It was a great evening. Good friends. Good food. Many laughs. Larry, whose story you can read here, was having dinner with Sam to get his ideas on getting back into the workforce. Larry had retired from his job at the mutual workplace that he and Sam had worked, but in truth, he was forced to retire by a management intent on wearing him down so he would leave. That was over six months ago, so Sam was happy that Larry wanted to talk.
Over dinner, the conversation naturally drifted towards their prior, shared workplace, with stories being swapped, and gaps filled in from different points of view. Larry was ready to jump back into the workforce, but hadn’t prepared a resume for many years. That was where Sam came in. He had gained a reputation among his former co-workers as a good resume doctor, so Larry sought him out.
“I don’t know why it took me so long to jump back in the job hunt”, Larry admitted. It was over six months ago that he retired, and he was not the type of guy who would just want to sit and take it easy for the rest of his life. Sam smiled. He knew exactly why Larry had taken so long. He needed to heal.
If we are fortunate in our work lives, we have workplaces that we cannot wait to get to each morning. They nurture us, uplift us, and give us the ability to grow as a person and in a community. Those places have low turnover and are the places where you have to ‘know someone’ to get hired into.
If we are less fortunate in our work lives, we go to workplaces that are simply workplaces. You put in your time each day, do your work, and clock out. They are not very uplifting, but they are also not damaging. They are simply places you spend eight hours or more doing your work so you can get to the people and things you enjoy.
If we are unfortunate in our work lives, we work for those places which are designed to damage our hearts and souls. We have managers who believe only by degrading you can they raise themselves up. They believe that the only way they can show that they are truly in power is to make your life miserable. An insult or slight is always on their lips, and the only words they know about your performance is ‘never good enough’.
They seem to enjoy inflicting pain and look for new ways to do it. They are always the victim, and you are always the aggressor, though the truth is just the opposite. Nobody is happy under them, yet in too many cases they stay in power.
When you finally escape that workplace, you think you can just go on with you life. Sadly, you have to, but you can’t just walk away like nothing happened. Those workplaces affect both your heart and soul. They leave scars and injuries. Those scars take time to heal. You may not want to admit it, give into it, or think it is silly to think that way, but that doesn’t change what has happened to you. It also doesn’t change that you need to heal. Hopefully where you have gone to upon fleeing that workplace is one which allows you to heal and see the true worth that you have.
Larry took this all in and had to agree with Sam, though he did have one question. How did Sam know this? Easy, Sam replied, he left the organization later than Larry did. Guess who was still in the process of healing?
It had been particularly stressful around the office for Ralph. It was obvious in word and deed that his management wanted him out of there, and was making sure they had enough ‘documentation’ in order to get rid of him when the time was right. He had been demeaned, harassed, and bullied by his management, and the management level above that supported it outright. It would teach him to believe them when they said he could go talk to them about anything.
The added piece to this was that Ralph had a diagnosed, chronic condition that was aggravated by the stress he was encountering. He was experiencing flare-ups of this condition that were debilitating him to the point where his health was truly suffering because of it. He needed to take some action, but sadly hadn’t learned his lesson.
One day, he walked into his boss’ office to let her know he was about to file papers to take some short term leave to get this chronic condition sorted out. He did this as a courtesy to her, as others would have come in, dropped the papers, and walked out. His boss’ (and the boss’ boss) action to this announcement? Within an hour, they had drawn up the papers to have him fired. Two hours later he was no longer an employee of the company. They would not be denied their revenge at having him fired for actually being honest with them.
The machinery soon went into high gear. The department head brought everyone in to her office to announce this and assure everyone that they were all valued employees…which none of them believed.
She told them they could come to her with any issue and it would be listened to…which none of them believed.
When Ralph’s departure was to be communicated to the corporate communication group for a routine announcement in the next newsletter, the announcement was blocked by the boss’ boss. He didn’t want anyone to know of his actions. Yet, within two hours, the news had spread throughout the company by the oldest form of communication available…word of mouth. His department, already suffering in the eyes of the employee, suffered more by the firing and by the covert nature of the operation.
Ralph’s co-workers were brought in to be told of the extra work they would have to do, but that they were valued…which none of them believed.
