Why Companies Lose Good People

Do you know one reason why some companies get sued?  Because they have ham-handed,  immature managers who lord their power over their
employees.

I had a long conversation with my 25-year old niece last night.  She called me from Colorado because she was so angry, so frustrated and so hurt by what her manager was doing to her that she was at her wit’s end.  By the time I finished hearing her story, I wanted to get on a plane and go have a little chat with the person who carries the title but not the expected behavior of a manager. (The little chat I was envisioning included me grabbing his tie and very clearly expressing my POV…I guess that’s the topic of another blog – “Why Angry Aunts Go to Jail.”)

So, you might be wondering, what makes up ham-handed behavior?  I’m so glad you asked…

  • Berating my niece for calling in sick (her second day of sick time in two years), asking if she was sick or hungover, and then telling people in the office that she wouldn’t be there because she had too much to drink – ha, ha, isn’t that hilarious?
  • On the last day of the month, increasing her sales goal by more than 10 percent with no warning, thereby ensuring she would fall short
  • Text messaging her at 2 am to tell her that he would be in the office late that day
  • Hiring two men three months after my niece and giving them much lower sales goals but bigger territories
  • Going into her voicemail system and changing her away message (for a one-day offsite) because he didn’t like how it sounded
  • Asking her where she went when she steps out of the office, despite the fact that she’s the top producer there, an exempt employee and puts in well over the required hours
  • When asking for feedback on what she could do better, gives little constructive direction

Shall I go on?

She went to HR to complain and they have set up a meeting to talk with her and the other female sales reps – the meeting is scheduled for six
weeks from now.  Wow, what an amazing response.  Not.

So I advised her it was time to go to see the employee relations folks, and to bring her documentation of day-to-day harassment with her.  I told her to remember three golden words: “Hostile” “Work” “Environment”.  Because that’s exactly what she’s dealing with.

My niece works for a big company.  She happens to be in a small branch but you would think that this big company, which has a fine reputation, would be paying a little more attention.  Not that we’re perfect here at Sun, but every manager must go through a sexual discrimination class on a regular basis – it’s a two-part class, and it’s excellent.  We also put many of our managers through Fiduciary Bootcamp.  And we give training on employment law.

We do these things for a couple of reasons. Integrity is one of our values, and we want to make sure that all managers understand the right way to treat people – fairly, and with respect. And, let’s face it, to avoid being sued.

Now in fairness, I don’t know the company’s perspective.  And I’m a biased relative.  But I do know that this is how my niece views the world, and her employer has not been all that helpful in addressing her concerns in a timely manner.  So she feels forced to escalate. And that, my friends, is a huge waste of time and productivity on everyone’s part, because instead of selling, she’s documenting her complaints and meeting with HR.

Foolish, foolish, foolish.  Everyone will lose here, and what a shame that is.

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“Everything Always Gets Worse”

Scott went to medical school at the University of Minnesota, and one of his professors was Dr. John Brantner. A professor of psychiatry, John was an ethicist, a humanist, and a realist, although some would prefer to call him a cynic.  One of Scott’s favorite “Brantnerisms” was John’s statement that “everything always gets worse.” ( John had earned his right to opinions through years of working with the poor and the disenfranchised.)

Is everything getting worse?  it surely feels that way sometimes.  The earthquake in China, the disaster in Myanmar have marred this spring with tragedy.  The cost of food becoming unaffordable for too many.   The cost of gas hurting consumers and businesses. The downturn in the economy stealing jobs and
security. And the recording-breaking May heat in California.

No, that’s not a disaster – yet.  But the mountains that I look at from my family room windows are already turning brown, and fire season has made an early appearance. We’ve begun cutting way back on water usage, with rationing just around the corner.  Once the wind starts to blow, I start to freak out,
frantically figuring out what I would save should we need to evacuate when the wild fires come calling.

And if you think we have it bad, remember this – it sucks to be a polar bear today.

Does everything always get worse?  Maybe, but sometimes there are unexpected blessings that come with it.  My personal favorite “Brantnerism”
was his story about a woman he met in his travels.  John heard her speak, and then had the opportunity to work with her.  He was overwhelmed by her wisdom, tolerance and kindness.  “What,” John asked her, in classic Brantner style, “made you the person you are today?”  She took a deep breath and told him a horrible story about concentration camps, near starvation, her move to the U.S., marriage and children, followed by the loss of her sons in a tragic accident.  As she went through her list of travails, John was quiet.  Finally, she paused, smiled, and said to John, “And that, my friend, is what made me
the person I am today.”

We should all be so strong as to find endurance and wisdom through adversity.  I like to think that one day, in the not too distant future, Sun will be featured as the comeback story of the decade.  When asked what made us the company we have become, we will pause, smile, and tell our story of persistence, hard choices and strong values triumphing over adversity.

“Question Authority, If You Dare”

I’ve been an avid reader of the Los Angeles Times since moving to Southern California in 1976.  It was a consistently terrific newspaper but has suffered under new ownership and market realities over the past few years, which is a real loss for the community. Now a member of the Tribune Company, I see its future as even more fragile.

Consider Molly Selvin’s article in this morning’s edition: Challenge Authority, if You Dare… It’s a story that answers the question, “Why doesn’t anyone ever ask executives any questions around here?”

