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.


The Balanced Budget Strategem


The conversation was light and joyful.  One time co-workers who had not seen each other in some time happy conversed about old times, old jokes, and some people they had in common.   Wayne, the organizer of the event, looked over the sea of faces at the table and smiled.  This was just what he needed.

He told a few people at the table his reason for this get together was because, when he walked down the halls of their once common workplace, he didn’t recognize anyone anymore.  There were so many new faces at the workplace that he felt a bit alone.  It was jarring for him, as the workplace had always been known as the place where people never wanted to leave.  Now, it seemed, people were beating a path for the doors.  Why were all his old co-workers leaving so rapidly?

“I have a few thoughts on that”, Mitch said.  With that, several heads turned.  Mitch had been content enough just listening to others during the gathering, making the occasional reply or comment, but generally keeping to himself.  So, when he made that pronouncement, people tended to listen.  They urged him to go on.

“Now, before I say anything, all this is speculation.  The facts I have fit the scenario, and the suppositions I make aren’t outrageous, as I think you will agree.  We all have to understand this before I go on.”, he said.  More heads turned.

Mitch started. “You recall when the CFO began making the same speech to whomever would listen?”  A few heads nodded, which Mitch expected.  The CFO was not the most dynamic speaker, so even if he was invited to speak at a gathering, he didn’t rivet the audience’s attention to him.  For those who didn’t remember, Mitch summed up what the CFO of the company had said.  Simply put, the company was spending more money than it was taking in.

This fact in itself didn’t surprise many people.  They knew from their days at the company that almost every major project had cost overruns, simply because the stakeholders had to have their ideas incorporated into it, and the executives in charge of the projects didn’t have the fortitude to tell them ‘no’.  It was easier to go along with the stakeholders and worry about where the money would come later.  Add in the vanity projects that each of the executives needed to have to highlight themselves, and you had a mess of a financial situation.

What Mitch followed this up with was more of a surprise.  He had found out from a reputable source, verified by an executive of the company, that the CFO, seeing nobody really listening to his plea to save money, had imposed a 1% cap on departmental budget increase requests.  This posed a problem.

The biggest part of any budget is the staff of the department.  Those staff will expect raises.  In a poor economy, you can defer those raises as many will not leave simply to have a job.  In a good economy, they would leave in droves to the competition.  Since the company was not known for its generous salaries in the first place, this could really be an issue.  How could you give raises of 2% to 3% when you could only have an increase of 1%?  Nobody wanted to lay off any staff, as they had fought too hard to grow the department and their influence.

Mitch let this settle with the group for a minute while preparing the next piece of evidence.

“How many of you who have left the company were there more than 5 years?”  Several hands raised. “10?”  Several hands raised.  “15 or more?” Several hands raised.  “How many of you know employees there who have been at the company as long, or longer than you?”  Many hands raised. “Are they the majority of those people you knew at the company?”  Many nodded.

He continued. “The company we worked at and some of you still work at”, he said with a nod to Wayne, “used to boast that it had a long tenured workforce.  It was a recruiting tool.  ‘Look how happy our people are…they never leave!'”  Nobody contradicted him.

“Now, the longer you are with the company…”, Mitch started, and Wayne finished for him. “…the higher your salary is.”  Mitch smiled at the flicker of awareness that was dawning upon the faces of those assembled.  To those whose face still registered, ‘I don’t get it’, Mitch continued.

“You don’t want to get the reputation or the lawsuits that mass firing will do.  You need to keep your budget increase at 1%.  You are in self-preservation mode.  What do you do?”  Mitch paused.

Several people jumbled together an answer, “You target the longer term employees.  Some you fire.  Some you make their lives so miserable that they quit.  You then bring in younger employees or people who will work for less money, and your budget problems are solved.  The work gets done and, aside from a possible flicker of conscience of the executive of the department, the fallout is minimal.”

“Fits what you have heard from others who have left the company, doesn’t it?”, asked Mitch.  Each person at that table had a story of them personally being harassed by their superiors or knowing of those who were harassed until they no longer could stand it and left the company.

“The defense rests”, said Mitch, to laughter. Wayne was a bit shaken up by this, but quickly recovered, at least for the sake of the gathering.  He would worry about Mitch’s suppositions and what it might mean for him later.  For now, it was time for friends.

He raised his glass.  “To friends, no matter where they are, or how they got there”.

Whose Education is it Anyway?


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.

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.

A Little Throwing Around Money

Man Throwing Money Around

It looks like Maxine and Sarah may have some competition.

Fred was enjoying this. The second party in his honor in as many days was being held, and he was enjoying it.  After all, hadn’t he been at the company for 20 years, only deciding to move on because he found a better position for himself?  Twenty years should mean something, even if it was a tiny bit on the extravagant side.

