The Ghosting of Emily

Emily opened her texting app and selected the group thread she had looked at so many times over the past couple of weeks. Though she knew almost every word on that thread, she re-read many of the messages her team had sent over the past few months. It was more than a work discussion. They joked, talked about their private lives, and interacted like friends.

That was until a couple of weeks ago when the layoffs came. Emily and her co-worker Harold were laid off from the company while their manager and the manager’s manager kept their positions. It was then the group texting, and all communication from the two managers, suddenly stopped. There were no check-ins, no inquiries about how she was doing, or any kind of message whatsoever. If there was a professional form of ghosting, this was it. The only person who had kept in touch with her from her team was Harold, who checked in with her on a regular basis to see how she was coping.

Though she had received dozens of messages from co-workers expressing how much they would miss her and offers of assistance for the asking, it still saddened Emily that two people she considered friends had completely dropped her from their lives without explanation and without cause. She guessed she misread all the friendly banter and non-work conversations.

Shaking off that disappointment, she looked at all the messages she received, and all the kind words said in those messages. With practiced movements, she brought up a menu on the text app, paused for a moment, and replied ‘yes’ to the question on the screen, ‘Do you want to delete this thread?’ She then sent a message to Harold seeing how he was doing with his job search.

How many times have you heard executives of companies say, “You are not just an employee here. You are family.” Many job seekers and employees know those to be only words, but when management is given the opportunity to prove those words true, do they? Or, do they follow the safer and easier path, making sure they avoid anger and sadness by avoiding the person who only a short time ago they were interacting with on a daily basis? How is that treating people like family?

Or are they just words in a recruiting folder, an employee manual, or on a group text thread?


Home Sweet Home

Fingers Crossed Behind Back

They should have taken bets.  The staff realized this too late, of course, so all they could do is sit and watch the creative excuses unfold.

Sarah had made telecommuting an art form.  While most of the staff had one day of telecommuting a week, and a few had two, Sarah would try to see how many days she could get away with not having to come into the office.  No subject was off limits for her to employ her excuses for staying at home.

  • There was snow on the ground
  • There was snow on the way
  • It looked like it was going to storm fiercely
  • She needed privacy
  • She wasn’t feeling well, but well enough to work from home
  • She had a half day off in the afternoon, so why bother coming in the morning?
  • She had a day off in the morning, and it didn’t make sense to come in for the afternoon
  • Her husband, son, neighbor, dog, neighbor’s dog, complete stranger wasn’t feeling well and she didn’t feel right about leaving them
  • Alien invasion

If it were simply that she wanted to stay home, the staff would have been somewhat accepting of this.  After all, it meant she wasn’t in the office to tell everyone their jobs and give extra work.  This was a bonus.

Sarah’s telecommuting had a dark side to it, though.  First, any day she telecommuted, she would inform everyone that they had to rearrange their schedules in order to accommodate her telecommuting.  If they had to change everything for her, then so be it.  She could not be inconvenienced by something as complicated as a web conference or conference call.  Second, if she wasn’t there to sign off on something urgent, progress stopped.  She needed to be in to sign off on items, and her telecommuting interfered with that.  Third, there were simply things that staff needed to talk with her about in person.  A phone call would not do.  She had to make decisions, and she needed to be there for this.  None of this mattered to Sarah, of course, as it was her telecommuting, and she wanted it to be that way.

When Sarah was tapped to head the department, her habits changed slightly.  Based on what she was doing, the staff guessed that she was told by her new boss that she could take one telecommuting day a week, and one only.  Sarah dutifully promised this would be the case.

The staff was still kicking themselves for not taking bets about how long this would last before she found some way around it.

For the first few weeks, Sarah was a good girl.  She took one day a week as her telecommuting day, and that was it.  She was out of the office other times, but they were for official travel.

Then, when no one was looking, the excuses crept back in again.  One day stretched into a day and a half.  A day and a half stretched into two.  The stretching continued for as long as Sarah was able to get away with it.

Staff knew that if any of them ever tried what Sarah did, they would be hauled in front of her so fast it would make their head spin.  Employee Relations would tell them the telecommuting rules chapter and verse from the employee handbook, and they would be informed that telecommuting was a privilege and not a right.  If they wished to continue to telecommute, they would be able to do so only once a week, maybe twice, but that was it.  After all, work would have to get done.

