Sam sat down at his desk in his new job and began his morning routine. After signing into the computer, he would open up the mail program to see what came in overnight. Then, he would proceed to get into the other programs he needed to do his job.
One of the pieces of mail he found in his Inbox that day was a routine announcement from the department’s administrative assistant. She forwarded along to new employees, like Sam, the schedule of days where the company would be closing early in anticipation of a national holiday, where the company would be closed. While it was a rather routine email, it made Sam smile, as he recalled a similar conversation at his old company, but a much different outcome.
Several months prior, Sam had a conversation with a fellow employee of his former company. It was a rather routine conversation, skipping from subject to subject. One of those subjects was an innocent comment wondering why the company waited so long to let the employees know that they were being dismissed early on a day before a holiday. Granted, they realized that they didn’t have to be let out early. It was something that the company decided to grant. They did appreciate that. However, for as long as any of them had been with the company, they had always been let out a couple of hours early on a day before a holiday.
The issue, if you can call it that, came with the announcement of this early dismissal. Sometimes it would come a couple of days before the holiday. Other times it would come a few hours before the dismissal. Leadership always seemed to keep the employees on edge wondering whether they would be leaving early before a national holiday. Again, while it is a gift from the company, people could not plan to take advantage of that time until it was too late.
As it was around the time of a holiday, this topic came up, with Sam wondering why the company seemed so arbitrary in this. His colleague surprised Sam by actually having an answer. It seems, the colleague revealed, that the leadership of the company was dead set against announcing the early dismissals all at once for the year, or even well ahead of time for a very curious reason. That reason? The employees would then be given a new benefit, that of a few extra hours off due to a holiday. The leadership of the company did not want employees to think they were ‘entitled’ to this, decided to make this on a case by case basis, so employees knew it could be taken away at any time. Somehow, that explanation fit the company, but also made him feel a bit like a dog at the table begging for scraps. The leadership was being ‘kind enough’ to give a few extra hours off, and they would never let the employees forget it.
As the memory faded away and tucked itself back into his ‘bad old days’ folder, Sam read over the communication from the department’s administrative assistant. There, listed out, were the early dismissal days before national holidays, from that time until the end of the year. It felt good to be invited to the table instead of begging for scraps.
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.
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.
Adam was ready to go for his Masters. He had been in his job a year and now was ready to take advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement plan and go for an MBA. He had talked to the Benefits Manager, understood that he was eligible, and verified that the school and the degree was on the approved list by his company. His manager was on board with this, and he knew the process to begin his work.
He then hit a wall named Anna.
Anna was his manager’s manager, and a direct report of Sarah. Her approval was not needed for the reimbursement request, but Sarah’s was, and Sarah was likely to speak with Anna about Adam’s paperwork. It wasn’t that Anna was against Adam continuing his education. It was that she wanted him to take her choice of education and not his.
For years, Sarah was interested in having her staff look more professional by getting a certain certification. She had it, so it must be good. She had made this ‘request’ of several of her people, including Sam, and always held out the carrot of promotion within the department when the person received the certificate. Unfortunately, it never happened. So, while Sarah made a big announcement to her colleagues that another one of her people has this prestigious certification, they went nowhere in the department. Kind of one sided, don’t you think? Yet, if someone didn’t get the certificate, or failed the examination, Sarah made sure they went nowhere in the department. Sensing a pattern here, aren’t you?
Anna, being a bit intimidated by Sarah, didn’t want to upset her boss. So, she as kindly as possible suggested to Adam that he go for this certificate as well. Implicit in this ‘suggestion’ was the statement that she would not be approving his MBA request, although it would also be of benefit to her department and to the company in general. It was against every principle of the program, but that didn’t matter in Sarah’s department. It was only what would make Sarah happy, and nice, compliant staff was what made her happy. Anna would not disrupt that peace, and her job, for anything.
What’s more important to you as a leader of people — making them happy, or making your boss happy, or making life easier for you? Sometimes is has to be the second in that list, but more often it should be the first in that list. And, if you do the first in that list, it usually leads to the last in that sequence. If your main focus is making life easier for you over the happiness of your employees is paramount for you, you will succeed at your goal, as your employees will never be happy. However, that probably doesn’t matter to you, as you want a smooth ride for yourself. Courage doesn’t factor into it, only preservation does.
And that is an education in itself.