What this one act, the firing of a good employee who happened to be ill, did, was to increase suspicion of the department and their leadership from within and without. It also drove any employee conversations and action further underground for fear that anything they say will be taken as a fireable offense. The department, already dysfunctional, became even more dysfunctional by this action.
The department management got what they wanted — revenge upon an employee they did not like. What they did was show just how truly sick the whole management structure was.
There was a hard and fast rule in Sarah’s mind for any event that her group hosted. If there were prizes raffled off, her staff could not enter the drawings. It was a reasonable demand from her, the staff admitted. What happened if a member of Sarah’s staff won one of the really good prizes? Even if an auditing agency had presided over the drawing and signed affidvits testifying to the validity of the drawing, someone might believe that there was something crooked in the drawing and the department’s reputation could be damaged. So, even though some of the prizes were quite good, the staff members never entered any contest in which they were involved.
Then the naming contest came about. It seems that a room dedicated to the use of one of Sarah’s departments was built, alleviating the need for that department to beg, borrow, or steal a room from another group, or hope that a public room was available. As the room was being finished, it was decided that a contest would be held to name the room. Like the other contests, staff members of the company could enter their suggestion and an impartial panel would choose the best answer, giving the room a name. The contest was announced, a special mailbox was set up to gather the entries, and staff was invited to send in their entries.
Looking through the entries, one name stood out. Sarah had put in an entry. A delicate inquiry was made to her regarding if this could be seen as suspect by the staff for the same reasons she gave for staff not being able to enter any of the department’s other contests. Sarah answered that this case was totally different and there was no conflict of interest in her entering it. If her suggestion happened to win, well, then so be it. Nobody could think any worse of the department because of it. Why? Because, Sarah said so.
Guess who won? Now, to be fair in reporting, the committee that chose the winner had only one departmental representative on it, so there wasn’t an undue influence by Sarah on the choice. However, that wasn’t the point. Sarah made sure that a plaque announcing the winner was placed in the room, so her name would now live in perpetuity, or at least as long as the room lasted. It served another purpose, too. The plaque served as a reminder that, if it benefited Sarah, the rules for everyone else didn’t have to apply to her. They had seen it many times before, and, thanks to the plaque, would be reminded of it many times in the future.
There is hardly a more important rubric when leading or managing people than to make sure that the rules you create for them apply to you as well. When you begin to apply the rules only to some and exclude yourself, you set yourself apart. When you serve up excuses why ‘this time’ is different so you can enjoy some benefit, you set yourself apart. When the only time the rules are bent is when you want them to be, you set yourself apart. By setting yourself apart, you negate any feeling that there is a team effort in the department. The only team are the horses up front pulling your carriage while you wave to the crowds.
The team won’t consider you one of the horses, though they will think of as another part of the horse. I guarantee you wouldn’t want that put on a plaque.
The Persian empire of the 4th century BCE extended over 127 lands, and all the Jews were its subjects. When King Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders, he orchestrated a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen—though she refused to divulge the identity of her nationality.
Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordechai, the leader of the Jews (and Esther’s cousin), defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar—a date chosen by a lottery Haman made.
Mordechai galvanized all the Jews, convincing them to repent, fast and pray to G‑d. Meanwhile, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a feast. At the feast, Esther revealed to the king her Jewish identity. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister in his stead, and a new decree was issued—granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
On the 13th of Adar, the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar, they rested and celebrated.
Rebekah and her co-workers were discussing various holidays, when Rebekah mentioned Purim. Some of her co-workers were not familiar with this holiday and why it was important to the Jewish faith. As she was explaining this, Rebekah’s manager chimed in with an explanation of her own. “Purim? That’s just a Jewish Halloween”. The room fell silent in digesting that particular comment, and those who were happily enjoying some employee bonding just a minute or so ago now went sullenly to their desks.
You may say that Rebekah should have gone to Employee Relations at this instance. Rebekah considered this, but knew her company’s Employee Relations department was nothing more than a defense department for managers. That being the case, Rebekah knew that the only person punished would be her when her manager found out she had been reported. She remained silent, not out of understanding that the manager would never change, but knowing things would never change, especially her manager.
