How to Set Clear Employee Expectations

Patrick Ward Patrick Ward Follow May 01, 2021 · 9 mins read
How to Set Clear Employee Expectations

Salaries account for 11% of all corporate expenditures — an investment that is wasted if employees do not have clear performance expectations. 1

Clear expectation-setting is at the root of employee performance. In this post, I’ll go over various tools and methods that can be used to maximize employee performance through clear employee expectations. This includes discussing:

  1. Personal and organizational characteristics that are necessary before communicating expectations;
  2. Methods to formally communicate broad organizational employee expectations;
  3. Communicating job-specific employee expectations; and
  4. Communicating employee expectations on an ongoing basis.

Personal and organizational characteristics that are necessary before communicating expectations

In order to expect performance out of employees and retain top performers, a company’s management also has to meet expectations. This includes:

  1. Modelling the behaviors you expect of your workers (i.e. leading by example);
  2. Communicating clearly and openly; and
  3. Providing staff with the resources (including time) and social support they need to succeed.

Managers should be well versed in the tenets of management and leadership and live by them in order to motivate their subordinates. Refer to the following resources from the University of Minnesota to learn and/or be reminded about these tenets:

Methods to formally communicate broad organizational employee expectations

In most organizations, there are expectations that apply to all employees. Starting from the broadest level, there are the company’s mission and vision statements. A vision statement communicates what success looks like to a company and what it wants to become. A mission statement communicates how the company plans to achieve its vision, including what the company sells/does, who it sells it to/does it for, and how it will fulfill its customers’ needs better than the competition. Both the vision and mission statements, as well as formalized company values, should be known by employees and serve to guide their actions when they don’t know what to do. If they don’t, then one or both statements should be revised.

Another less common tool that can be used is the commander’s intent. In my opinion, it is best equipped to provide clear direction when an employee doesn’t know what to do, and it can be applied to both broad and specific initiatives. You can learn more about how to use this tool via the following resources:

An organizational structure should also be detailed, communicating the reporting structure and general responsibilities of employees at each level. To learn more, see this resource from the University of Minnesota on Creating an Organizational Structure.

Across most businesses, hierarchical positions tend to have common expectations. The leveling methodology described by Willis Towers Watson does a good job at breaking down the various job levels and responsibilities at each level. The following chart summarizes what is typically expected at each level of management:

Career LevelExpectations
Senior Group Manager
  • Guided by organizational and functional objectives and strategies
  • Is accountable for the performance of a medium to large strategically important discipline/function, diverse disciplines/departments, and/or global corporate discipline/department in a medium to extremely large market
  • Develops, adapts, and executes strategies to achieve key business objectives
  • Provides leadership and direction through Group and/or Senior Managers
Group Manager
  • Guided by functional/major operational segment objectives and strategies
  • Is accountable for the performance of a medium to large strategically important discipline/function/department or related disciplines in a medium to extremely large market
  • Adapts and executes business plans and contributes to the development of strategies
  • Provides leadership and direction through Senior Managers and Managers
Senior Manager
  • Guided by functional objectives and resources
  • Is accountable for the performance of multiple related units
  • Develops departmental plans, including business, organizational, operational, and/or production priorities
  • Controls resources and policy formation in area of responsibility
  • Provides leadership to managers and potentially supervisors and/or professional staff
  • Guided by policies, procedures, business plans, and Senior Manager
  • Is accountable for the performance of a team within their discipline/function
  • Adapts departmental priorities and plans based on resources and operational challenges
  • Manages professional employees and/or supervises large/complex operations, support, or production team(s)
  • Provides technical guidance to colleagues, subordinates, and/or customers
  • Guided by policies, procedures, and business plans and receives guidance and oversight from Managers
  • Sets priorities and is accountable for task completion; typically doesn’t spend more than 20% of time performing the work that is being supervised
  • Coordinates with other supervisors and supervises the daily activities of an operations, support, or production team

