Stalling Tactics

Author’s Note: In a previous blog, we found out about Harold, who saw all the promotions going on around him but wasn’t getting promoted himself. Having spoken with his HR representative and receiving a less than satisfactory response, he wondered what his next step was. Unfortunately, the HR representative wasn’t the only one who was less than forthcoming with him.

After hearing the response from HR and seeing that he would get no help on that front, Harold began to work on some other fronts to understand why he wasn’t getting promoted and what he could to change that situation. Taking the direct route, he spoke with his supervisor and her manager, plainly asking what he was doing wrong. They answered carefully and with consideration they said they were glad Harold brought this to their attention and would be speaking with him separately about it. Harold didn’t hold his breath waiting for that to happen, but he would follow up on occasion to remind them about that conversation.

It was then something interesting happened. An executive of the department asked to meet with Harold to discuss Harold wanting to advance. They sat and chatted for a while about what Harold thought were some of the gaps in the department’s servicing structure. Harold offered his thoughts, and the executive asked him to submit a proposal for a position to address that gap. Again, Harold tempered his expectations but knew he had to go along for even the hope of some progress.

He spoke with his management about the conversation, which his management had facilitated, and was asked by them to run the proposal passed their eyes before going to the senior executive. Harold crafted this new position document carefully, getting feedback, making changes, and then handed it to his senior management for their response.

The manager’s response was one of silence. Besides saying that he had discussed this with the executive, he said nothing else. Upon prompting by Harold the manager shared that the department leadership was about to undergo discussions about their servicing structure so there could be no new positions for now. Harold was disappointed but realized he needed to play the game. He continued to do his job, handled the increasing workload, and waited as patiently as possible.

A few weeks later the department shared the new servicing structure, designed to help the department cope with increased business with the same amount of people. With that done, Harold hoped his proposal would get some attention. He continued to do his job, handled the increasing workload, and waited as patiently as possible.

A week or so later Harold was informed that the company had decided to expand their investigations beyond the servicing strategy into their sales strategy. This would place a hold on any consideration of Harold’s proposal, though he was told there was still interest in it. He continued to do his job, handled the increasing workload, and waited as patiently as possible. See a pattern here?

The manager was true to his word and let Harold know there was progress on the position and told Harold a meeting would appear on his calendar very soon regarding it. Harold was grateful and waited for the meeting to appear…and waited…and waited. He sent a follow up message or so thanking the manager for the information and wondering when the meeting would be scheduled.

A week or so later a meeting appeared. Looking at the invitees, Harold saw a name he really wasn’t happy to see. It was Gloria, the HR person Harold had spoken to previously. The meeting was not to discuss the new position, but to let Harold know his position had been eliminated. While he wasn’t alone in the layoffs, as many of his colleagues were also on the receiving end of these conversations, it felt like a betrayal to Harold. To him, it felt like they were stringing him along, getting the work out of him, plying him with promises of recognition until they no longer needed his effort.

Economic times are good and they are bad. Companies hire and they lay off. Any experienced employee knows this. What stays the same, or what should stay the same, is the integrity of the people navigating these oceans. You can either be up front and forthright with your employees or you can install false hope to keep your people productive and then pull the rug out from under them.

The first way doesn’t guarantee high productivity but does treats your employees with the respect they want and deserve. The second can give you the results you want but tells your employees that they matter very little to the company. What does it matter? They’re going to be let go anyway. So what if your company gets a poor reputation online with job seekers? There will always be someone who will believe the promises of advancement and a company which cares about them.

The United States and the world recently went through a period where there weren’t enough people to hire, forcing companies to be competitive. Not wanting to throw money at the problem, many HR people spoke of ‘the company culture’ as the differentiator. Every time a company treats a Harold the way they do. Every time a Harold is strung along. Every time these type of tactics are used to get productivity, it chips away at the collective integrity of the corporate world. Excuse me, Mr. or Ms. HR person, but too many have seen your ‘culture’. We’ll take the money, thank you very much.


Elephant? What Elephant?


It had become the new method of dealing with the abundant stress in the company.  It was the stress leave, and more and more employees had been taking it.  The latest was Ellen, who had finally had it with her new department leader.  The leader, who had risen in the ranks, often decided to sneak up on people to spy on what they were doing on their computer.  Her ‘my way or the highway’ approach to the work to be done had her staff doing tons of extra work in order to do things the way she wanted, even if it didn’t make sense.  She also arbitrarily changed their job responsibilities, adding travel or other duties, without talking with the staff first, and simply expecting them to accept these changes without question.

