The Lessons of a Pizza Lunch

The group chatted affably over the slices of pizza. It was a scene they all were familiar with. They were asked to join upper management in the conference room to bid farewell to a co-worker who was going to another job. The speeches were made about how the person would be missed and thanking them for their contributions over the years. The employees would then be invited to have some pizza and mingle.

It was all very nice, but all very familiar. For some of the employees, this was a well-worn ritual that happened well too often. For those who had been there some amount of time, their estimate was that around 75% of the company had their pizza lunch or equivalent. Even for those who were not in the company a long time, they saw an inordinate amount of pizza.

Each time it was the same. The same reasons would be given. It’s the economy. It’s the nature of the business. People just don’t want to stay around and grow with the company anymore.

The truth was a bit different. People would have stayed if there was growth with the company. Sadly, except for a few, there wasn’t. The position you were hired at was the level you stayed at. The duties you were hired to do were the duties you always did. There was no growing, no stretching, no innovation. Even when some would suggest something to grow themselves, the answer was usually in the negative. There wasn’t money for that or the person wasn’t experienced enough for that, or it would take away from their more important duties. Eventually people became frustrated or bored and looked elsewhere. Then there was pizza.

The conversation died down and people drifted back to their desks, most of the pizza left untouched. There were some grumbles about that from those paid for the pizza. Why hold these gatherings when people weren’t eating? The answer was simpler than that. People weren’t eating because they had no appetite for yet another pizza party.

Much of management and leadership is asking the right questions. When there is a path being beaten out the door, an inattentive manager will make excuses. A good manager will ask, “What is causing this outflux?” An excellent manager will ask, “What can I do to stop this outflux?” If employees are very, very lucky, that question be followed up with, “Am I doing something to cause that outflux?”

A good manager sees a problem and immediately begins to try to solve it, not make excuses about why it’s happening. They don’t default to well-worn excuses of the economy or the industry. They look first to their actions or inactions, and ask themselves some hard questions…ones in which they may not like the answers. They then take actions to solve the problem, even if it means some sacrifice on their part. It’s a difficult path, but the one that is most rewarding.

If they do it right, they find themselves not having to pay for so many pizza lunches.

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Is There a Doctor in the Boss?

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Mara couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  She knew her boss, Doreen, to be a braggart.  She knew her to be a slave driver who equated how much work she did with her worth as a person.  She also knew her as a terrible manager.  However, sitting in front of her, Doreen was claiming to be a doctor.

It had started several weeks ago when Mara came home from the doctor with a confirmation to a diagnosis.  To keep this blog relevant, let’s say Mara was diagnosed with the dreaded Disease X.  It wasn’t fatal, but was chronic.  It could cause some terrible symptoms to manifest, and needed monitoring and treatment.  At times, it would not make coming into the office easy, but Mara thought, at those times, she could manage working from home.  She would have to see.

In accordance with the company’s policies, Mara was to tell her manager, who would then report this to Human Resources.  Mara would supply a doctor’s note affirming the diagnosis.  Human Resources would then work with Mara for a reasonable accommodation, which Mara hoped would be that when she needed to work from home, she could.  She didn’t intend to abuse this policy, but wanted it available to her if needed.

That morning, Mara made time on Doreen’s calendar to speak with her.  She laid out the doctor’s diagnosis of Disease X, produced the note, and asked they be forwarded to Human Resources.

Doreen looked at Mara, looked at the note, and rejected them both.  Her words, verbatim, were, “You don’t have Disease X.”  With that, she dismissed Mara, refusing to accept any evidence that Mara was chronically ill.  With that, she also rejected any notion that Mara could have a reasonable accommodation or be able to work from home a bit extra to take care of the condition.  She congratulated herself on solving the problem so easily.

Mara sat there stunned.  This was a medical diagnosis.  There were established procedures for this within the company.  She had proof — more than that doctor’s note, she had all her tests, which indicated she had Disease X.  In one short sentence, Doreen had circumvented the whole process in the name of convenience – for Doreen.

Mara had to go out of procedure herself and went to HR to self-report her medical condition.  When asked why she didn’t go to her supervisor, she reported what happened, to the stunned silence of the HR representative.  They all knew Doreen to be less than a stellar manager, but never would believe that even she would do this.

