The Project: Bonus Behavior


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.


Let the Hostility Continue!

hostile-work-environment-250x210Ralph knew it was a risky proposition from the start, but felt it needed to be done.

He prepared well.  He had his evidence, had practiced what he was going to day, brought examples, and was going to ask for solutions, not demand them.  He made the appointment with the department Director and walked in ready to have a discussion about the hostile work environment that he was experiencing in the office.

It did not go well, thanks to the Director.

Instead of weighing the evidence, the Director dismissed each and every example that Ralph brought in.  Instead of discussing why Ralph felt this way, he trotted out every instance where Ralph had done something wrong. (according to the Director and Ralph’s Manager)  Instead of bringing in a neutral third party from Human Resources, the Director once again told Ralph what a crappy department this was and that the Director had gotten there just in time to save it from itself.  Instead of seeing both sides of the story, the Director decided to blame Ralph for everything.  Instead of taking copious notes about this conversation or bringing in Human Resources, the Director just talked, at one time confusing the issue and having to be corrected by Ralph.

Instead of giving Ralph’s concerns due consideration, the Director decided to make the work environment even more hostile towards Ralph.

A few days after this talk, the Director and Manager pulled Ralph in to inform him he had been placed on a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’, which could result in termination if he did not fulfill it to the letter.  The plan was filled with misstatements, uncheck claims, and was fully one sided, as Human Resources didn’t bother to speak with Ralph at all about his side in the matter.

In short, everything that the company had said about a safe to speak environment was torn up in tiny pieces, and set afire by the Director, Manager, and Human Resources.

If you as a leader of people can’t get past your own ego and take a few critical comments, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people can’t listen to those comments, carefully consider them, and change your behaviors based on them, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people believe yours is the only voice and opinion that counts, then you are no leader of people.

A good leader wants to solve problems to make their people happy and productive.  If the only solution you have ends in the words, “I’m right”, then don’t expect much else from your people.  Then again, your ego probably won’t allow you to expect anything from anyone, as you are the only person who matters in the world.

Be that leader your people need and want.  Ditch the ego and open your ears.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Cameras facing each other

Author’s note:  This is the 199th blog I have written for this site.  While blog #200 will be reflections on that, I did want to make note of it here, and the reason why this particular blog is being written.  It has been saved for quite a long time.

When an employee does something against company policy, or a manager is underperforming in some way, the usual cry is to get Human Resources (HR) involved.  This is natural and to be expected.  HR is the body that is charged with creating and maintaining a workplace that both respects the laws of a country and prevents lawsuits from ever happening in the first place.  Thus, if something is taking place that is unprofessional, illegal, or unlawful, it is HR that is duty bound to set it right.  It is an unpleasant duty, but HR is supposed to be the watchman of the organization.

What happens when it is HR that is breaking the rules?  What happens when it is HR that has staff acting unprofessionally?  Can they be trusted to police themselves?  Or, because they are the watchmen, they are free to ignore their own acts and act with impunity.  If you are a member of HR and are being treated unfairly and unprofessionally, who do you go to?  Who watches the watchers?  And, if the watchers know there is no one watching them, do they then act accordingly?

In my collection of stories about good managers and bad, I have heard a lot of HR stories.  Many HR organizations are good.  They try their best under very difficult circumstances to serve their constituents.  However, there are others that let the following go on:

  • An Employee Relations person in a college was known for gossiping about any case that came to her.  If anyone complained, they found an Employee Relations case leveled against them.
  • An Employee Relations manager routinely ignored complaints about managers, but would always prosecute employees when a manager would come to her with a complaint.
  • An HR Director, when asked about an executive in the company who had a file of complaints 3 inches thick, responded, “Yeah, she’s a problem”
  • An HR person said the following to an employee who issued a complaint about her manager routinely cursing at her: “He outranks you and that makes him right”.