Ellen did what many staff members had been doing.  Seeing no recourse from Human Resources, she asked her doctor to write her out on a stress leave.  The doctor, seeing what was being done to Ellen, happily agreed.  She thus became one of the lengthening list of people who was taking advantage of this in order to find another job while having some income flowing.  Was it what she wanted to do?  No.  Like many of her colleagues, she wanted to come in to do the job she had at one time loved.  The fact that so many were taking this option showed there was a problem with who the company was promoting, not who the company was hiring to do the work.

What was Human Resources’ response to this growing trend?  Did they begin to investigate why this type of leave was rising rapidly?  Were they working with managers to try to improve their performance, especially at the executive level?  Were they identifying which behaviors were causing this?  No to all the above.  Human Resources only consultation with these managers was to tell them that the employee’s job was protected for six months.  After that, HR would help the manager fire the employee.  They did this with astonishing frequency, almost becoming effortless experts at it.

Thus Ellen became the latest person in another growing line:  employees released by the company because HR couldn’t be bothered to find out why the employee, who had been with the company 10 years, was now willing to be fired rather than come into the office.

It is a poor doctor that decides to treat the symptoms of a disease but make a conscious decision not to look for its root causes.  The same with a company’s HR department.  When their decision is to always support the manager, whether the manager is right or wrong, then they set the stage for employees to take any way they can to cope with the situation.

In other words, when you decide to ignore the elephant in the room, you can’t blame anyone else for having to clean up what the elephant leaves behind.

Got Bad News? Let’s Ignore It!

Hear See and Speak No EvilIt had been a bad year for Sarah’s department.  The company didn’t win a best places to work award, which Sarah was in charge of applying for, in two years straight years.  The staff had some very critical things to say about the services her department had provided.  Her performance ratings still had some serious issues, with her department not being a safe to say environment among the top items.

At a staff meeting on this, Sarah announced she had come up with a unique way of dealing with all this ‘bad news’.  She was simply going to ignore it all.  There would be no work to improve the situation, no going forward plans, and no focus groups.  She was simply going to pretend they didn’t exist.  She would close her eyes and they would all float away.

The staff, upon hearing this, simply nodded blandly. They were not surprised, as they knew Sarah.  Nothing was ever her fault.  Someone else was always to blame.  There was never a hint of introspection.  She would find someone to blame and then go from there.  In this case, she couldn’t, so it made sense to them that her fall back position was to simply ignore the existence of the problem, and then dare anyone to bring them up once she had made her decision.  Nobody would, as they enjoyed paying their mortgages.

When we are small children, we believe that if we pull the covers over our head, we will be protected from the monsters under the bed.  As we grow up, we learn that there are not monsters under the bed, but there are some uglier and more dangerous monsters in the world.  We also learn that we need to not hide under the covers, but rather face our monsters.  Legitimate criticism, if we learn from it, makes us stronger and better.

Leaders can’t afford to have their heads under the covers fearing the monsters under the bed.  They can’t just say they are going to ignore the criticisms, while readily dishing out criticisms about others.  It’s not the sexiest part of leadership, but a crucial part of it.  Too bad some just can’t get out from under the covers.

The Double Take Comment

Jon Stewart doing double take

The new Director’s staff filed into the conference room and dutifully sat down.  These meetings were common in the Director’s four month tenure at the company.  A bit too common, actually, and the staff was getting tired of meeting.

Among the attendees where Phil and Don.  Earlier in the Director’s brief tenure, they had both applied for the opening of Manager, reporting to the Director.  Both brought skills, talent, and tenure to the position.  The Director thought differently, though and decided not to choose either of them for the position.  Instead, he brought someone in from the outside, who did not know the company’s culture or ways of doing things.  Both Phil and Don were understandably disappointed, but soldiered on with their duties.

This particular meeting was one to discuss some of the statistics that the Director had unearthed in his research on the company.  One rather disturbing statistic was that the company did a miserable job of hiring from within.  Around 70% of the new managerial hires were hired from outside the company, the Director reported.

While that would have been ironic, what he said after that would cause whiplash.  “That is a terrible statistic, and this company needs to do better for hiring from within.  How is anyone supposed to feel engaged or that they are part of the company when there is no career path.”, the Director stated.

There needed to be no words to describe the look that Phil and Don gave to each other.  They continued to listen at the meeting, having learned a valuable lesson about the type of person this new Director was, one which they would remember for a very long time.

You’re new to a company.  You’re in a position of some prominence.  Your new folks don’t know you from a hole in the ground.  It’s probably a good idea to start earning a good reputation right away.  A reputation that says you are honest, straightforward, mean what you say, and have your employees’ best interest at heart.  You have nothing in your reputation’s bank account on which to draw, so you better make some deposits quickly.