It had been a good run for Vance, but he decided he just didn’t want to go into Sarah’s department one more time. He was eligible for retirement, had planned his retirement well, and was ready to enjoy the rest of his life. So, when he dropped his papers on her desk, there were no regrets.
This left Sarah in a bit of a spot. One of Vance’s people was out on medical leave, and the others were scheduled for training that could not be moved the first week after he left the company. She asked him if he would postpone his retirement for a few weeks. The answer was no. She asked him if he would come back as a consultant for a few days a week to provide coverage. Why would he, Vance asked, come back with reduced pay and benefits to do the same work he had done as an employee? No, this is when he was retiring that that was it.
You might think Vance was being unreasonably stubborn, but he wasn’t. He had worked for Sarah for approximately 5 years. In those 5 years, he had seen his workload doubled, if not tripled, with Sarah being unmoving on giving his people a break in their work. Sarah had continually demanded more innovation, more programs, and more things that she could report on that ‘she’ had done with the department. It could be honestly said that Sarah based her rise in the ranks on Vance’s team’s work, with the only reward that they received was a continuous demand for more, more, more. He did this without one extra person on the team in all those years, doctor verified high blood pressure, and the stress causing his health did deteriorate. On the times when Vance did try to tell Sarah these things, Sarah would reply, “You’re not overworked. You’re simply not efficient enough. Put some of your work on your people. You need to learn how to delegate better.”
Oh, Vance did get one extra day off about three years ago when his team achieved monumental cost savings for the department, but that was it. So, now it was payback time. Sarah was now in a spot, and it was Vance’s turn to be intransigent, and he was reveling in every moment of it.
Sarah’s reaction to all of this was pure Sarah. Instead of finding ways to cover the gap and wishing Vance well, Sarah decided instead to try to recruit people into an anti-Vance clique. “Doesn’t it make you mad that Vance is leaving you at that time, with all this work to be done?”, she would ask some of his people, trying to make them resentful. To their credit, no one would join Sarah in throwing Vance under the bus. He had treated them as well as he could during his tenure and they would not turn on him simply because he decided to put his own interests first. Sarah was not happy.
How do you treat someone who helped account for your success? Do you look at the whole of their work and thank them for all they have done? Do you put on your pouty face simply because they finally have decided to look after their own best interests, something you have done for your entire tenure at the company? Which is the behavior of a leader? Which is the behavior of a three year old?
There’s a picture of a pouting face at the head of this article. I was going to put in another picture instead, but I didn’t think a picture of ‘big girl panties’ would go over too well.
The air was light with laughter and good talk. It was the first time the work friends had gotten together with Sam after he left the office, and everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself. They talked about old time, old friends, old enemies, and it seemed that no time at all had passed since Sam had said his farewell.
Somewhere during this conversation, Sam asked if anyone had come in to take over his spot, and the spot of Ralph, who had left earlier. That led to yet a new round of conversation and laughter. It seems they were interviewing for Sam’s spot, but for now they had a temporary worker there. They also had a contractor come in to teach some classes.
The contractor was familiar to them all. It was Audra, who had once been with the department, but had left — twice — after claiming she could not juggle both work and home responsibilities. Audra had come back often to the department, mostly due to her status as FOS. For those not in the know, that means Friend of Sarah. Audra and Sarah had developed a fast friendship during Sarah’s early years with the department, and whenever someone was needed to fill in, Sarah suggested Audra get the call. As everyone knew to translate Sarah’s ‘suggestions’ into ‘mandates’, Audra would get the call.
That was a good thing as well, as Audra would not be called by anyone on their own accord, for one simple reason. Audra was a knife thrower, and her primary targets were her co-workers’ backs. There was very little that Audra wasn’t willing to do in order to get what she wanted. She was frequently in Sarah’s office gossiping about the latest tidbit she heard in the department, or hurling a knife in the back of someone who supposedly ‘offended’ her, or was making her do some work she didn’t want to do. Her targets were many and numerous, and she implanted knives with the skill of an assassin.
Someone at the table volunteered that Audra had added a new trick to her portfolio. It seems, before one of the managers came in for the day, Audra would request that her office be opened so Audra could sit there. Why she did this caused the table to toss around some speculations. Was it because she was looking to snoop around for something to run to Sarah about? Was it that she thought herself too good to sit with the rest of the employees? Was she doing something that she didn’t want anyone else to see? The sad thing is that nobody, including the manager, would really know, as they could not ask Audra without her starting to sharpen the latest blade and aim for that person’s back. Heaven forbid they ask Audra not to sit in the office. The extra large knife would be unsheathed for that one.