As Rebekah went back to her desk, she wondered what kind of progress had been made in the past 40 years. A manager, in this day and age, making a comment as bigoted as this. It simply boggled her mind. And to know, because the company motto was managers first, last, and always, that nothing would be done save for getting her punished, was equally as galling. If one manager could say this, what were other equally offensive things were other managers saying, and getting away with?
As she sat at her desk, she wondered whether she should plot her own personal exodus from the company.
It wasn’t anything special, just the one on one that Henry had with his manager, Violet, every week. It was a good chance for them to catch up on what had transpired over the past week, and although Henry sat near Violet’s office, this meeting offered a chance for more in-depth discussion, prompting questions and insights. Little did Henry know how much insight he would gather from this conversation.
A little history. Henry had started a discussion with Violet the prior week about taking advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement benefit for getting a masters degree. It would be his second, though the first was earned while he was at a prior company, so no money had been paid out by his present company. They gained the benefit of his knowledge. Henry had spoken with the manager of the benefits department, who assured him that it was allowed for someone to earn a masters degree and be reimbursed for it, even though the person already had a masters degree.
Henry also knew it might be a rough road. He knew that Violet would be fully supportive of him, but it also had to be approved by the department head, Lillian. Simply put, Lillian didn’t like Henry, and had done everything in her power to keep him down in his spot. It was to the point where Henry was searching for a new opportunity, but while he was there, he would take advantage of the benefits of the company. Getting Lillian’s approval would be much more difficult.
It shouldn’t be, Henry thought. The tuition reimbursement was taken out of a general fund supplied by the company, not Lillian’s budget directly. The degree he wanted to pursue would add value to the department and was directly related to his job. None of that mattered. Lillian had veto power, and that worried Henry.
Halfway into the update, Violet let Henry know the status of his request. She had spoken with Lillian, and, not surprisingly, Lillian had thrown up roadblocks. Didn’t Henry already have a masters degree? Why would he want a second one? Violet related that she had explained this was something that would add value to the job and department, but Lillian remained unimpressed. Lillian ended the conversation with the sentence, “I’ll have to check to see if we have it in the budget”. Even Violet mentioned that this was odd for her to say, as it wasn’t being taken out of the department’s budget. As a matter of fact, in Henry’s discussions with the manager of benefits, he found out that the fund was never fully tapped, and gave back thousands of dollars each year to the general company fund because it went unused. Still, Lillian indicated she would have to check the budget.
Henry sighed, not surprised. Throughout his time under Lillian he had to go around so many roadblocks he could be classified as a GPS.
There are times when, as a manager, you should stop and ask whose best interests are you serving? The company’s, or your own? Are your personal feelings or opinions interfering with something that will ultimately benefit your employees, your department, or your company? Do you find yourself having to invent justifications for avoiding what is best for the general welfare to validate your emotions? What is more important to you…being a good steward of the company, or showing you are the boss and that your will must not be defied?
If you find yourself having to do mental contortions simply to justify your opinion, that is probably a sign that you need to straighten out your thinking. When you do, the ‘Henrys’ in your organization will suddenly cease to be a ‘problem’ and begin being an asset.
Henry’s conversation wasn’t quite done. In the next blog, you’ll see how Lillian’s opinion didn’t stop at education.
In The Crowning Glory, we discussed the concept of employee privacy and how one leader in a department decided to approve an idea of discarding employee privacy for a few laughs. The prize for the ‘best’ story would be a crown. This particular choice of prize brought up another interesting issue, one that had been around under this leader for years.
It was a department of around 20 people. Of those 20 people, 16 were female, 4 were male. Of those 4 men, only 2 of them were permanent employees — Vernon and Mitch. The other two males, a temp and an intern, would soon be gone. Vernon and Mitch were used to this. Mitch had been the last male hired in the department, and all subsequent hires had been female, with all but one of the hiring managers being female. They never saw anything wrong with this, though Vernon and Mitch shared the thought that, if males had tried this, there would have been many complaints of sexism in the hiring process.