The tale starts with a new employee handbook the Tribune put out.  The handbook got rid of the old boilerplate, turgid, stiff language and replaced it with clear, crisp  and frank directives.  Quoting the Los Angeles Times quoting the handbook: “Ask your manager, supervisor, business unit head or anyone in Corporate any question you have regarding the business.  Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer.  You will earn respect and not get
into trouble for asking tough questions.”

All right! You go, Tribune!  Music to this communicator’s ears.  Alas, the story does not end there.  Sam Zell, the Tribune’s new chairman, attended a staff meeting in Orlando, where he was asked a question he didn’t much like by an Orlando Sentinel photographer.  His response was sarcastic and unpleasant. (And don’t even get me started on the content of his response, which was pretty appalling.)  He completed his response by turning his head and muttering a two-word obscenity at the staff member.  One can only imagine…

Oh, wait!  There’s no need to imagine.  Someone videotaped the meeting and now that infamous moment has made its way to YouTube and The Gawker,
where all of us can enjoy it.

Putting lipstick on a pig does not make the pig beautiful. Writing nice platitudes in your employee handbook does not transform a culture.  Please don’t mislead employees about your true nature.  It’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out.  Be genuine.  Be authentic.  Be yourself.  It’s OK – we’re all adults and we can deal with the truth.  What is hard to swallow and creates cynicism and disengagement is hypocrisy. If Mr. Zell didn’t agree with the policies in the handbook, then he should have spoken up.  And if the communications department published that new handbook without getting executive buy-in, well, shame on them.

Gee, why doesn’t anyone ask any questions?  Maybe because the answer is a slap in the face.  Communicators beware….

Dumpster diving and other employee communication nightmares

OK.  So I live in a cave and rarely get out.  That’s the only explanation I have for completely missing this story:


Dumpster Diving For Laid-Off Workers? Northwest Airlines offers offensive “101 Ways To Save Money” tips

As columnist Dave Barry would say, I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP!

Included in the RIF materials for employees in Montana, North Dakota and Texas, this booklet provides thoughtful tips, such as my own personal favorite:

“Don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.”

That’s right, rub your eyes.  It does indeed say, “don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash!”

Now in all fairness, there are some tips in there that are worth considering, from refinancing your home to cutting back on credit cards, that are helpful to anyone struggling on a budget. But if a company’s culture is reflected in its communication practices (something I’m a strong believer in), what does a booklet that recommends dumpster diving say about a company and how it relates to its employees?

I have only the deepest sympathy for companies and their employees going through painful reductions in cost and workforce.  No one feels that pain like Sun employees – and former employees – do.   But talk about leaving RIF’d employees with little hope for a new job or a positive future.  This communications suggests that the only new opportunities that lie ahead are about as cheerful as those found in a Charles Dickens book – think  Oliver Twist….

Sigh.  Good intentions.  Even good information. Bad idea. And terrible advice from a consultant who recommended this course of action to the airlines.

I pray daily at the altar of kindly communication gods and goddesses to keep me from making a similar error.

On bunny slippers, housedresses and managers

Manager.  Depending on where you fall in the food chain and depending on the qualities and talents of your manager, calling someone a manager is either the highest compliment or the biggest curse you can give.

Good:  “My manager helped me think through a tough problem today and gave me some new ways to look at things.”

Not so good:  “My manager just gets in the way/is an idiot/serves no purpose/etc.”

Scott Adams made his perspective clear with the pointy haired boss from Dilbert.

Now here’s another loaded term.  Human Resources.  Or, if you prefer, HR.

Good:  “I got my offer letter from HR today!”

Not so good:  “I got called down to HR today to talk about my behavior at the holiday party last week.”

(Meet Catbert for Scott Adam’s take on this area of corporate life.)

As it turns out, I am doubly blessed – or cursed, depending on your perspective – with belonging to both of these beleagured categories.  (And I do want it on the record that while I’m a female working in HR, that does NOT mean I always come to work in a housedress and bunny slippers with my hair in a tight topknot.  Just sometimes.  When I feel like treating myself.  Also, every one of my staff meetings is not only informative and meaningful, but a complete delight.  Or so my staff tells me during the weeks preceding focal…)

It’s too easy to categorize people and functions.  And sometimes with the categorization comes dismissal.  “Oh, you’re HR  o of course you would think that.”  “Oh, you’re a manager so of course you would take the company’s side.”

Let’s not get caught up in that.  We’re a team, and we win or lose as a team.  In my previous blog, I thanked the people managers who had to have
those tough discussions with employees yesterday, letting them know their fates.

But I also want to say a special thank you to my colleagues in Human Resources.  For all the behind the scenes work during the past months and all the upfront business partner work that is far more visible to employees.  Thank you for supporting the company during this time, and for the help you offered to make it a little easier to get through this part of the RIF.

Are there pointy haired bosses here?  Catberts hiding behind cubicles?  Oh heck, yes.  (I may be in HR but I’m not blind.) We’re a company of well over 30,000 people, and we could find our share of those as well as Dogberts, Dilberts, Ratberts and the rest. So let’s honor those who help us, not hinder us.

HR?  Managers?  You bet.  But more important, leaders.  And that’s a resource we cannot get enough of…