The Balanced Budget Strategem


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”.


The Knife Thrower

knife in the back

The air was light with laughter and good talk.  It was the first time the work friends had gotten together with Sam after he left the office, and everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself.  They talked about old time, old friends, old enemies, and it seemed that no time at all had passed since Sam had said his farewell.

Somewhere during this conversation, Sam asked if anyone had come in to take over his spot, and the spot of Ralph, who had left earlier.  That led to yet a new round of conversation and laughter.  It seems they were interviewing for Sam’s spot, but for now they had a temporary worker there.  They also had a contractor come in to teach some classes.

The contractor was familiar to them all.  It was Audra, who had once been with the department, but had left — twice — after claiming she could not juggle both work and home responsibilities.  Audra had come back often to the department, mostly due to her status as FOS.  For those not in the know, that means Friend of Sarah.  Audra and Sarah had developed a fast friendship during Sarah’s early years with the department, and whenever someone was needed to fill in, Sarah suggested Audra get the call.  As everyone knew to translate Sarah’s ‘suggestions’ into ‘mandates’, Audra would get the call.

That was a good thing as well, as Audra would not be called by anyone on their own accord, for one simple reason.  Audra was a knife thrower, and her primary targets were her co-workers’ backs.  There was very little that Audra wasn’t willing to do in order to get what she wanted.  She was frequently in Sarah’s office gossiping about the latest tidbit she heard in the department, or hurling a knife in the back of someone who supposedly ‘offended’ her, or was making her do some work she didn’t want to do.  Her targets were many and numerous, and she implanted knives with the skill of an assassin.

Someone at the table volunteered that Audra had added a new trick to her portfolio.  It seems, before one of the managers came in for the day, Audra would request that her office be opened so Audra could sit there.  Why she did this caused the table to toss around some speculations.  Was it because she was looking to snoop around for something to run to Sarah about?  Was it that she thought herself too good to sit with the rest of the employees?  Was she doing something that she didn’t want anyone else to see?  The sad thing is that nobody, including the manager, would really know, as they could not ask Audra without her starting to sharpen the latest blade and aim for that person’s back.  Heaven forbid they ask Audra not to sit in the office.  The extra large knife would be unsheathed for that one.

The conversation at the table drifted to more pleasant things, but there seemed to be some seriousness in one question that a few people asked Sam.  Were there any openings at his new place of employment?  Sam smiled, and thought that, at least for now, he was able to put away the Kevlar vest, as he didn’t have to worry about anything Audra did anymore.

Let’s Get Larry

knife in the back

Larry was the employee that you really wanted in your organization.  He had been with the company 20 years, knew how to build relationships, always had a joke on his lips, and his employees loved working for him.  He didn’t take himself or the work too seriously, and he had a network in the company like none other.

Still, for reasons yet unknown, his upper management wanted him out.  Maybe it was because he wasn’t fitting the mold of what they thought a manager should be.  Maybe it was because he know too many people.  Maybe because they wanted to move some people into his spot.  Whatever the reason, his upper management wanted him out.

However, they could not just fire him.  That would have cause too much of a lawsuit and issues.  Instead, they changed his job description, causing him to have to travel around 50% of the time to far flung places around the globe.  Larry cheerfully accepted this new assignment, but after a couple of years doing this, the strain was taking its toll.  He looked tired, haggard, and he had lost a lot of his once abundant energy.  One day, coming to the end of his rope, he turned in his resignation papers, though he had another 7 to 10 years until an ‘official’ retirement age.

A few weeks after Larry’s official retirement, his significant other, who also worked at the company, was still be peppered with questions as to how Larry was.  Was he doing well in retirement?  How is he feeling?  Is he getting his energy back?  It was a touching moment for Larry’s significant other that people were still concerned about him, and that he wasn’t forgotten.

Leave it to the company’s HR Director to ruin the scene.  Upon hearing one of these conversations, the HR Director says the following:  “Well, I’m glad he retired.  If he didn’t soon, I was going to make life very unpleasant for him.”  Small wonder that the gathering broke up very soon after that.

One of the salient employment statistics about the Millennial generation is that they don’t seem to stay in their jobs very long.  One statistic said they may have 30 jobs in their lifetimes.  While the sociologists point to many factors, I would like to point to a very specific one.  How many Larrys are out there?  How many HR Directors would be saying the same thing?  Our newest generation in the workforce is highly educated.  They see what is going on.  How are they to react to treatment of someone who has devoted his life to a company?  They see what was done to all the Larrys, see all the similar HR Directors, and can draw their own conclusions.

Maybe, just maybe, our workers would stay longer at their jobs and work with more enthusiasm if we had more Larrys, fewer executive management, and few HR Directors who thought like they do.  What are we teaching our children?  We’re teaching them to collect a paycheck, for nobody will give a damn about them but themselves.


Knifing someone in the back

When you hear the word ‘betrayal’, what comes to mind?  Some political intrigue?  Some far off movie on spies and espionage?  Maybe a bad Telemundo soap opera?  How about coming out of the mouth of the head of a department at a professional conference?  Read up and see what is happening with Sarah and the Great Betrayal.

