking attitude of successful disruptors. However, when leaders tell employees to take risks and then punish them for failing, employees see the disconnect and stop trying to innovate.

Communicate openly about calculated risks the company takes and back up employees who try new things. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told his team that the company's shows were doing too well and encouraged them to take more chances on shows that weren't guaranteed hits. Crazy? Perhaps. However, calculated risks and innovative stories, not rehashed successes, will keep Netflix profitable for years to come.

Related: Inside Netflix's Notorious Firing Practices

2. Company values and mission

If the brand champions vegan values but its founders go hunting every weekend, employees will see that the company mission doesn't mean anything. With socially conscious Millennials filling the workforce and Gen Z on the way, businesses must stay true to their values to attract and retain top talent.

REI has had it right for years. In the #OptOutside initiative, REI pays all its employees to take Black Friday off and spend time outdoors with friends and family. Employees at REI love that their leaders back up their talk about work-life balance with action.

3. Vacation policies

Generous vacation policies sound great on paper, but when the boss never takes a day off, employees don't either. Kickstarter abandoned its unlimited vacation policy after discovering that employees were taking off less time than did before the switch.

Employees need to see that they can use their benefits in practice, not just on paper. Even if it hurts to leave the office, take more vacations and be open about using PTO to encourage employees to do the same. Vacations provide a variety of benefits on their own, so leaders should take more of them anyway.

Related: 10 Leaders Who Set Good Work-Life Balance Examples

4. Discrimination and harassment

Famous failures of leadership within Uber and other Silicon Valley companies have thrust the issue of harassment into the limelight. When employees see their colleagues get away with discrimination, sexual harassment and other fireable offenses, they view their leaders as partially responsible. Employees who would harass others take inaction as approval, while those subject to harassment see inaction as leadership's failure to protect them.

Come down hard and fast on anyone within the organization caught harassing or discriminating against other employees. The longer the company tolerates a harasser, the more harm that person's presence causes.

Attend harassment and discrimination training sessions alongside employees and take the classes seriously. Otherwise, employees might view such trainings as less important than they are.

Related: How to Finally Stop Sexual Harassment at Work

5. Micromanagement

Managers look to their bosses to model their management styles. If their bosses constantly micromanage their work, managers do the same to their own employees. However, if managers' bosses show them trust, they do the same for their direct reports.

Give departments as much autonomy as possible to create an atmosphere of trust within the company. Having effective business operations is allowing people to step up. Micromanagement will lead to higher turnover and bottlenecks, per Bamboo HR, forcing leaders to waste time on administrative tasks that should fall to others.

6. Day-to-day work life

As research published in Harvard Business Review confirms, employees are always watching. It doesn't matter if the company is doing well or poorly -- when leaders are present, employees base their behaviors on what they see.

Don't just be the company's founder and boss: be its best employee. Come in a little early and stay a little late but don't sacrifice work-life balance. Send emails during work hours, not at three in the morning, or employees will feel pressured to stay on the clock 24/7. Treat everyone with respect, from the chairman of the board to the part-time maintenance worker.

Act like the kind of person who deserves to be a leader, and employees will reward that respect.

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