Breaking things down further, but staying company-wide, broad employee expectations are also communicated through an organization’s policies and procedures. Policies detail an organization’s “rules,” so to speak, while procedures detail how to act according to those rules. For example, common policies that an organization would have include attendance, hours of work, overtime, and many others. To learn more about producing policies and procedures, review these Administrative Policy Writer Resources from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Once these policies and procedures are developed, it is then recommended they be consolidated and summarized into an employee handbook to allow for greater accessibility and ease of use. To help you produce your own employee handbook, see this Employee Handbook Model Policies sample/template from the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Communicating job-specific employee expectations

After company-wide expectations have been established, the next step is setting job expectations. Day-to-day job expectations are most formally communicated via a position’s job description, which details at least some number of the following:

  • Work environment, physical demands, and other characteristics;
  • Knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes (KSAOs);
  • Duties, tasks, and responsibilities;
  • Key performance indicators (KPIs, SMART KPIs); and
  • Working and reporting relationships.

To learn how to create a job description, read this Job Description Writing Guide from the University of Pittsburgh.

Although a role’s compensation is typically detailed in its job description, I’d like to pause briefly to discuss compensation’s significance. In order for an employee to follow expectations, it’s absolutely critical that compensation and rewards are commensurate to those expectations. For example, if an employee is expected to manage subordinates, they must be paid an appropriate amount above those subordinates. Likewise, they need to be paid a salary that is similar to comparable external jobs. If not, there isn’t an adequate incentive for the employee to do the work and/or stay with the company. While there are ways to Keep Employees Happy Without a Raise, some combination of compensation, work environment, advancement opportunities, and other work and job characteristics are necessary to having employees fulfill work expectations.

Communicating employee expectations on an ongoing basis

The best way, by far, to manage employee expectations on an ongoing basis is to have company-wide adherence to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) project management standards. These standards, detailed in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), ensure that all initiatives are planned and organized, leaving very little up to interpretation. Specifically, this includes detailing each initiative’s:

  1. Integration;
  2. Scope;
  3. Schedule;
  4. Cost;
  5. Quality;
  6. Resources;
  7. Communications;
  8. Risks;
  9. Procurement; and
  10. Stakeholder engagement.

If these and other standards are followed, expectations will be communicated clearly, in turn avoiding conflict and dramatically improving efficiency.

As a simpler substitute or supporting technique, the goal setting process is also effective at detailing and communicating expectations. Personally, I prefer the acronym SMARTR, which includes the following attributes:

  1. Specific;
  2. Measured (including standards/targets for all steps);
  3. Assigned responsibilities (with accountability);
  4. Realistic (but challenging, with sufficient resources);
  5. Time-bounded (including incremental steps/milestones); and
  6. Rewarded (according to performance reviews to ensure motivation).

Another method to communicate expectations is by holding company and departmental meetings. Many companies hold meetings as frequently as daily, with Walmart’s daily cheer as a well-known example. At a minimum, departmental meetings should be held on a weekly basis in order to keep short-term expectations top of mind. As for longer-term expectations, functional and/or company-wide meetings should be held quarterly and annually to keep employees informed.

It’s essential that you, as a manager, keep engaged with employees during the year leading up to any form of review. Otherwise, you risk damaging morall when employees expecting high ratings receive average ratings like “meets expectations.”

Finally, like compensation, ongoing personal feedback and scheduled performance reviews are very important. Many companies hold performance reviews on an annual basis, but it may be wiser to hold them on a quarterly (or even monthly) basis. This is because these meetings are critical as a control measure and provide frequent opportunities to:

  • Recognize strong performance;
  • Give and receive constructive feedback;
  • Create plans to correct poor performance; and
  • Take advantage of many other benefits.

For more information on performance reviews, see the following recommendations from the Harvard Business Review on Delivering an Effective Performance Review.


After reading this post, you now know many of the different tools and methods that can be used to set and communicate clear employee expectations. The most essential tools and methods discussed include:

  1. Ensuring leaders are leading by example and supporting their subordinates;
  2. Establishing and communicating broad organizational employee expectations;
  3. Establishing and communicating job-specific employee expectations; and
  4. Communicating and managing employee expectations on an ongoing basis.

By following these guidelines, expectations will be clear for your employees, in turn producing better employee and organizational performance.

Patrick Ward
Written by Patrick Ward Follow
Hi, I'm Patrick. I made this site to share my expertise on team augmentation, nearshore development, and remote work.
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