If this is what is said and done outwardly to the company, what does that say about how they treat their own people?  If this is the standard they set for the company and expect no pushback, what do they get away with in their own department?  What nepotism, politics, and punishment goes on when there is no one to report these abuses to?  Much like the stories above, I have heard many of how the HR department acts with impunity to their own people because there is no recourse for their employees.  I’ve reported a fair number of them over the past 200 blogs, but there are many more in the files.

Everyone needs oversight, for without it, the temptation to cheat becomes too great.  Even the watchers need someone to watch them.  Let’s enforce honesty in those who are supposed to enforce honesty in others.

Hear No Evil

Animaniacs See Hear Speak No Evil

The CEO took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  No matter how much he looked at the report on his desk, he could coax no sense out of it.  Putting it aside, he scanned his desk for another matters that required his attention.

His eyes lit upon a letter that had been written to him and to the President of the company.  He had not filed the letter yet, so picked it up to reread it. The letter was from a terminated employee of the company, or rather the employee’s lawyer, spelling out rather specific charges against the employee’s now former manager.  The accusations could cause the company some trouble, as they could be interpreted as violating federal regulations.

The manager in question was someone the CEO knew.  She had stepped up to head several projects in the company and had volunteered to fill a spot on the leadership council temporarily, taking some burden off the CEO. He liked when people did this, so was willing to overlook such reports of the manager’s, shall we say, deficiencies.  He had decided not to investigate these accusations at all, but held on to the letter in case the President thought differently.  He didn’t think the President would, as he had his own agenda and pet projects, and didn’t bother much with the needs of the company’s staff.

The letter did remind him that he needed to make arrangements to make the manager in question’s temporary promotion permanent.  After all, didn’t she help him out?  Staff complained too much anyway.  He took the letter, and promptly filed it in the round file under his desk.

He sighed.  That was enough of a distraction.  He needed to get back to his report.

Picking it up, he read the top of it again.  It was the employee engagement results from the survey taken earlier in the year.  It had shown, as it had in previous years, the same disturbing data.

I can’t figure it out, the CEO thought, reading the data for the 100th time.  Why do the staff feel so strongly that the leadership of this company don’t care about them or their concerns at all?

Thanks! Now Let Me Kick You in the Teeth!

Kick in the teeth

All in all, Val accepted the news rather well.  She had been told that her job function at a branch office was being transferred to someone at the central office, so her services to the company wasn’t going to be necessary anymore.  It was not going to be an immediate termination, and Val was even given some latitude as to when her last day would be.  She could leave earlier, or stay around a few weeks more to help train her replacement in the central office about what she did.  It wasn’t exactly a fair question, as Val was told the company would really appreciate it if she could stay a few weeks more to train her replacement.  While she had no reason to stay, she agreed, out of a sense of professionalism and duty.

The weeks dragged on and she had performed her duties well.  Her replacement had been brought up to speed, her file put in order, and she kept the lines of communication with her replacement in the central office.  The one thing that she didn’t know was when her last day was.  Nobody in her department had let her know, or even been in contact with her.  Val really needed to know so she could give prospective employers an idea of when she would be able to begin working for them.

Out of frustration, she contacted Human Resources, and asked for the Employee Relations Manager.   As the ER Manager was instrumental in her exiting out of the company, maybe she would know, or be able to provide some guidance.  After a few rings, the ER Manager got on the telephone to speak with Val.  Val quickly recounted what had happened and asked if the ER Manager had any insight into when Val would be released from the company.

The ER Manager responded thusly.  “You’re getting paid every two weeks.  What more do you want to know?”  Biting back a retort, Val thanked the ER Manager for her fantastic insight, and hung up the phone.  She was quite glad she was leaving a company that would employ someone who acted so unprofessionally.

So, to review, an employee who know she is to be laid off agrees to stick around to help the company adjust to her no longer being there.   The company then promptly ignores her requests to know when this period will end so she can get on with her life, as she will no longer have one with said company.  The employee calls Human Resources in hopes that they might be her advocate to find a small piece of information.  The person she reaches, who is the person who will be escorting her out the door, makes a smart remark instead of actually helping her out.