There was one silver lining in that, though.  Sarah would want to make sure she told them all this personally.  That would mean she would have to be in the office to do so.  That might give the employee months and months before the conversation took place.

How to Dry Dishes

My way or the highway sign

It was the first time in months that Ralph had any spark of interest in his job.  It was an unusual sensation for him, and he welcomed it.  Ever since the new management team had come in, he had lost all spark of interest in his job, doing it like an automaton, putting in his hours, and then going home.  He knew his fellow employees felt the same way.  The new management team had come in, expressed disapproval of the way they had done things, and instituted a strict regimen of how they would do their work going forward.  There would be no room for creativity, no room for personal expression.  There would be the way the ‘best practices’ prescribed and that would be it.  In short, since the new management wanted automatons, this is exactly what they got.

Ralph was working on a presentation that had been previously given under the old management.  As it was not up to the new management’s specifications, he was busily correcting it, making sure it passed inspection before he would be allowed to present it.  As he was creating it, he saw a need for a job aid for his fellow employees.  It would allow them to take the heart of the presentation with them and use as they saw fit.  He quickly went about creating the job aid, trying to balance the need to convey information with a little less than corporate style.

Knowing he would have to present it to his new manager, he took the initiative, and told her what he was doing.  She, as expected, informed him she would need to see it to give it her blessing.  He sent it to her, and was summarily asked if he could step into her office.

His manager informed him that context was good, with the right information needed.  The issue was the layout.  It wasn’t in straight lines.  The images were a bit off center from each other.  They needed to be in straight lines in order to ‘look good’.  He was advised that he could use PowerPoint SmartArt in order to redraft this, as it placed things in nice, neat order.  She began to show him how to use the tool when he announced to her that he knew how to use it.  As he walked out of the office, any spark that had ignited had been extinguished wholly by a whole bucket of control freak water.

I’m reminded of a story told by a colleague.  Many years ago she was at her grandmother’s house, and was helping her dry dishes.  The grandmother looked at her disapprovingly and told her she was drying the dishes the wrong way.  So not to disrespect her grandmother, she began drying the dishes the ‘proper’ way, but the point of the story was that the dishes were going to be dry regardless, so why was she drying them improperly?  It was that her grandmother saw that doing things her way was more important than the result.  The same could be said for the manager in this story.

A strange paradox in the working world is that when you hold on the tightest to control, you actually control less.  You have your sense of control, but you have unmotivated, uninterested, and unengaged workers who are there to collect a paycheck.  They have no freedom, have no creativity, and have no interest in their jobs.  You are basically saying you don’t trust anyone at all, and have to keep them in line for anything to get done.

By releasing that control, you get people who will use their creativity.  By loosening the boundaries, you can still get what you want, but have people try new and innovative ways of working within those boundaries.  You get your way without having to exert it like a sledgehammer.  By giving up control, you are showing trust in your people, and you get people who want to keep that trust in return.

It is a choice between believing only in yourself or believing in your people.  Your choice will determine whether your people believe in you.

Oh, and that colleague who had the very controlling grandmother?  You may recognize who it is…her name, at least in these articles, is Sarah.

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.

Never Put It In Writing

obscene phone call

No one knew who exactly told Kate about this particular management technique, but for those who reported to her, there was a general wish that she had not listened that particular day.  She was driving all of them to distraction with her schizophrenic style of feedback.

If Kate had a compliment for you, she would fire up her e-mail and send out a letter of compliment to your inbox.  It was a happy thing, of course, and one where you could be proud of your achievements.

However, if Kate had something other than a compliment for you, she would not put it in writing.  Instead, she would give you a call, and usually wait until you where there to speak with her.  At that point, she would, as the vernacular states, tear you a new one.  Once the phone call was done, you would shake your head and wonder how in one minute you could do something that warranted a complimentary e-mail, and the next minute saw you be verbally eviscerated because of some minor infraction.

Why did Kate do this?  One thought is that she was pulled aside one day and told that, if something isn’t in writing, you can’t be held accountable for it.  So, the good stuff she would be able to take credit for.  If someone called her on the bad stuff?  You could always deny it ever happened or say that your intentions were misinterpreted.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that your staff is driven to the edge of paranoia.  Your compliments are disregarded as fast as they can hit the ‘delete’ button, and every time your name shows up on the caller ID, you can assured of a shudder, an eye roll, or long, exasperated sigh.  Nobody is going to believe a word you say, and, in many cases, you will be covertly despised by your people for your ludicrous behavior.