Doing one thing while saying another probably isn’t the best way to go.  Unless, however, you don’t care about how you are judged.  If that is the case, be ready for a team that will be judging every word you say and action you take, and not giving you the benefit of the doubt at any time.

You also might see an increase in medical premiums…from all the double-takes they will be doing.

A Little Lie from an Executive Never Hurt

Pants on fire

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a company meeting where the top management invited the staff to write in with their questions.  The top questions, based on votes by the staff, would be answered in the session. The answers were, to be charitable, less than what the employees deserved.  This is the second of two blogs that focus on two of those questions, both asked of the HR Department.

“With all the automation that has taken place”, the question to the HR department head began, “why do you have so many more staff now than you used to?”  It was a fair question.  There were more staff now, even though there was more automation in the HR processes than ever.  What the writer failed to realize was that there were many more HR services than before, as well.  So much had been added to what HR provided that, even with the automation, there needed to be additional staff to handle all the extra responsibilities.

That would have been the professional and honest response from the head of HR.  It also would have provided a strong response to the question. While not everyone may have been satisfied with the answer, it would have been accurate and made people think.  Sadly, this was not the answer that the HR head had provided.  What did she say?

“The HR Department has not grown.  We have not grown in many years.”

There was only one thing wrong with this answer.  It was a lie.  Additionally, it was such a bad lie as to have neon lights on it and a barker on top of it calling out, ‘Hey everyone, look at the lie!’.

Staff who had to visit HR people sitting outside of HR’s area because there was no more room within HR’s area knew this was a lie.  Any one who attended the grand opening of HR’s new space, which took over the area adjacent to it because they needed room for more people knew it was a lie.  Anyone who saw the smaller desks now used by most of the cubicle dwellers in HR because of space saving measures knew it was a lie.

So, why did the head of HR presume to make such a boldfaced prevarication in a company newsletter?  Only she would know, but here are some speculations.

  • She figured nobody would read the article, and if they did, nobody would give a second thought to the claim
  • She figured she was at the top of the heap, so why bother being open and honest.  She has gotten what she came for.
  • She didn’t want to be bothered giving the real answer, so just made something up that was more face saving

Whatever the case was, the one thing that was true was that she had lost a large chunk of integrity not just for herself, but for her department.  She showed that she cared so little for answering a tough question that she threw any answer at it, even if that answer wasn’t accurate.  How could anyone believe her from now on, and how much had she damaged the reputations of those who worked in the department?  Based on the answer she gave to the question, she probably didn’t care.

Part of leadership is answering the tough questions and being called to account for your decisions.  When the best you can do in that area is to utter an untruth so brazen that the majority of the company knows it is an untruth, the damage goes beyond you.  A leader should care about such things, as that is something else they do — care about their people.

Excuse me, dear leader.  Your pants seem to be on fire.

Petty Purim Patronizing

PURIM_-580x222For those who might not know what Purim is, here’s a brief primer, courtesy of

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.

Look At The Carpet


The facilitator was trying not to show his frustration, but it was evident.  His company was being paid a good amount of money to run these focus groups for the department, but nobody was speaking.  He was engaged by the department leadership to understand why a significant percentage of the department indicated it was not a safe-to-say environment.   The best way, the leadership thought, would be to have focus groups to draw out the issues.  As leadership would not be attending the meeting, the thought went, the staff would be more open to speaking up.

That wasn’t the case, as the facilitator could attest.  There were some general platitudes spoken, but nothing of substance. Every question asked by the facilitator was deflected, or met with outright silence.  As far as he could tell, this wasn’t because of any anger towards him.  They just weren’t talking.  He couldn’t figure it out.

If the facilitator had looked at the eyes of each of the participants, he might have been enlightened as to why they were not speaking.  Most of the time, when not speaking with him, the participants’ eyes were directed downward, at the carpet.  While they were not purposely directing him to any answer, their looks were rather illustrative of what the problem was.

If the facilitator had visited the department, he should have looked at the carpeting.  There, he would have found several worn paths between offices.  While the paths had different starting points, they all had the same ending point — the head of the department’s office.   In short, several employees had visited the department head’s office so often, the carpet had a path worn in it.

The participants in the focus group knew about those worn paths in the carpet, and they knew who had made them.  They further knew that those several people going into the department head’s office weren’t there to discuss business issues.  No, they were the self-appointed department gossips, ready to tell the department head about the movement and mumblings of anyone in the department.  They were, to use a term from a 1930s gangster film, the department ‘stool pigeons’.   The department head, rather than putting a stop to this, welcomed this information, and used it to deal out rewards or retribution.