The conversation at the table drifted to more pleasant things, but there seemed to be some seriousness in one question that a few people asked Sam. Were there any openings at his new place of employment? Sam smiled, and thought that, at least for now, he was able to put away the Kevlar vest, as he didn’t have to worry about anything Audra did anymore.
A job description recently went up for a high level position at a company. It was the the leader of the publishing arm of the company. Since the company had many high profile publications, and were facing fierce competition, they wanted to make sure they hired the right person. With the help of HR, they carefully crafted a job description that would encompass all the aspects of the position and the challenges that they would face going forward.
Who did they want for this position? Let’s look at the requirements for the candidate:
- An advanced degree – PhD preferred
- An advanced degree in a field that many of the customers of the publication had, but had nothing at all to do with publishing
Nobody seemed to tell these people that people usually get PhDs so they can be published, not publish someone else’s content. They also didn’t tell them that it might be helpful to have an advanced degree in, oh I don’t know, a publishing related field.
This reminded me of a few times in my career where I was told I could not move forward because I didn’t have a certain certification. Now, this certification wasn’t mandatory for any position I was applying for. It wouldn’t replace the experience, the knowledge of the organization, or the subject matter knowledge that I had accumulated. Would it have helped? Yes. Was it a deal breaker in terms of being able to do the job? No.
The above two examples, the degree and the certification are nothing more than vanity plates for the department or the organization. They are to be used for bragging rights, not for job performance. They will not help move business forward, get things done, or improve the conditions of anyone. Sadly, the opposite at times happens. The person meets all the vanity qualifications and is horrible at their job. The company or department has focused so hard on getting someone who fills out the vanity that they shortchange whether the person is a good manager, knowledgeable in the field, or has the qualifications that really matter. Everyone suffers then.
Let’s start focusing on what truly matters for an organization:
- Has the knowledge, skills, and background to do the job required
- Has an impressive track record of people management and leadership, showing how they raised the standard for people-focused leadership
- Can make a positive impact on the company and its people
If they happen to have an impressive piece of paper as well, so much the better. However, let’s put the truly important things first instead of the vanity plates.
It was company policy to refresh each employee’s computer every three years. Sarah was no different, so when the call to renew her laptop came to the coordinator for the department, the coordinator approved a new laptop for her. Soon enough, the IT department informed Sarah that they would be stopping by to install her new laptop. That is when this whole thing began.
Sarah had decided she didn’t want the typical renewed laptop. Oh no, that would not do for her. Now, she had not told anyone this, but this is what she wanted. What did she want? Well, she wanted something different. She wanted a laptop made by a company that has a fruit theme. This didn’t bother the IT department, as they had two different types of fruit-themed laptops available for users.
But wait, Sarah said, she didn’t want either of them. She wanted something special. She wanted something that they didn’t regularly stock. After consultation with IT, they came up with the fruit-themed laptop that she would accept. This set the wheels turning for the coordinator for the department to spend a few hours having to fill out the proper forms for a special request, give the justification, and do the research for the price and possible vendor. It then had to go through the Byzantine approval system. Happily, he must have burned the right incense and incanted the right ritual, as the request went through. Sarah was happy.
As part of the request, the coordinator was advised to make sure he ordered all the accessories for the computer at the same time. Again, spending time researching all that Sarah would need, he added in all but one thing. Would Sarah want a new monitor?
Her monitor at present was satisfactory for what she would use the fruit-themed laptop for, but the coordinator knew better. This laptop wasn’t satisfying a huge business need. No, it was satisfying an ego need, which Sarah was the latest victim of, having seen many of her peers succumb. Because of that, he believed soon after the laptop arrived, she would want the same monitor that the other executives had. The coordinator went to the fruit-themed vendor’s website, surfed for monitors, and found the one monitor they sold. It was:
Bringing this to Sarah, the coordinator advised Sarah of her choices and the respective prices. Sarah’s decision? The $999 monitor, which the department would pay for. Despite that the CFO, one of Sarah’s peers, told everyone in the department that it was everyone’s duty to avoid unnecessary expenditures, Sarah authorized the monitor for her…for $999. It would take more incense, more rituals, and more paperwork to push it through. Every time the coordinator would be asked why did someone need such a ridiculously expensive monitor, he would simply say that it was what Sarah wanted. Having dealt with enough executives of the company and their expensive toys, the ordering department put the request through.