In the end, Mara went on record with her diagnosis of Disease X, worked with HR for a reasonable accommodation, and made an enemy of Doreen.  Doreen loved her control, and for Mara to go around her to report her illness was, in Doreen’s mind, nothing less than insubordination.  From that point on, she did everything in her power to make Mara’s life more difficult.

There are few things more precious than someone’s health.  It’s not like you can go order another one online.  Even if you and your employees are not going to ever be considered friends, you have a duty to perform in helping protect that person’s health, if for no other reason than you would have one less person to do the work that makes you look good.

No manager is above the company’s procedure, and, especially when it is a life or death matter, no manager has the right to make a decision in which they have no knowledge or background.  Want to be a doctor?  Go to school and become a doctor.  Your employees would probably be happy that they get a new manager — one who may recognize their employees health over the manager’s ego.

 

The Price of Inflation

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Shortly after Sarah had ascended to the head of the department, she announced that, with upcoming hires, there would no longer be ‘position inflation’.  What this meant was the practice of rating a job higher than it should be for one reason or another.  It was a drain on the department’s finances, she explained, and it served no useful purpose.  True to her word, shortly after she had completed a reorganization of the department, the hire to fill the position she vacated was lower than the level she had occupied when doing that job.  The position was labeled as Director level, where she had been a Senior Director.

Several of her staff members paused at that.  When she was in the position, she felt it was necessary for her to have a level of Senior Director, with all its requisite perks and salary level.  Now that she was no longer in the position, she had a revelation that the position was too high and needed to be lowered for the good of the department and to prevent the dreaded position inflation.

It was strange how pretty much the same position demanded different levels, with the only change being who had been within the position.  It was no surprise to the staff, as they were used to this type of logic with Sarah.

Even more puzzling, soon after she promoted a few people within the department, as she no longer had to pass it by anyone within the department for approval.  One person, who only recently had been promoted, was promoted again, in direct violation of company rules.  A couple of others also were promoted.  So, the savings she gained by lowering one position was eclipsed by the higher salaries needed for the new promotions.  When Sarah was asked why she did this, her response was, “I felt it was needed”.

The rest of the staff, the ones who weren’t promoted, felt that the only things that were inflated in this whole deal, were so egos.

The Project: Bonus Behavior

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This is the third in a series of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

It was in one of the team’s staff meetings that Sarah announced that Ilene, for all her hard work on the project, was to receive a bonus.  With great fanfare, she presented Ilene with the bonus, thanking her for all her hard work.

The staff clapped for Ilene, for not to do so would have attracted Sarah’s attention, and nobody wanted that.  It wasn’t that Ilene didn’t deserve the bonus. She did.  She had worked many hours as the primary person on the project.  Always known for her good cheer, she was popular with her peers, and was always ready to pitch in to help one of her fellow co-workers.  No, it wasn’t that Ilene was either disliked or didn’t deserve the award that caused the undercurrent of tension in the conference room applause.

Then what was it?  It was the face that Ilene alone was being singled out for a bonus for her work.  Many of the staff felt that the only way Ilene was able to head this project was that many of her duties had been temporarily shuttled to other people in the department.  Thus, while Ilene had her hands full with the project, the other staff members, already burdened with the work in their job, now were faced with additional responsibilities that they were accountable for.  This led to extra hours, staying late, working night and weekends, and some very stressed and tired people.

Even this would have been overlooked by the staff if they had also received some recognition for their efforts.  They hadn’t, and that bothered them.  If you just walked in and heard Sarah, everything was done by Ilene and she managed to do everything related with the project without any assistance whatsoever.

The staff didn’t even look to monetary rewards, though that would have been nice.  They were reasonable people, and being such, recognized that the department didn’t have the financial resources to hand out checks to everyone from the department who helped out in some way.  The management and leadership, though, didn’t even offer a hearty handshake to them to thank them for their efforts.  Instead, they were just given more work to do and the expectation was set that it had to get done.

What could have management and leadership done?  How about each area head take their group out to lunch on the company to thank the staff?  How about giving one half day off to each member who took on some of Ilene’s work during the project?  How about an ice cream social for the teams as a thank you, and then announcing they had the rest of the day off, and management would cover the office for the rest of the day?