While it was true that Fred was at the company for 20 years in a high ranking position, it was also known that he wasn’t exactly a ball of fire.  Always there with a smile and a story, he had been at the company long enough to know just how much work he had to do in order to keep his high paying job and nothing more.  He was a master at it.

That’s why it was a surprise when he announced that he was taking another leadership position with another company and would be leaving his present job.  Most thought he would be at the company for life.  Still, he made the announcement and soon enough the goodbye party was being arranged by his administrative assistant.

This would not be a cake in the cafeteria, however.  Oh no, not for Fred.  He deserved better than that, and if you doubted it, just ask him.  A party was planned for him in the company’s largest meeting room.  Tables were set up, tablecloths rented, party favors purchased, and the catering company duly told that money was no object.  It is told that even cookies with his likeness were baked and distributed to all who attended.  Anyone else could do with cake and punch.  For Fred, the corporate wallet was opened and the credit card grew hot with all the spending that went into this little shindig.

If that were the end of the story, it would have made an interesting sidelight, but that is about it.  No, what made this worthy for inclusion into this blog was what happened the day after the party.  What happened, you ask?  Another party for Fred, and if the corporate credit card grew hot with the first party, it was positively molten when finished with the second one.

This second party was held at a private restaurant, and included a four course meal for all who were invited.  Along with the meal, there were videos of Fred, games, tributes, and even a mock roast.  How could they fit this all in?  Easy, the ‘meal’ went on for four hours.  People were leaving even before the dessert course because they simply had to get back to work to attend meetings, get projects accomplished, or simply have work be done.  None of this seemed to phase Fred, who was enjoying all the tributes, though he was reportedly not happy with the mild jabs being given to him at the roast.

This blog is not condemning that some people in a business unit. or even in the whole business, had some fun.  It is an essential part of the work environment to blow off some steam, have a few laughs, and release the tension that will inevitably build up.  Have some fun!

Why then write about it?  In the past few years, the company has been given marching orders to save money and to bring in new sources of revenue.  Within Fred’s own department, one of his direct reports constantly refers to the ROI of their work.  There is the incessant drumbeat of getting new customers, getting the existing customers to buy more, and to continue to grow sales.  People are working longer, harder, and signs of burnout and discontent are growing.

In the middle of this pressure to save and gain as much money as possible, what is done?  Not one but two parties are held for someone who didn’t exactly typify the new work ethic in the company.  These parties each cost thousands of dollars each to stage.  Countless hours of productivity time were lost with the filming of the videos, writing the speeches, singing the songs.  Thousands more were spent on cute signs that people will throw out and custom cookies that won’t last a week.  All because smiling Fred took a new job.  Worse yet, nobody seemed to care what kind of message this sent to the staff.  That was also typical of the new vision and leadership of the company.

In more ways than one, their behavior took the (retirement) cake.

An All Too Reflective Mirror

Snow White Queen Mirror

It was time for Sarah’s once a month, one hour, direct reports meeting.  Let me repeat that.  Sarah had a formal meeting with her direct reports, all four of them, once a month, and scheduled one hour for it.  They would have to fit all agenda items, all action items, all the things they would need the other managers to know or take action on, in one hour.  Sarah saw nothing wrong with this, as it was her time that was the most valuable.

Needless to say, the meetings were usually chaos, as Sarah didn’t practice good meeting management.  Though they were pressed for time, the managers would bring up extraneous things, dive into tangential issues, or have conversations that would be best suited offline, but somehow got into Sarah’s meeting.  Sarah herself was as guilty as her subordinates, asking questions that she knew would take time from the managers’ precious presentation time, and then complaining that the meeting was going too long.

So, when it was time for Celeste, the last of the managers to present, she had all of 3 minutes to do so, as the hour was almost up.  Condensing what she could, she began outlining her points to the team. When the clock struck the hour, two of her fellow colleagues excused themselves, indicated they had another meeting to go to, got up, and left.   Seeing it was only one other manager and Celeste, Sarah called the meeting to be over and dismissed the remaining participants.  Celeste sat there momentarily, her jaw agape at the treatment from both her peers and from her manager.

There were several messages communicated in this scenario, all of them simultaneously not spoken at all, but loud as a shouting match.  Here they are, in no particular order.

From Sarah —

My time is much too important to meet with my staff.  I am granting you one hour for the four of you once a month and you should be grateful.

I am much too important to be concerned with the running of this department.  I have to be its leader, and leaders don’t get involved in problems.  My staff is to do this, and they should be able to do it without having to come to me for anything.  Don’t you know who I am?