Helping the company be fiscally responsible could wait for another day. Sarah needed her monitor that could be viewed by the International Space Station. The coordinator sat back, resumed work on his standard laptop, viewing his standard screen, and got on with his day.
In my last blog, I mentioned that Sam, an employee of the company, decided to resign and take a new job. That blog focused on how his manager’s manager, after denigrating he and his fellow employees’ talents, heaped false praise upon him when learning of his leaving.
Sad to say, that wasn’t the most head shaking thing to happen to Sam during the two weeks he spent at the company after he had resigned. That honor would go to Sarah, who now was the head of the department, but once was Sam’s immediate manager. Sarah and Sam made a good team until they had a disagreement on how to manage an employee who reported to Sam. If you know Sarah, and if you don’t, please feel free to read some of the blogs about her, you know this independent behavior of Sam’s would not go unpunished, and it didn’t. Since then, Sam and Sarah had a professional relationship, but any warmth or friendship between the two were products of a bygone era, at least as far as Sam was concerned.
So, with this in mind, you can understand Sam’s reaction to what Sarah did. During that two weeks, Sarah stopped by Sam’s desk, told him she heard he was leaving, and said the following: “That will leave me as the last of our little group that started here!”
Let that sink in. Not, “I wish you the very best of luck” or “You deserve to be happy” or even “Well, good luck in your future endeavors”. No, her comments were not directed to Sam’s future, but rather to herself. Sam was once again grateful for his training in keeping a neutral expression and placid smile on his face, as he knew the real story behind that comment, namely:
- There were four original employees in Sarah’s small group
- She had fired two of the four people
- Her treatment had driven the third person, Sam, out of the department
It was small wonder that she was the last person standing, as she had made sure that everyone else no longer worked for the company.
As mind numbing that comment was to Sam, he also realized it was a fitting ending to his relationship with Sarah. Nothing was ever or would ever be her fault. Her actions over the years had demonstrated she would practice yoga master movements in order to blame someone else for her own shortcomings. He was sure that there were no mirrors ever in her house, as she never seemed to reflect on her behavior or her actions. This last comment by her was fully representative of the manager and leader he had known during his tenure in the department. It was the person the Maxines of the department had learned to play so very well to their advantage. It was the person that the employees of the department feared more than respected.
Sarah had once last chance to prove that her ascent up the ladder had given her the skills befitting a leader. Sam could confidently leave the company knowing that he had made the right decision, as Sarah had proven that things would never change.
It was a seminal moment for Sam. There was no turning back. He walked into his manager’s office and handed in his resignation. It felt incredibly freeing and the culmination of so many years of effort.
Several hours later, Sam was called into his manager’s manager’s office. The executive wanted to let Sam know what a valued employee he was, if he would consider changing his mind, what a great member of the team he was, and the fantastic quality of his work.
Sam was grateful for the training in maintaining a neutral expression he developed over the past few years. If not, he might have burst out laughing halfway into the conversation.
This was the same executive who had:
- Told him the body of his work was extremely poor, but so was everyone else’s who reported to him
- Ignored all the extra work he had done to keep the department going, and rated him average, affecting his raise and bonus
- Told him he wasn’t qualified for a promotion available in the department
- Told him that, in the executive’s previous position, his peers would have tossed out his work as being inferior
So, now being given such head turning compliments rang more than just a bit false with Sam. It was obvious that the executive was worried about who would do the work that he relied upon for his success, and wanted to keep Sam there and happy. Sadly, it was too late. For Sam, it wasn’t just a letter of resignation, but rather a declaration of independence.
Still, if Sam had any hesitation about leaving, the none-too-convincing performance by the executive erased it completely.
Simply said, if you want your employees to stay, then treat them as if you want them to stay. Don’t expect to rush in at the last minute with sweet words and expect the employee to come rushing back saying, “You had me at hello!”. Work is not a romantic comedy with a happy ending despite all the hardships that took place in the movie. As a manager, however, you should not make it a horror movie, either.
Pretty words don’t change ugly actions. Good managers make sure that they put actions behind the pretty words, so the pretty words are necessary at all.