Over the years, the unit leader had often mocked Mitch and Vernon, making uncomfortable comments about them, passing it off as a joke. This particular situation was typical of most. At the beginning of the meeting, the unit leader, Serena, decided she had to make a comment about the pink tie that Vernon was wearing. She mentioned that how ‘unVernon’ it was and how it was probably his wife that had picked it out. She had commented many times regarding the clothes that Vernon especially had worn, but nothing ever mentioned about the dress of any of the female employees. All the females laughed at this.
Later on, when the crown had been decided as the prize for the ‘best’ story, Vernon and Mitch looked at each other. Serena, having seen this, asked inquisitively, was there a problem with this? As usual, Mitch and Vernon said nothing, knowing it would not change anything in Serena’s mind, save for branding Vernon and Mitch as never wanting to have any fun.
Later on, walking back from the meeting, another female manager said with a smile, “I look forward to seeing the crown on one of your heads!” Vernon and Mitch smiled, with Mitch making a comment to Vernon that the female manager could go do something anatomically impossible.
Years ago, I worked in a building that was very old. So old, as a matter of fact, that they only had men’s rooms on each floor, as women were not expected to be in the workforce. It was a very pointed reminder of how the workforce has changed, and changed for the better. Diverse views and different perspectives help enrich the workforce experience, allowing new ideas to flourish.
Yes, many things have changed, but one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed, at least with some managers, is inappropriate behavior towards the opposite sex. Years ago, it was women’s complaints against their male bosses. Today it still is true that some male bosses act in inappropriate fashion, with the mayor of San Diego is a prime example. However, we can now add in women bosses and their inappropriate comments and actions towards their male employees. No matter the sex, it is laughed off and dismissed by the superior. What makes it ironic is that women fought so long to be treated as equals, and now a minority of them are acting the way their foremothers fought so hard to correct.
No matter which side of the gender divide they happen to fall on, a good manager knows what to say and what not to say. Yes, there are cases where something they may utter is misconstrued or should not have been said. At those points, a good manager knows when to own up to those comments and apologize. By repeatedly singling out someone of the opposite sex, and a minority in the department as well, managers open themselves up to disrespect, accusations, and possibly even lawsuits. Sensitivity training is not a male or female issue, it is a manager and employee issue. Stories like the one related show that it is still in sore need today.
Let’s elevate the workplace humor to more mundane topics and get it out of the clique mentality. Male or female, it is simply good business.
Sarah sat with her team at their monthly meeting. It was pretty routine. Each group would provide their important updates, and aside from the fact that some of her managers considered highly routine things important, the meeting was going along smoothly. When it was the head of the training area’s turn, she had mentioned that a particular class she was going to teach might have to be postponed because of a scheduling conflict. Sarah immediately responded that whatever the head of training needed to do, but that Arlene could also teach the class. Who’s Arlene? She is a temporary worker who is doing some fill in teaching because the department is short staffed.
It’s not that the training department doesn’t have staff. They do. There is the head of the training department, but there also is Charlie, who is a full time employee within the department, having a longer tenure there than even the training manager. You may recall Charlie and Sarah from some previous blogs, one of which you can read right here.
Charlie was at this staff meeting, sitting in plain view of Sarah. So, when Sarah made the comment about a substitute instructor teaching the class, it was what Sarah didn’t say that struck Charlie. Sarah pointedly made sure to say that Arlene could teach the class, deliberately excluding Charlie.
This wasn’t a big surprise to Charlie. If you read the blog in the above link, and the link in that blog as well, you would see that 1. Charlie and Sarah have had a rocky relationship and 2. Once Sarah has made up her mind about something or someone, neither heaven or earth will be able to change it. It had been years since Sarah said to Charlie, “I don’t think you can manage anything”, and despite the fact that he not only taught management classes to good reviews, and had developed an entire management series that won praises from Sarah, Sarah would not change her opinion, as it might mean that she was wrong in the first place. That would never do. So, Sarah would rather recommend a temp who had no management experience whatsoever over her own team member who had managed staff, taught management classes, and been a liaison to management for many years before joining Sarah’s team.
From managers to teachers to spouses, the advice from experts remains the same. Saying you are wrong does not pose a sign of weakness, it is a show of strength. From managers to teachers to spouses, the advice from experts remains the same. You must constantly reevaluate your position, your thoughts, your views, as things change so rapidly in the world and with people that opinions become outdated quickly. Those who do not keep up are in danger of being left behind.
