What Makes a Good Employee?

What Makes a Good Employee?

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2020

Photo by iStockphoto.com/marchmeena29

Engage. Keep busy. Stay occupied. We do all those things when we make wise use of the gift of time.

Fittingly enough, the word “employ” derives from the Latin word, implicare, for engage (or enfold). By definition, then, an employee should be engaged in the sense of busy.

A good employee knows how to stay engaged because he or she has a strong sense of direction. Self-direction is a characteristic all good employees share.

“One of the biggest things that always stood out to me among good employees is confidence,” says Karl Loeffelholz, dealer division manager at Mi-T-M Corporation in Peosta, IA. “If you can come across as confident, it shows willingness to learn, listen, and make intelligent decisions.”

David Megathlin works in management at the Florida branch of BE Power Equipment, which is headquartered in Abbotsford, BC, Canada. “The one characteristic that all good employees share is being trustworthy,” he says.


Thinking about how he would define a good employee, Megathlin offers a few thoughts on good employees. “A good employee is a person of integrity,” he says. “A good employee is a person who is humble enough to admit when he or she makes a mistake and then learns from the mistake, so it is not repeated.

“A good employee has well-developed communication skills and self-awareness,” Megathlin continues. “He or she is a person who helps fellow team members when needed. A good employee is resourceful and can find solutions to solve problems. The person can look outside the box and find solutions to problems without being hand fed.”

Rounding out the thoughts is one that ties us again to being trustworthy. “A good employee is motivated and has good work ethics,” says Megathlin. “A good employee always arrives on time and has a good attitude and wants to help the team and the company he or she works for.”

We ask whether there is an approach to work/job functions that does not mesh with being a good employee? “I would say that the approach that I see the most that does not work is a person who wants a spelled-out procedure for everything that needs to be done and will not take the initiative to solve problems.”

All of us who have been employers or managers are no doubt nodding in agreement with what Loeffelholz and Megathlin say. Even those who have not worked as managers are probably also agreeing based on their experience as part of a team.

In fact, one team took our queries about what makes a good employee and, demonstrating team initiative, used them as an exercise. The next section details the background and results.

One Team’s Thoughts

“At American Pressure we have a good time when we get our sales team together for a meeting; today was no exception,” says Ben Hagemann, owner and CEO at the incorporated company based in Robbinsdale, MN. “We had our sales team of Jon Gilbertson, Susan Klimek, Fritz Wright, Evan O’Sullivan, and Kelly Eastman as well as Chris Hardie, operations manager; Jonathan Confeld, CFO; Josiah Hagemann, owner and VP marketing; and me—all of whom are great employees and wonderful people.”

Hagemann describes what happened at the meeting: “We passed out your questions for this article to the group, filled them out, and discussed the answers.”

Questions (bolded) and responses (relayed by Hagemann) follow in the next few paragraphs.

What is the one characteristic good employees share?

Answers: Positive Energy. Integrity. Thinks of bigger picture. Dedication. They care about the
products and the company. Believe in co-worker’s success and company well-being. The confidence to ask each other for help. Positive attitude. Engaged. Respect—having, giving, and showing respect for one another. Each member of the team brings their own strengths, weaknesses, capacities, abilities, and limitations. No two will be the same. Good employees will play (work together) off each other’s capacities for the greater good of the business and workplace.


How do you define a good employee?

A good employee goes the extra mile in his or her work and with customers. Shares knowledge and is punctual to work and appointments. Reliable and willing to learn.

Willing to learn, honest, available, a good listener, and asks good questions.

Someone who accepts change for the better good of the company.

Dedicated, flexible, and open minded.

Dedicated and willing to listen. Trustworthy.

A good employee is someone who cares about the good of company. Someone who is there for more than a paycheck.

Willing to learn and help each other. Good communication, which leads to taking care of customers.

Customer and fellow employee focused. Good attitude toward life.

“I vote for enthusiasm and intrigue,” says Hagemann. “It creates a positive workplace environment. Intrigue keeps an employee continuing to learn and grow in the workplace.”

Is there one approach to work/job function that does not mesh well with being a good employee?

“I think this question was understood in different ways,” explains Hagemann. “I think some looked at [why] management doesn’t let a good employee thrive and others looked at it from the point of view of what makes for a bad employee.”

[The teams responses appear in the next paragraph. And the management tie-in deserves a note, given that a companion article to this one on page 32—”What Makes a Good Manager?”—looks more closely at the reciprocal link between good employees and good managers.]

  Responses were: Chip on shoulder. Micromanagement—empowering employees seems to get better results and satisfied employees. Not willing to continue to learn. Being vague. Being direct about duties when explaining tasks; too direct makes people feel attacked. Not allowing employees to have freedoms to make decisions on helping customers. Bad attitude and lack of trust. Confusion.

Hagemann’s team also volunteered several dimensions to building a team of good employees. Length of employment and employee retention are two. Motivation of employees is another. Then there’s work chemistry.

Defining work chemistry among employees is equivalent in difficulty to defining chemistry between partners in successful marriages. We know when it is absent, but we often wonder whether it can be generated. Chemistry seems to be there or not be there. Yet as one team member response notes, it is vital to success in the workplace. (So, find a catalyst if it’s absent.)

Retention is more easily quantified than chemistry. It may also be easier to promote. To enhance retention, Hagemann’s team suggested flexibility in work duties and trusting employees to do their jobs.

Full Circle

And it is a circle. In a humming work environment, there are no abrupt divisions between a good employee and a good manager.

Mutual trust and meaningful engagement invigorate all. There are no idle hands (or a devil’s playground).

Curiosity by another name, the intrigue, makes each day interesting, even when the realities of the day may be perplexing and worrying. Curiosity fuels activity in industry, commerce, and beyond. It’s what makes us certain there is a solution to every problem.

Curiosity keeps a person engaged in every realm of life, including the workplace. An incurious employee may be as difficult as an employee who is not trustworthy. (It’s not a competition any employer wants to hold.)

An employee with curiosity will naturally be engaged in his or her work. There is always an exception, of course. That would be an employee who becomes distracted by possibilities and pursues them instead of prioritizing work to be done—for instance, a service center employee who has an insight into how to optimally organize tools and undertakes the reorganization while customers’ machines wait for repair.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers the Veterans Employment Toolkit, which highlights the many strengths veterans bring to the civilian workplace at www.va.gov/VETSINWORKPLACE/valuableassets.asp. It indirectly provides a good compilation of the attributes that define good employees.

Among the attributes are teamwork, self-confidence, and work ethic, all of which have been identified by our sources as important. One amplification the veteran’s employment document makes concerns a sense of duty. Completing a mission—fulfilling an objective—takes the highest priority in the military.

In the completion of an objective, responsibility and accountability are emphasized. And on completion of the objective (mission), taking pride in a job well done is sanctioned.

There’s a huge difference between taking pride in doing a good job and being arrogant. A moment of quiet satisfaction before moving onto the next task can buoy an employee. “Having done that, which looked difficult at first, it’s going to be possible to do this,” the employee might say to himself or herself.

Finally, good employees are both able to adapt to changing situations and follow rules and schedules. Flexibility enables them to know that part of organization and discipline is the ability to adjust to disruptive forces (anything from a missing part to a natural disaster).

Following through—carrying on—even under conditions of unusual stress, is an integral component of performing in a way that makes one a good employee. Wise use of the gift of time does not comport with stepping back and waiting. Doing is a must. 

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