It happened at a teambuilder that Sarah had put together for her department.  She brought in a high priced coach to help the team get through some of the ‘issues’ that she felt the team had.  She sent the team to an offsite location so they would not be disturbed.  There was even lunch served.

One of the the exercises that the coach put the team through was to mention a word or phrase of something that happens to them in the office which angers them to most.  Participation was mandatory.  Everyone had to answer.  When it got to Sarah, the word she used as her emotional response was, ‘betrayal’.

There was a silence when she said that word, as if the staff and the coach had to digest it.  The session went on, but the word itself left a lasting impression on the staff.  What exactly did ‘betrayal’ mean to Sarah, and what implications did it hold for the staff?

First, they didn’t expect to hear that particular word coming from someone who holds herself us as the height of professionalism.  Second, it was a professional business event where Sarah used the word ‘betrayal’.  Not ‘unprofessionalism’.  Not ‘lack of business focus’.  Not ‘not achieveing our objectives’.  ‘Betrayal’.

The staff also wondered what constituted betrayal in Sarah’s eyes.  Was it not agreeing with her fully?  Was it simply disagreeing with her?  Was it not being 100% committed to her vision?  Was it not saying ‘good morning’ to her?  Was it something else?  With some of the things she had done recently, nobody was ready to dismiss anything.  The term ‘execute her vision’ had taken a very dark and ominous turn.

So, instead of the teambuilder showing the staff how to work together in a trusting atmosphere, all it had done was drive the specter of doubt and uncertainty further into the department.  People would be walking even more gingerly on those eggshells now so they didn’t stir up feelings of betrayal in Sarah.

The teambuilder did build one thing for the team:  paranoia.

If you are a leader of people, learn the lessons of how to deal with people as a leader.  Leave the ‘betrayal’ comments to the Telemundo soap operas.

The Duck Blind

Duck Blind

Sarah’s staff was numb on the day after their retreat.  It was almost more than could be comprehended by them.  Despite her assurances that things were done because they needed to be done, the staff walked around in a daze, either too stupefied to speak or such a swirling maelstrom of emotions as to not know where to start.  Let’s back up a bit to find out how the staff got to this point.

The retreat was a multi-day affair, held off-site.  The facilitator was respected and knowledgeable, and had invited the staff to contact him confidentially to speak with him about what they found to be issues in the department.  Several members of the staff had done so, sharing their thoughts on what the issues were and what their thoughts on Sarah’s leadership were.  This was a leap of faith.  As part of the department’s concerns were the lack of confidentiality, and the lack of trust that went hand in hand with it, this was a rather daring step.  Still, many of them felt that nothing would be done without full honesty, and trusted that the facilitator meant his assurances that everything said would not only be confidential, but ‘sacred’ to him.

The retreat hadn’t accomplished much of what the staff hoped it would.  As in past attempts at retreats, the focus had devolved into how the department had to be respected by the other areas and how they could ‘get a seat at the table’.  Frustration rose as the facilitator sailed past the core concept — that a department which had such deep internal issues with trust of each other and their leadership could never put forth the face to the outside that would make it get that seat.  Granted, it was one of the most difficult things to do.  How do you get past trust issues if no one trusted that they could safely speak about the issues?  Still, the facilitator was being paid good money to do just that, but seemed to focus on things like shared vision and shared goals.

The latter part of the retreat seemed to do a bit better, at least touching upon the issues, with an exercise that gave a symbolic representation that one person would always be there for another.  There were some tears, some hugs, and a general kumbaya feeling among the staff.  At the end of it, Sarah, also emotional, indicated that she had ‘learned’ about her staff at this retreat and would work to change her ways in order to understand her staff on their terms and not her own.  That statement alone left the staff at least hopeful that there may be some change.

The feeling was short lived.  The very next day, Sarah announced that she had ‘regretfully terminated’ one of the most popular managers in the department.  Acknowledging that the timing probably wasn’t the best, she still stood by her decision and asked the staff to soldier on.  ‘Soldier’ was probably a good term, as the staff walked around shell shocked.   They were stunned and devastated by the firing, yes, but also by the instant repudiation of everything that Sarah had said at the retreat.  A termination usually happens after a good amount of thought and deliberation.  With that in mind, Sarah had to have known this was going to happen as she spoke her emotional words of working better to understand her staff.  She understood one of them so well, she decided they had to be fired.

A duck hunter sits in a duck blind, a hidden area in order to keep concealed from the ducks they are looking to shoot.  They then blow into a duck call, hoping to entice ducks to them.  They use decoys in order to get the ducks close enough to them.  When the ducks are close enough, the hunter fires, killing some ducks.  It is a practice in deception.

Sarah’s staff walked around in a daze that day.  They had been lured in with the sound of a duck call, given the decoy of their department head ‘confessing’, and then heard the sound of the gun firing off a round at them.  When the smoke cleared, one of them lay dead, professionally.   Some wondered when the trigger would be squeezed again, while others just scrambled to find a place to hide.   None of them would ever trust Sarah the hunter again.

If this is your idea of management, then never expect trust, commitment, or loyalty.  Expect people with one eye on you, while their other eye is on the door, their resume, the employment section, or on their fellow employees.  If you manage by duck blind, expect to always have to use a gun to get your way.