How big is your blind spot? How calcified are your opinions? How rooted are you in your own ego that you refuse to see the truth around you and instead cling to outdated notions and medieval opinions?
In this case, maybe Sarah needed to take those management courses being taught by her department head…or Arlene. Maybe, just maybe, she would learn something.
If you were an employee of the company, who wasn’t a manager, but simply an individual contributor, you knew the drill. If you were call to talk with Marion, the Employee Relations Manager, you came to her. There was no courtesy of her coming to you. You went to her. You were in her office, as she wanted it to be. It reflected her philosophy of exerting power. You were on her turf, giving her the advantage. People who worked for her reported the same thing, where she would make her employee set up the meeting, giving the subtle meaning that it was too small a task for her, but not for someone who worked for her. Most people knew this, but since she was the Employee Relations Manager, a power position in itself, nobody could really complain. Yes, Marion was all about power first, and if there was anything left over, she found some time to actually help the employee.
With this in mind, some eyebrows were raised when Marion reported that she recently had to speak with a manager about the manager’s behavior. Now, this in itself was surprising, because people could count on one hand the number of times Marion had taken the side of an employee in her dealings wit them. Usually it was the manager first, last, and always, even if the manager was holding a smoking gun and had a confession note hanging out of their pocket. Many wondered what had this manager done where even Marion could not cover up for them. The second surprise was that Marion said that, in dealing with this manager, “…we took a walk down to the manager’s office and had a talk with her.” In other words, Marion left her Fortress of Solitude to go see an employee in that person’s office.
Still, even with this revelation, one salient fact came screaming out. When it was an employee involved in a dispute with a manager, and the employee was at fault, Marion had no problem calling the employee down to her office, having the manager there always, and ganging up on the employee with the manager to tell the employee exactly what was wrong with them and how they had to improve. Yes, the office door was closed, but there was no private chat with the employee. Even when an employee would come down to talk about a manager’s behavior, Marion would not listen to it without the manager there.
However, when it was a manager who was so clearly at fault, the treatment was different. Privacy was tantamount. There was no ‘walk of shame’ through HR to Marion’s office for the manager. Oh no, it was a discreet visit to the manager’s office for a chat. It was all very civilized, and designed to make sure the manager’s confidentiality was assured.
A ‘meeting’ vs. a ‘chat’. A call to Marion’s office vs. a stroll to the manager’s office. A requirement that the manager be present in discussing an employee’s issues vs. a private chat with the manager. It was an obvious illustration about who was favored in the company and who was not. It was an obvious illustration of the respect Marion had for managers as compared to employees.
The one thing that wasn’t obvious to Marion was the ill regard employees held towards her. She didn’t really care, as they had no power to help her. Manager’s did…so manager’s ruled.
You may recall the story of Charlie, who had gained his first level certification in coaching only to be told by his manager, Sandy, that he could not use that certification or the knowledge gained from it for helping anyone in the company. While Charlie had received numerous congratulatory messages from his co-workers, the only words he received from Sandy were those words of warning — no congratulations at all. There is a post script to that story, it seems.
Recently the department was overhauling its presence on the company’s intranet. As part of this, Sandy wanted each member of her team to rewrite their bios for the site. She had solicited suggestions as to how this would look, and had informed the team that the new format would include their accomplishments, so people in the company would know that this department contained a group of professionals dedicated to advancing their knowledge.
Charlie dutifully agreed, creating his bio, and handing it to another manager for review. After what had previously happened with Sandy, he knew better than to just write his bio and submit the results. At the discussion with this manager regarding his bio, he asked if he should include his coaching certification. After all, it fit all of Sandy’s criteria for the bios, and it was one small line in a sea of words for the entire department. The manager, knowing the situation, ruefully shook her head, indicating that Sandy would not like this put out to the public in general. Other items were fine, but not this. There could be no other coaches in the department except those Sandy deemed worthy to coach.