Though I tell others how to have a efficient and effective meeting, I don’t practice this myself.  I will not recognize that I have given a scant 15 minutes to each of my direct reports to wrap up a month’s work of items they feel are important enough to share with me, and will not shut down non-productive conversations or questions, especially from people I like.  If that means someone like Celeste gets only three minutes, that is too bad.

From the Other Managers —

My work is paramount, not the fact that I need to support my fellow managers.  So, when the conversation isn’t about me, I feel it is perfectly professional to get up and leave in the middle of someone else’s conversation.  After all, I must keep to my meeting schedule.  Plus, it gives me a perfect excuse to get out of this staff meeting.

It is all about me, first, last, and always.

This is the same leader, and these are the same managers who will sit silently and wonder why the department, the people they manage, act the way they do.  They will wonder why all the employees are out for themselves, bolt out the door at the appointed hour, do not want to volunteer for anything, and hold on to their knowledge as if it were spun gold.  These same employees will interrupt each others in meetings, hold side conversations, and check their devices instead of listening to the speaker.  They will wonder why their employees aren’t interested in improving the conditions of the department.

I could give reference after reference to management theorists on where the issues are as presented in this blog, but I think I shall go with someone a bit more unconventional.  To begin to understand where the problems in the department are, all Sarah and the managers have to do is follow Michael Jackson’s invitation to look ‘at the man in the mirror’.

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 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 Pink Tie Matter

In The Crowning Glory, we discussed the concept of employee privacy and how one leader in a department decided to approve an idea of discarding employee privacy for a few laughs.  The prize for the ‘best’ story would be a crown.  This particular choice of prize brought up another interesting issue, one that had been around under this leader for years.

It was a department of around 20 people.  Of those 20 people, 16 were female, 4 were male.  Of those 4 men, only 2 of them were permanent employees — Vernon and Mitch.  The other two males, a temp and an intern, would soon be gone.  Vernon and Mitch were used to this.  Mitch had been the last male hired in the department, and all subsequent hires had been female, with all but one of the hiring managers being female.  They never saw anything wrong with this, though Vernon and Mitch shared the thought that, if males had tried this, there would have been many complaints of sexism in the hiring process.

Over the years, the unit leader had often mocked Mitch and Vernon, making uncomfortable comments about them, passing it off as a joke.  This particular situation was typical of most.  At the beginning of the meeting, the unit leader, Serena, decided she had to make a comment about the pink tie that Vernon was wearing.  She mentioned that how ‘unVernon’ it was and how it was probably his wife that had picked it out.  She had commented many times regarding the clothes that Vernon especially had worn, but nothing ever mentioned about the dress of any of the female employees.  All the females laughed at this.

Later on, when the crown had been decided as the prize for the ‘best’ story, Vernon and Mitch looked at each other.  Serena, having seen this, asked inquisitively, was there a problem with this?  As usual, Mitch and Vernon said nothing, knowing it would not change anything in Serena’s mind, save for branding Vernon and Mitch as never wanting to have any fun.

Later on, walking back from the meeting, another female manager said with a smile, “I look forward to seeing the crown on one of your heads!”  Vernon and Mitch smiled, with Mitch making a comment to Vernon that the female manager could go do something anatomically impossible.

Years ago, I worked in a building that was very old.  So old, as a matter of fact, that they only had men’s rooms on each floor, as women were not expected to be in the workforce.  It was a very pointed reminder of how the workforce has changed, and changed for the better.  Diverse views and different perspectives help enrich the workforce experience, allowing new ideas to flourish.

Yes, many things have changed, but one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed, at least with some managers, is inappropriate behavior towards the opposite sex.  Years ago, it was women’s complaints against their male bosses.  Today it still is true that some male bosses act in inappropriate fashion, with the mayor of San Diego is a prime example.  However, we can now add in women bosses and their inappropriate comments and actions towards their male employees.  No matter the sex, it is laughed off and dismissed by the superior.  What makes it ironic is that women fought so long to be treated as equals, and now a minority of them are acting the way their foremothers fought so hard to correct.

No matter which side of the gender divide they happen to fall on, a good manager knows what to say and what not to say.  Yes, there are cases where something they may utter is misconstrued or should not have been said.  At those points, a good manager knows when to own up to those comments and apologize.   By repeatedly singling out someone of the opposite sex, and a minority in the department as well, managers open themselves up to disrespect, accusations, and possibly even lawsuits.  Sensitivity training is not a male or female issue, it is a manager and employee issue.  Stories like the one related show that it is still in sore need today.

Let’s elevate the workplace humor to more mundane topics and get it out of the clique mentality.  Male or female, it is simply good business.