You are a leader of people.  Don’t you think it is time you stopped making obscene phone calls?  Isn’t it time you begin to face your people as a leader, and not as a strategist, looking only at how you can get away with your petty ranting?  If there is a legitimate issue with someone, talk with them, face to face, professionally, and insist on a record of the conversation.  While you are at it, pause before you talk to that person and think if you are the one who may need to change your ways or attitude.

Your employees, everyone’s employees, deserve better than the equivalent of heaving breathing on the receiver.

Command and Control

Sarah’s latest teambuilder was in full swing.  Part of the facilitator’s goals were to have the team create a new mission statement for the organization, and then create some internal principles that the department would agree to follow in order to achieve that mission statement.

Two groups were created from the assembled employees, in hopes that the two groups would come up with principles that would compliment each other, and that combined, these principles would be greater than the sum of their parts.  The two groups dutifully split apart, one group leaving the room in order to have some private area in which to brainstorm.

In one of the groups, ideas were solicited about the internal principles that the team wanted to present.  Some were rather typical, such as a customer service environment, while others were a bit different.  One of those was the idea of servant leadership.  The idea was that, if the department espoused servant leadership, this idea could filter to the rest of the company by viewing how successful it was in Sarah’s department.

For those of you unfamiliar with Servant Leadership, here is a brief synopsis, courtesy of LeadersDirect.

Servant devote themselves to serving the needs of organization members, focus on meeting the needs of those they lead, develop employees to bring out the best in them, coach others and encourage their self expression, facilitate personal growth in all who work with them and listen well to build a sense of community and joint ownership

Servant leaders are felt to be effective because the needs of followers are so looked after that they reach their full potential, hence perform at their best. A strength of this way of looking at leadership is that it forces us away from self-serving, domineering leadership and makes those in charge think harder about how to respect, value and motivate people reporting to them.

Many of the participants in the team knew the definition.  Lucia, manager of one of the bigger sub-units of Sarah’s domain, didn’t.  After a brief synopsis by a few of the team members, Lucia wrinkled her nose as if she had just smelled something foul.  “Sounds awful.”, she said, “I need to be in control.”  There was some further discussion of the concept and whether it should be included in the team’s statement, but Lucia continually voted it down.  For those who did not know Lucia, it was an interesting revelation of how the woman’s mind worked.  For those who reported to Lucia, it was a confirmation of what they already knew.

One of the strangest paradoxes of leadership is the fact that when a leader gives away their power, the stronger they get with their people.  This doesn’t mean delegating, as delegation is with tasks.  No, a leader who makes the decision not to have to command and control of everything under them, but decentralizes their power, giving it to their people, winds up more in control than ever.  That leader’s reports want to please their leader.  They want to prove the leader’s trust justified.  They want to make sure they don’t do anything that might cause that leader to lose faith in them.  They enjoy being with that leader, and want to keep that relationship going and growing.

Command and control is about a selfish or insecure leader who believes they need to be the center of the universe in order to get anything done.  The leader looks at their subordinates as simply instruments for fulfilling tasks and making the leader look good.   It provides no growth, no growing, and no new ideas.  The leader fears that giving up control means giving up with they have ‘earned’.   What they are blind to is what they have really earned:  the lack of respect of their people.

Be a servant to your people. You’ll find what you give away to be only a fraction of what you get back.

Cast Adrift

Penguins Cast Adrift

It happened as it usually happens at the company.  The employee is called into his or her manager’s office and is told that they are no longer employees of the company.  The security guard is summoned, the employee’s keys, purse, or such is brought to them, and they are escorted out of the building.

Yet, this isn’t an article about that process.

A note is sent out to the staff informing them that the employee isn’t working there anymore.  There was no time for goodbyes, no time for a hug, and there is no invitation by the manager or anyone in leadership to come discuss how this firing might affect them.  And affect them it does.  Each time this ‘rip off the bandage’ approach is taken, it makes the employees who are left behind a little more nervous about their jobs, a little more wary to say anything, and never knowing if their turn will be next.  Seeing that the company really doesn’t have any secret information that could be accessed by the employee to give to competitors, the employees wonder why it has to be that way.  They are never given an answer.