As a manager or leader of a group, you should want your people to strive for better, to always search for the greater self. This brings them to a higher level and shows that your department is one which is keeping up with the latest trends and issues facing their particular set of interests. One of the ways you do this is to applaud your people for their accomplishments. If because of internal issues, you don’t want them practicing those skills, that decision is regrettable, but part of the course of business. When you begin censorship and deeming some accomplishments fit for publication and others things not, then you have crossed the line between good for the business, and good for your spite.
By engaging in this censorship, Sandy is indicating that she cares more about her own dislike of Charlie than in celebrating the accomplishments of one of her team. It leaves the team wondering who is next. It also leaves the team wondering which one of the fundamental freedoms that every citizen of the country enjoys will be taken away, simply because she deems it so. Looking at all the world’s dictators, this is how it begins. The department already has to censor what it says around Sandy for fear of retribution. Now they cannot write freely either, having to vet their accomplishments through her.
A good manager puts his or her people ahead of their own petty interests, especially when those interests can do nothing but enhance the reputation of that very same group. They don’t have to worry about censorship, because they are interested in hearing these issues. They forget that, in every case, the dictators get overthrown, while the democracies thrive.
A good manager doesn’t want quiet. They want the conversation. The bad manager only wants to hear their own voice, which is the only opinion they respect.
A couple of weeks ago I told the story of ‘Sarah’, who reveled in finding the cloud in every silver lining for employees she personally didn’t want to deal with or didn’t like. I wanted to record a few of these to illustrate my point.
Emily knew she was on Sarah’s list. No matter what she did, she could not please Sarah, who seemed to delight in picking her work apart, looking for the bad among the good, magnifying that bad, and writing her up with yet ‘another example’ of how right Sarah was to have the opinion she did of Emily. It was under this pall that Emily and her manager, Bob, went into Sarah’s office to discuss the preparations for a big company event that Emily was tasked with. While they were both prepared for anything, they didn’t expect the conversation to come down to the difference between 3 and 5.
Emily had done remarkable work, with Bob’s help. All the vendors were accounted for, the internal facilities arrangements were made, help from the department was garnered, and the food had been bought or arranged for. It would be a fantastic event, one which Emily had worked very hard to accomplish. Sarah looked at all this and nodded, giving grudging assent to all the work done. Her eyes looked over the arrangement and a smile crossed her face. Bob and Emily knew this was not a good thing.
“I see”, Sarah started, “that you advertised and marketed this three different ways. We have five ways we can market an event. Why didn’t you do all five?” Emily mentioned that one additional way was going to be done in the next day or so, to keep the advertising fresh. The last one she didn’t see the value in, so didn’t do it.
That was all Sarah needed. This was ‘unacceptable’. There should have been five marketing avenues for this. It was just another way that Emily was incompetent and that the whole event would collapse because the one way not being used would be the linchpin. The one way not currently used should have been done earlier, and Emily should have known this. All Emily’s good work was to be ignored, and two marketing avenues would be magnified to unrealistic proportions in order to prove a point.
The event itself was a rousing success, attracting hundreds of employees and garnering praise from the vendors attending. When Bob did a wrap up of this for Sarah, indicating that, with the four avenues employed, they had record attendance. Sarah didn’t seem to care, saying the success of the event didn’t matter. What mattered only was that Emily couldn’t be trusted to run an event like this.
An old joke goes that a woman and her child were walking along the beach. A huge wave sweeps the child out to sea. The woman is highly distraught, praying for her son to return. Another wave comes and safely deposits the child back on the beach, alive and unharmed. The woman looks at her son, looks heavenward, and says, “He had a hat…’
A good manager looks past his or her own prejudices and focuses on the facts. They go beyond their own biases and looks objectively at what is being done. That manager may even have their mind changed. They allow the facts to bend them, not the other way around.
When a manager has made up their mind and then twists each situation to fit that preconception, no matter what the facts are, then anyone working for that manager who is not on the A list is doomed from the start. It is unfair to the employee, and demoralizing to the rest of the department. Who’s next? Who gets the preconception leveled on them next?
No matter if a manager likes or dislikes someone, they have a duty to look at each of their employees objectively. When they don’t, and just find the bad instead of the good and bad, they do a disservice to themselves and their employees.
In that case, 3 out of 5 really is bad.