No, none of that was done.  Management had made one person, Ilene, very happy, and made the rest of the staff feel as if they didn’t matter whatsoever.  Morale would sink ever lower, people would get frustrated and leave, and management would shake their head and wonder why.  After all, didn’t they just give Ilene a bonus to show their gratitude?  They would continue with their blinders, confident that they were managing things well.

As for the staff?  Well, they probably would be told that they didn’t appreciate anything management did for them, even when management didn’t do squat.

The Project: A Vacation

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This is the second in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

The project was taking a piece of everyone’s soul.  People were working extra hours, at night, and on the weekends.  One person told the story of having Easter dinner and doing testing of the latest code in between getting Easter dinner ready.  The bags under the eyes of everyone were growing steadily, tempers were getting short, and mistakes were being made simply from exhaustion.  The deadline was everything to the heads of the department, and no excuse would be accepted for that deadline to be allowed to slip.

So, based on this, it was the perfect time for Sarah to take a vacation.

She had a very good reason for it, of course.  This was when she always took her vacation, and it was, you know, the ritual that her family looked for.  She couldn’t disappoint them, could she?  After all, she worked hard for her vacation, and since she and her fellow department heads had extra vacation days that nobody else in the company had, they were hers for the taking.

It didn’t seem to matter to Sarah that other people in the department had given up their vacations or pressured to work more.  It didn’t matter that the department was near the emotional breaking point.  No, that was their problem, not Sarah’s.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that the impression she was leaving by taking a vacation in the midst of everyone else’s herculean efforts to get their work and the project’s work done was one of selfishness and uncaring.  She deserved her vacation, and she was sure that the refreshed, sun tanned, and rested appearance she gave to the department at the end of her vacation would be an inspiration to everyone.

It did surprise her that nobody really seemed interested in tales of her vacation.  They were all too busy and too tired to really stop and listen to stories.  They needed to meet the latest deadlines and get started with another round of testing.  Yes, it surprised Sarah, and it even disappointed her some, but she was in such a good mood from her vacation that she didn’t give it a second thought.

After all, if other people needed a vacation, they could take one, couldn’t they?  Funny how they didn’t though.  Sarah wondered why for a few seconds, before sharing some of her vacation photos on her social network.

The Project: What’s In a Name?

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This is the first in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

The department was several weeks into the work on the project, and the strain was showing on everyone.  People were working insane hours trying to get their project work done while getting their regular jobs done as well. People putting in 50 to 80 hours a week was becoming typical, and there was no end in sight.  Nights, weekends, and holidays were being taken up by project work, as were the notes from supervisors as to why a certain regular work task wasn’t done.  The silent reaction to that kind of demand was usually, “You are kidding, right?”

Many looked to the office of Sarah.  Claiming she was ‘swamped’, she had not volunteered to take any burden off of anyone regarding the project, though she had hired a temp or two for some of the tasks.  While the staff was appreciative of the temps work, they also looked skeptically as Sarah’s claim, as they were all swamped with work even before the project.  Now they were simply overloaded.

In the midst of this, Sarah had decided what her major area of focus was going to be.  She needed a new title.  Claiming her present title didn’t sufficiently convey the importance of her role, she had gone on a campaign of trying to change her title to something more appropriate.  As the machinery of this involved some of the systems that she was in charge of, she would appropriate some of the time of the people of the department to make this happen.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that her people were already beyond their capacity.  This was important to Sarah, as it would give her the title she so well deserved.

So, it came as no real surprise when a member of her department, involved in getting testing done before the deadline later that day, opened her mailbox to see a note from Sarah designated as high priority.  Opening it, they saw all the approvals necessary for the title change had come through and that Sarah had to have it officially put into the system right away, or, in Sarah speak, by end of day.

Dutifully, the employee of the department closed the testing they were doing, opened up another system, and entered the information to officially change Sarah’s title.  After saving that information, the employee looked at the clock and saw that, with the time used for that ‘high priority’ task, they would now have to stay late, again, to finish the testing for the day.  Otherwise, they risked a note from their supervisor or from Sarah herself scolding them for not getting this done, causing someone to call her and ask why the testing wasn’t done, and suggesting they really needed to manage their time better.

“Yep”, the employee thought to them self, “I now feel so much more respect for Sarah now that she has this new title.”  The employee looked to Sarah’s office.  She had decided to leave for the day, probably claiming that she deserved the time off for all the work she had done that day.