There is an old saying that you can take the measure of a man (or woman) by how they treat someone they don’t have any need to please.  It seems for this ER Manager, it was easier for her to prove she could be a smart ass rather than help an employee.

In short, for Val, no good deed went unpunished.

The Stella Dallas Retirement

Stella Dallas Poster

For those who aren’t fans of old movies, a brief synopsis of the movie, “Stella Dallas”:  A low-class woman is willing to do whatever it takes to give her daughter a socially promising future.  You’ll see why I mention this movie at the end of this blog.

Mitch was doing his duty.  He and his table colleagues had shown up for the retirement party for Maxine in the company cafeteria.  Sarah was almost in tears talking about Maxine, and the obligatory gift was being given.  As Maxine was making her speech, Mitch was looking around the cafeteria, a recent memory coming to mind.

The previous week, Mitch had to walk through the cafeteria on the way back from a meeting.  There he saw another retirement party underway. Like Maxine, the honoree had been at the company quite a long time.  The cafeteria was jammed with well wishers for the employee.  The air was filled with animated voices, punctuated by raucous laughter.  The guest of honor had pulled over Mitch and twisted his arm to have a piece of cake.  People were in great spirits and enjoying the time, the company, and each other’s remembrances.

It was a very different scene for Maxine’s party.  Where the other party filled the cafeteria, this party barely took up a third of the space.  Indeed, if it wasn’t for Maxine’s co-workers, who knew they had to attend or feel Sarah’s wrath, the attendance would have been, to put it kindly, sparse.  There was no animated chatter, no raucous laughter, and no hint of joviality.  It was mechanical, and the people dispersed as soon as they thought it was safe.

Looking upon the two celebrations, one of the conclusions that someone could make was the degree of respect and affection that people had for the two honorees.

To be fair, Maxine’s job wasn’t the warm and fuzzy one.  She had the job of meeting with employees who were having issues with their managers, and employees who had to be disciplined.  She was also the one who would process the firing of people from the company.  Still, this could not be used as a blanket excuse for the less than robust attendance.

One of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever received is that a person has to be judged not only the the ‘what’ they did to get their job done, but the ‘how’ as in how they performed the job.  Did they do it by steam rolling over everyone else?  Were they collaborative, or where they rude?  Did they look out only for themselves and their own goals, or did they take someone else’s time and needs into consideration.

In Maxine’s case, by a good many people’s opinion, the ‘how’ Maxine performed her job was the cause of so few attending this party.  Maxine was known to support the highest ranking person in the room, whether that person was right or wrong.  This left many simple employees in the company dreading a call to Maxine’s office because they knew they would not be treated fairly.  Maxine wanted to be considered a friend to management, and would bend over backwards to make that happen.  Even Maxine’s own colleagues in her department would always look out for the bus Maxine would push them under if it were advantageous to Maxine.   This is why Sarah had such affection for Maxine.  She could always count on Maxine to support her, no matter what the decision.

None of this seemed to phase Maxine.  She accepted her gift ‘from the company’ with grace, shed the appropriate tears, and thanked ‘everyone’, especially Sarah, for all their love and support.  Those who applauded might have done so only because she was no longer going to be there to deal herself the most advantageous cards from the deck.

The movie Stella Dallas is, for all intents and purposes, a tearjerker movie designed to be a soap opera before the medium of television came along.  In it, Barbara Stanwyck does everything and anything to ensure that her daughter has everything in life, and alienates everyone and anyone along the way.  In once scene, Stella throws a fancy party to ensure their status in higher society.  She goes to greet her guests only to find out that nobody is there.  She has thrown a party and no one has attended.

As a manager or a leader, always think of the ‘how’ you are doing something.  Is it simply for your benefit or for the benefit of those you lead.  If it is simply for your own benefit, that’s not leadership.  It is selfishness, and something that should not be in your leadership curriculum.  It will wind up with not only an empty room for your going away party, but also empty looks in the eyes of those you lead and half their energy going into preventing that knife in their back.  If that is what your idea of leadership is, be honest with yourself and get yourself a title change.  The new title?  Mercenary.