Those stool pigeons were front and center in the focus groups.  They had their antennae up to listen for anything that they could use against their fellow employees and for their own benefit.  They were waiting to wear deeper paths in the carpet to be informants.  The participants knew this, and there was no way they were going to say anything to this facilitator while those stool pigeons were around.  They would rather have a department with pathetic morale than the wrath of the department head come down upon them, especially when they knew the department head would not believe any criticism directed at her.  What they knew was that those who wore the carpet out would be listened to by the department head, because they complimented her and fed into the delusion that she and the leadership team bore no responsibility for what was happening.  The participants would smile, offer weak suggestions, and continue to look at the carpet.

Leadership has to more than say that they want an open environment in their organization.  They have to live it, nurture it, and be patient with it  as it becomes  second nature to their people.  They need to stop the wearing down of the carpeting by those whose only reason for visiting is to inform on their co-workers’ doings, and inform those same people that this is unacceptable behavior.  The leaders then need to encourage new paths to be worn in the carpet.  Invite people in.  Listen to their ideas, hopes, and silly suggestions.  Make them feel comfortable by listening without judgement, opinion, or retribution.   Encourage them to speak their minds without fear of reprisals.  Repeat as often as necessary to scale away years of fear and mistrust.

Will this stop people from looking at the carpet?  Nope.  There won’t be a need for a focus group, as your staff will feel empowered to speak up without having to worry about who is wearing a path.

Engaging in Illogic


Hey Everyone!  It’s time for that new game that’s sweeping that nation, “Where’s the Logic”!  I’m your host, Chuck Lotsofteeth.  Let’s meet tonight’s contestant, a department in a company, both wishing to remain anonymous, for reasons which will become painfully obvious.

This department in question recently learned its scores on the company’s employee engagement survey.  Like most surveys, there were areas for celebration, and areas where the department could have done much better.  One of those areas for improvement was the pervasive feeling that employees could not speak freely.  They did not feel it was a safe-to-say environment.  The department leadership decided to focus on this, and began a discussion on how to fix the perception.

“Why don’t we put together focus groups to discuss why they don’t feel it is a safe to say environment”, one manager suggested.

Let’s pause here to ask…WHERE’S…THE…LOGIC!

Let’s see.  The people of the department have indicated that many of them don’t feel it is a safe-to-say environment.  So, what are you, dear manager, proposing?  Let’s get together in a group to openly discuss why we can’t discuss things openly.  How successful do you think this is going to be?

As the brainstorming continued, another manager brought up the idea that each group in the department should hold a meeting where the employees could openly discuss with the manager what the manager’s faults were.  This would clear up any misconceptions and solve the problem.

Once again, let’s ask…WHERE’S…THE…LOGIC!

It’s not a big leap of logic to believe that those who feel they cannot speak openly are those who fear their manager will engage in an act of reprisal.  Whether that manager is their direct supervisor or someone who has some power in the department, those people are the ones who can adversely affect an employee’s career.  What does this manager want to do?  Have those self-same employees openly criticize their manager.  The silence will be deafening.  Doesn’t it make sense that if the employees felt they could do this, there wouldn’t be a safe-to-say problem?

Sorry, leadership, but you will have to come up with better than the same old solution if you want to fix this issue.  First, start by looking inward and do some self-reflection.  Ask yourself, ‘is it me’?  Then, find a way to get to the truth that will provide safety to your employees.  We have some lovely consolations prizes for you.

Join us next time on “Where’s the Logic”, where we always are unafraid to ask, and where it is always safe to say!

The Song Remains the Same

gary cole office space

The latest company-wide meeting had just ended and Joan, with her fellow employees, began exiting the room.  Some folks were chatting, others were looking at their mobile devices, trying to catch up on e-mail, and others, like Joan, just walked quietly, absorbed in their own thoughts.

It wasn’t that the meeting was that thought provoking.  It had been rather ordinary.  Statistics on how the company was doing, a few presentations by people wishing to highlight how wonderfully their department was doing, and a few jokes by the executive team which went over like balloons filled with lead.   No, Joan’s thoughts were focused on the presentation by the head of Human Resources on the employee engagement score results.

The results were not unexpected.  Good in areas where they were good last year, bad in areas where they were bad last year.  No, none of that was causing Joan to ponder.  Instead, it was one particular statistic and one comment by the head of Human Resources regarding that was causing Joan’s musings.  The statistic took Joan by surprise:  almost a third of the respondents to the survey did not feel the company was a ‘safe to say’ environment.  In response to this, the head of Human Resources had said, “We’ll need to work on this.”  Joan smiled as she walked, because she had heard that before, many times.