Yet, this isn’t an article about why the process has to be that way.

The manager, of course, felt they had good reason to let go of the employee.  Maybe the employee was under performing.  Maybe they were put into a job that they simply couldn’t handle.  Maybe their conduct was less than professional.  At the same time, maybe it wasn’t any of these cases, but just a case where the employee was thrown into the job without proper training and was trying their best.  Maybe the employee was staying late or coming in early, or on weekends, as this particular employee was, in order to get the work done.  Maybe the employee deserved firing, or maybe they were running full out to try to be successful in a job where they could not if they stayed on the job 24 hours a day.

Yet, this isn’t an article about that type of unfairness.  Well, not really.

What this article is about is what did the manager do to help make this employee successful.

How many times have you heard the company you work in say that people are their most important asset?  How many times have you seen a manager of the company, their representative, back up that motto with any action?  If you have, and have seen it many times, make sure you go into your manager’s office and give them a very big ‘thank you’, as you definitely have a good manager.

In the case of the terminated employee, that motto wasn’t put into action.  There was no tangible action to help the employee succeed, either by truly looking at the workload and if it was feasible to do, whether the employee had the proper tools or training, whether what they expected the job to be really was what the job turned out to be, or whether it could be done by anyone, anytime.  No, the manager in question simply ignored the words and pleas from the employees regarding the workload, ignored the employee coming in on weekends to keep up with the work, and the evidence that the amount of work was simply overwhelming.  The employee could not do the job and that was that.

‘Your employees are your most important asset’…until you need to put some effort into them, and then it is too much of a burden, so you cast them adrift.  If this is the attitude that you take as a manager, or that the company encourages, don’t expect anyone to step up and give their all.  ‘All’ is not rewarded.  Trying your best is not rewarded.   They will give you the same amount of effort that you have given to them, nothing more, nothing less.

It’s time to change the company motto…Sink or Swim.

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.

The Idea Thief

Idea Thief

The new hire in the department had arrived, much to the relief of the existing staff.  He would be a welcome addition and help distribute the workload a bit more evenly.  As Mitch went to shake hands with him, a wry smile came to his face.  It wasn’t anything to do with the new hire, as he seemed like a nice guy.  It was, strangely enough, the new hire’s title, and what it represented.

The title, and job description, had been proposed by Mitch over a year ago as a possible lateral move for himself.  His immediate manager had encouraged him to explore it, even to the point of writing a job description for the position.  He took the challenge, handed it in, and after a bit of revision by his manager, was assured that the job description was handed into Sarah.  That was the last anyone heard of it until, magically, six months later, when the department needed to bring on a new hire, Sarah suggested that the new person should had the same title and responsibilities in the job description that Mitch had submitted.  Mitch was informed, however, that he would not be put into contention for the new spot.

It was not the first time this had happened to Mitch in his years long association with Sarah.  He recalled proposing new programs for the department when Sarah was his direct supervisor.  She methodically knocked each one down when he proposed them to her, leaving him dejected, and later castigating him on his review for not coming to her with any new or innovative ideas.  Six months later, Sarah had some ‘brilliant’ ideas for programs that she gave to another member of the department.  Those ideas?  Mitch’s, down to the names of the programs he had come up with.

To Mitch’s point of view, even Sarah’s current meteoric rise in the department can be partially attributed to him.  At her request, he wrote a business case detailing the benefits of an encompassing health, finance, and other life area wellness program within the company.   Sarah had accepted it with thanks, and nothing more was ever heard about it.  Six months later, she called Mitch into her office, announced she had received a promotion to a newly created position.  Three guesses as to what that position was to encompass.  Sarah graciously accepted Mitch’s congratulations on the position and announced to him he was getting a great deal more work to do, all with no raise or promotion.  It would be a pattern repeated with many others in the department as Sarah’s reporting relationships grew.

Thus, as he shook hands with the new hire, a wry smile came to Mitch’s lips.  He had learned his lesson, as had others in the department.  Keep your mouth shut, at least when it came to proposing new ideas to Sarah.  It would be taken by her as quickly as it came out of the person’s mouth, rebranded, and no appreciation given.

Mitch knew the silence came with a price.  It would be used as an excuse for no promotions or lateral moves.  He had come to peace with that a long time ago.  He only hoped soon he would be able to impress a new employer with some creative and innovative ideas.