Workplace Lemons (and How Not to be One)

According the Wikipedia, “Lemon laws are American state laws that provide a remedy for purchasers of cars in order to compensate for cars that repeatedly fail to meet standards of quality and performance.”

No one wants to spend money for a car or other product that is defective or doesn’t meet expected standards. And no one likes to be disappointed by what they get for the money they spend. What if there were lemon laws for disappointing workplace performance?

As an employee who is paid by an employer to perform, what might get you disqualified as a “lemon”?

In the workplace, they’re not called “lemon laws.” They are called dismissal and termination. And they’re bad for both the employer and the employee.

If you like your job, you don’t want to be replaced for being defective in the results you deliver. Here are three ways to make sure your work won’t invoke the spirit of the lemon law:

  1. Know what is expected

    Every employer has expectations when they do business with you. Unfortunately, some employees don’t find out what those expectations are until after they’re not met.
    Meet with your manager to clarify your own job expectations. That includes where you should focus your attention, what gets priority and what skills you need to develop or improve.
    Priorities change, so regularly schedule a brief meeting for feedback on your performance to make sure you’re focused on doing the right things.

  2. Meet standards and, if possible, exceed them

    The most valued employees are those who know how to add value to their work. To earn more, contribute more. The worst thing you can do, for an employer or a customer, is to over-promise and under-deliver. That’s a guaranteed strategy for disappointment.

    Consider these questions: What are you doing to exceed expectations? Are you willing and able to do a little more than expected? Are you unique in a way that your company values, or are you interchangeable with anyone else who could do the job?

  3. Commit to excellence

    Excellence begins with a mind-set. It is the commitment to focus your attention and skills to create something worthy of you, valued by your employer and worthwhile to your customer. Those who do only “just enough” often get by but they never get ahead. Employers appreciate not just the work that is done, but the attitude of the person doing the work.

    There is an old and familiar saying: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That’s great advice for dealing with adversity and setbacks. But if you want to be a valued employee and move ahead in your career, make sure your work doesn’t qualify for any lemon laws of low performance. Instead, strive to be a positive example of superior performance.

  4. Seek feedback

    One way to assure that your performance is as expected or better is to ask for ongoing feedback. Don’t just inquire about how you’re doing; specifically ask about what you could do differently or better to improve your work. A rational employer will appreciate your efforts to assure quality and get better at what you do.

    If there were lemon laws for workplace performance, neither you nor I would want to invoke them with substandard work. Aim to meet expectations, continually improve performance and become an encore performer in your organization.

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Mark is an international best-selling author and noted authority on leadership, team building, customer service and change. Mark is the author of eight books, including the bestseller The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, which has sold more than 1.6 million copies internationally. Learn more about Mark at