The Balanced Budget Strategem

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The conversation was light and joyful.  One time co-workers who had not seen each other in some time happy conversed about old times, old jokes, and some people they had in common.   Wayne, the organizer of the event, looked over the sea of faces at the table and smiled.  This was just what he needed.

He told a few people at the table his reason for this get together was because, when he walked down the halls of their once common workplace, he didn’t recognize anyone anymore.  There were so many new faces at the workplace that he felt a bit alone.  It was jarring for him, as the workplace had always been known as the place where people never wanted to leave.  Now, it seemed, people were beating a path for the doors.  Why were all his old co-workers leaving so rapidly?

“I have a few thoughts on that”, Mitch said.  With that, several heads turned.  Mitch had been content enough just listening to others during the gathering, making the occasional reply or comment, but generally keeping to himself.  So, when he made that pronouncement, people tended to listen.  They urged him to go on.

“Now, before I say anything, all this is speculation.  The facts I have fit the scenario, and the suppositions I make aren’t outrageous, as I think you will agree.  We all have to understand this before I go on.”, he said.  More heads turned.

Mitch started. “You recall when the CFO began making the same speech to whomever would listen?”  A few heads nodded, which Mitch expected.  The CFO was not the most dynamic speaker, so even if he was invited to speak at a gathering, he didn’t rivet the audience’s attention to him.  For those who didn’t remember, Mitch summed up what the CFO of the company had said.  Simply put, the company was spending more money than it was taking in.

This fact in itself didn’t surprise many people.  They knew from their days at the company that almost every major project had cost overruns, simply because the stakeholders had to have their ideas incorporated into it, and the executives in charge of the projects didn’t have the fortitude to tell them ‘no’.  It was easier to go along with the stakeholders and worry about where the money would come later.  Add in the vanity projects that each of the executives needed to have to highlight themselves, and you had a mess of a financial situation.

What Mitch followed this up with was more of a surprise.  He had found out from a reputable source, verified by an executive of the company, that the CFO, seeing nobody really listening to his plea to save money, had imposed a 1% cap on departmental budget increase requests.  This posed a problem.

The biggest part of any budget is the staff of the department.  Those staff will expect raises.  In a poor economy, you can defer those raises as many will not leave simply to have a job.  In a good economy, they would leave in droves to the competition.  Since the company was not known for its generous salaries in the first place, this could really be an issue.  How could you give raises of 2% to 3% when you could only have an increase of 1%?  Nobody wanted to lay off any staff, as they had fought too hard to grow the department and their influence.

Mitch let this settle with the group for a minute while preparing the next piece of evidence.

“How many of you who have left the company were there more than 5 years?”  Several hands raised. “10?”  Several hands raised.  “15 or more?” Several hands raised.  “How many of you know employees there who have been at the company as long, or longer than you?”  Many hands raised. “Are they the majority of those people you knew at the company?”  Many nodded.

He continued. “The company we worked at and some of you still work at”, he said with a nod to Wayne, “used to boast that it had a long tenured workforce.  It was a recruiting tool.  ‘Look how happy our people are…they never leave!'”  Nobody contradicted him.

“Now, the longer you are with the company…”, Mitch started, and Wayne finished for him. “…the higher your salary is.”  Mitch smiled at the flicker of awareness that was dawning upon the faces of those assembled.  To those whose face still registered, ‘I don’t get it’, Mitch continued.

“You don’t want to get the reputation or the lawsuits that mass firing will do.  You need to keep your budget increase at 1%.  You are in self-preservation mode.  What do you do?”  Mitch paused.

Several people jumbled together an answer, “You target the longer term employees.  Some you fire.  Some you make their lives so miserable that they quit.  You then bring in younger employees or people who will work for less money, and your budget problems are solved.  The work gets done and, aside from a possible flicker of conscience of the executive of the department, the fallout is minimal.”

“Fits what you have heard from others who have left the company, doesn’t it?”, asked Mitch.  Each person at that table had a story of them personally being harassed by their superiors or knowing of those who were harassed until they no longer could stand it and left the company.

“The defense rests”, said Mitch, to laughter. Wayne was a bit shaken up by this, but quickly recovered, at least for the sake of the gathering.  He would worry about Mitch’s suppositions and what it might mean for him later.  For now, it was time for friends.

He raised his glass.  “To friends, no matter where they are, or how they got there”.