Following Up? What’s That?

It was the move that Employee Relations had told every employee they needed to do.  If there was an issue, the employee needed to report it to Employee Relations so something could be done about it.  Little heed was given to the comment by many employees that, if ER did not do its job well, the employee might be subject to some kind of retaliation.  While this issue was brought up many times, it never was properly addressed by Employee Relations.  The following story illustrates just this concern.

Two employees from a department had the same complaint about their supervisor.  The supervisor wasn’t doing her job.  Since this job affected the welfare of the company, it was a big concern for the employees.  Since the employees worked diligently, and often past their usual hours, to get the data into the system that was needed by the company, they were understandably upset that the supervisor never reviewed or approved the data transfer when it needed to be done.  Instead, she would just tell one of the employees to approve the data, without review, and let it go at that.  The employees, who would then be responsible if the data was incorrect, were reluctant to do this.  The supervisor didn’t care.  She didn’t want to do her job.

The employees brought their complaint to the employee relations department of their company.   The ER department, to its credit, handled the complaint with professionalism and courtesy to the employees.  The supervisor’s manager was contacted, provided the details, and together they worked out an action plan for this supervisor to do the job she was being paid to do.  The employees were thanked.  ER checked this off of their collective To Do list and moved on.

Except, there was one problem.  The supervisor didn’t follow this plan of rectification.  The supervisor’s manager didn’t put the plan into place.  The problem persisted until one day when it truly did cause a major problem for the company.  THEN something happened.

There are many areas to ask questions here.  Why didn’t the supervisor’s manager implement the plan, or keep a better eye on the supervisor?  Why wasn’t the plan followed?  Most prominently, why didn’t ER do any follow up?

Here, we have a case where employees did the right thing, endangering themselves so they could put forth a complaint.  Didn’t it deserve a one month, six week, or eight week follow-up to see how the solution was working?  If ER had done this, they would have found out nothing had been done and the supervisor continued her errant ways.  Moreover, if they had followed up, maybe an embarrassment for the company might have been averted.  Now, with a certain organic substance hitting the fan, what once was a small problem is now coming to the attention of people higher up on the organization chart.

Fortunately, these two employees were not subjected to retaliation by their supervisor, and didn’t endure any additional stress beyond having to deal with this supervisor’s actions, or lack of them.  However, that can’t always be said to be the outcome.  How can employees trust their ER department when the ER department itself can’t even do the most basic of follow-up with the employees?  A simple phone call would have ascertained that nothing had changed, which could have prompted actions, which could have prevented a major issue down the road.   If the ER department wants the trust of their employees, then then have to prove they are worthy of that trust.

Or, more simply put, you want employees to trust Employee Relations enough to report incidents that will keep the company out of trouble, then those same employees deserve more than to be abandoned by ER for sticking out their necks.

No Digging Allowed

My mother used to tell me a story of how my grandfather owned a beautiful car.  He was out there every weekend washing and polishing this car until it was a thing of beauty.  There was only one problem.  The car didn’t run.  It looked beautiful, but that was it.  It’s functionality was on the surface only.

I thought of this story when I heard about an Employee Relations manager reporting that she had seen an upswing in violations of the company’s civility policy.  It seems that people were, more and more, using coarse language, yelling, or using derogatory terms towards each other.  Each time she was alerted to this, she would talk to the offending employee, telling them about the policy and how they needed to abide by it.  She then would walk away, thinking she did a great job.

When I heard about this, I only had one question in mind: “Why?”  Why was there such an uptick in civility complaints?  Why were people suddenly prone to using inappropriate language, elevated levels of speech, or insulting each other in the workplace?  Was it stress from having too much to do and no time to do it?  Was it because they were receiving poor management?  Was it because the other person in the incivility issue was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or wasn’t pulling their weight?  What was tearing at the fabric of the department?