The first time she heard it was years ago in another organization responding to another employee engagement survey.  The survey had revealed the department was in the basement regarding engagement.  The department head, a man who could charitably described as ‘out of touch’ with his employees, told the assembled department that this wasn’t good and that he was taking concrete steps to ‘work on this’.  He outlined the steps for the department, dismissed them, and then seemingly lost that piece of paper, as nothing was every done.  Joan wasn’t surprised.  Knowing the politics of her department, she knew the department head’s own manager and the department head did not get along.  He had probably been ordered to get things right, but had ignored this mandate beyond saying what he was going to do.  It was a poor choice, as he was asked to resign after the next employee survey results showed even worse results.

A year after that, another employee survey, still poor results, but this time the department head’s manager had reported the results.  During the intervening year, the company cost-cutting program had wielded not a scalpel, but a chainsaw, decimating not only Joan’s department, but every department in the company.  Delivering the results to the department, the manager had said simply, “We’ll have to do something about this.”  Needless to say, nothing was ever done.

Since that time, in the companies where Joan had worked, the same phrase, almost word for word, had been uttered in response to one survey or the other.  So, when the head of Human Resources at Joan’s current company had uttered those words, Joan could do nothing but smirk.  She knew nothing would be done, partially because of her prior experience, partially because she was in a department in the company which had received abysmally poor scores.  She had to credit the management of the department.  They didn’t say, “We’ll have to do something about this”.  They simply reported the results and took no action of any kind.  Joan had to give them credit for being efficient.  Since the head of Human Resources knew all about this and had done nothing to mitigate it, she knew empty words when they were spoken.

If you don’t recognize the picture at the top of the page, it is the department manager in Office Space, that wonderfully accurate and subversive movie about corporate life.  Most any time this manager appeared, he would say, “Uh, yeah…” and then deliver some news with all the warmth and sincerity of a bad actor.

When you blatantly speak something that you know you are not going to fulfill, you send a message.  That message is that you consider your audience to be so dumb, so out of it, so blatantly sheep like, that they will accept anything you say at face value.  The truth usually is much more complex.  Your employees say nothing because they are afraid for their jobs, not because they trust your words.  Each time you say something you know you are not going to fulfill, you erode whatever meager confidence your employees have in your abilities even further.  The only saving grace is that, by this point, they know the lie when spoken, so it means very little to them.

Even if you cannot do anything about the situation, being straighforward and honest with your employees will elevate you in their eyes inestimably.  They will appreciate your candor.  They will appreciate that you have shared something with them so openly.  They will appreciate that you respected their intelligence.  When that may be the only thing you have left in a company, it becomes a very valuable asset.

The After Session Whispers

women said, woman listening to gossip

The latest attempt at a teambuilder was innocuous enough.  The instructor was competent, the material solid.  It contained its usual share of ice breaker and team activities in order to break down barriers.  What was most interesting about was the talk after the teambuilder, not the talk during it.

One of the ice breakers was that you had to tell the group about a mistake you made in your professional life.  It was designed to be a group catharsis, showing everyone in the room that we all made mistakes and we are forgiven.  Each member of the group dutifully told a tale, most humorous, and the teambuilder continued on its merry way.

When it was over, small groups gathered around the room, or left together, busily chatting on their way up to the team’s space.  The topic of most of those conversations was how long did the person have to think of a ‘safe’ mistake story to relate.  To a person, they all feared that if they told the ‘wrong’ story, or something too close to the present, it would be cataloged and recorded by the head of the department for use against them.  They also feared it would be used as gossip fodder by those close to the head of the department.  So, each person carefully crafted a story that would satisfy the teambuilder leader, but one that would not be used against them at an unspecified future date.  Ironically, the teambuilder did foster conversation for the team.  It just happened that the conversation was about how much they didn’t trust their leader.

What would those conversations be with your department, your group, or your reports?  Would they prepare carefully crafted statements meant for your listening pleasure and then, when out of earshot, say what they really thought?  Do you promote an atmosphere where this type of behavior doesn’t have to happen, or have you or someone in the department fostered such a lack of trust that clandestine whispers are the only way people can honestly communicate?  Would you be subject to that same irony found in the story?  Would the only team building come from everyone agreeing how they couldn’t say something without fear of it being used against them?

Pay attention to the after session whispers.  They may tell you more about your people than any teambuilding trust building exercise ever could.  And, if you are privy to some of those whispers, take them seriously, and start a self-repair effort immediately.  The best way to stop the whispers is to give them nothing to whisper about in the first place.