Moreover, why wasn’t management or leadership doing something to relieve the stress that was causing these outbursts?  Why wasn’t the ER Manager trying to investigate the causes for this?  Why wasn’t anyone digging deeper?

Like my grandfather with his car, all the parties responsible seem to want to do is to make things look good.  If there is incivility, stop the incivility with warning and lectures.  It is handing a band-aid to someone who has a gaping and bleeding wound.  It won’t solve the underlying issue, but you can say you took care of the problem…until it appears again.

A happy and harmonious office is a productive office.  If there are issues where people are raising their voices, speaking unprofessionally, or violating the rights of another person, it is the responsibility of those who have the power to do so to investigate the underlying issues.  Put down the band-aid and pick up a shovel.  Do some digging.  Find the root cause.  Solve the root cause.  Solution reached.  Happy office.

Being a manager of people means you, at times, have to do some disagreeable work.  Being in Employee Relations means that you investigate why employees are not relating better to each other.  Yes, you may have to get your hands dirty.  Don’t worry…a little hard work never harmed anyone.  In this case, it may actually be saving a few people.

What Price Courage?

Over the past week, I have been having an interesting debate with an Employee Relations representative.  It was an old debate.  Her position was that, as an employee, you need to have the courage to gently confront your manager with certain concerns so you can get them resolved.  While I could see the points she was making, I also tried to make a point back to her that the case isn’t all that simple.

The way I see it, the ER rep’s assertion has certain ‘ifs’ attached to it.  If you believe your manager is capable of having a conversation with you.  If you believe there will not be retaliatory action taken against you because of the points you bring up.  If you can trust Employee Relations to back you up on your claim with your manager if things take an ugly turn.

If you have a manager who is capable of having that conversation with you without drama, grief, or long range consequences, then I encourage you to talk about the difficult subjects.  These types of managers are like gold — to be treasured.  They give you the respect and freedom to be able to address the difficult subjects without acrimony.  As long as you speak in a professional manner and don’t abuse the privilege, you should go speak with your manager.  The irony is that these types of manager usually don’t do anything that would cause you to have to speak with them about!

If you don’t have a manager like that, you probably would have trepidation.  You know you will get emotion, accusations, anger, and no admittance that there even might be a hint of a problem.   Further, you know you will get a manager who will retaliate in some form.  Whether you get the less than desirable assignments, poor reviews from then on, continuous comments about your performance, or something else, you are having power exercised against you for having the ‘courage’ to speak up.  When you are spending 9 hours or so a day with this person, you have to balance whether speaking up is worth coming into a hostile work environment each day.

You also have to judge whether, if it gets too bad, you can go to Employee Relations for help.  Is your ER department for the manager first, last, and always?  Are employees looked on as guilty until proven innocent?  In one case, I know of an ER representative who would go right to the manager and gossip about what the employee said.  Do you have an ER department that will look at both sides and handle it with professionalism and objectivity, or will going to them only inflame the situation?

The ER representative I spoke to wants employees to have courage.  I argued that there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the playing surface was level and even.  Unfortunately, in the ER department in which she worked, it was not.  Employees knew this so didn’t come to them.  They didn’t go to their manager with these issues because, if ER became involved, the situation would be the employee’s fault, hands down.  That isn’t courage, it’s suicide.

In a time when the US is still climbing out of a deep financial recession, Europe is mired in a recession, and the other parts of the world are feeling those shockwaves, it isn’t the best time to lose your job.  You can talk of courage all you want, but courage doesn’t put groceries in the cupboard or dinner on the table.

You want courage?  Provide the atmosphere for it.  Provide a manager who isn’t afraid to talk about and be talked to about the tough subjects, a safe to say atmosphere, and an Employee Relations department that isn’t so skewed to the manager’s favor as to be nearly a joke.   You’ll be surprised at how much courage you get when you provide the appropriate conditions.

A Slap on the Wrist? Don’t Worry, We Deliver!

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.