The Dysfunctional Company Culture Series Presents: Green Clown Hats, Red Bandanas and White Armbands

I am a true lover of history and have always enjoyed performing my own archaeological studies at the companies where I’ve worked. It’s amazing what is unearthed and sometimes one does not have to dig very far to find a treasure trove of information. The myths, legends, lore and the background stories about the company and its current and former employees are always enlightening. It’s rare that one will ever learn any of this real history during a job interview. Performing such research ahead of time could really give one the true context of the culture that one is considering joining. Unfortunately, by the time one discovers it, it’s often too late.

I’ve learned the hard way that I need more than just a mission statement and a short speech from some vice president to understand a company’s culture. Beneath the veneer of the pleasantries, there are always characters with agendas lurking around. I ‘d like to know who the real players are, who to trust and who not to, who the nobodies are that think they’re somebodies and vice-versa. I believe it’s a smart thing to do. After all, they’re sizing you up as well! Most importantly, I need to know just how goofy the place is going to be because the crazier the culture, the more difficult it is to get things done. It’s hard enough trying to get the normal activities accomplished when you enter a new company’s culture but when you’re up against a dysfunctional one, it’s pure hell.

Having changed jobs a few times over the last fifteen years, I’ve noticed a definite trend toward dysfunctional company cultures. It’s easy to understand why given all of the mergers and acquisitions, consolidations, reorganizations etc. You’ll never hear anything about any of this from those at the top. They are the power team. They only seem to know the other power team members and the “master plan.” They are fixated on some financial and operational metrics and could really care less about what’s going on beneath them unless it affects the bottom line. For some reason, they are wont to communicate with the lower echelons other than in one-way terms of requirements, stock prices, and other corporate gobbledygook. They are so far removed from the day-to-day operations that they may as well work somewhere else.

One of my favorite examples of such a bizarre culture was with a major corporation that had over 40 operating units. For the purpose of this rendering, I’ll use the name NewCorp. This outfit had been created through a series of business combinations. There were three companies that had been merged into the new conglomerate. I hired on with this mob as a mid-level manager. While being interviewed for the “newly created position”, I was fed the corporate line about NewCorp being a new and dynamic combination of these old firms. This was now a huge corporation with all new top management from outside the industry. NewCorp had been financially restructured and was now poised to stabilize and grow aggressively – and fast. The position was advertised as great opportunity with a growing concern. I was not told that the employees at the corporate headquarters were a hodgepodge of new hires and holdovers from the business combinations that had been slammed together during the previous eighteen months. Of course there had been gobs of downsizings, reorganizations, high turnover and you name it during that period. Each of these companies had their own systems, traditions and cultures to boot. There were at least one hundred employees left at corporate headquarters. They were all now instantly “gung ho” NewCorp. At least that’s what I was told by the recruiter and one of the corporate execs.

The story I’m about to relate is based on my own experience. Although abbreviated and slightly embellished, it is meant to give the reader a “taste” of what one can experience as an existing worker or, worse yet, as a new employee that is thrown into such a caldron. Mind you, I was hired in as a manager. The “green clown hats”, “red bandanas” and “white armbands” are merely devices that I have used to represent the myriad of confounding loyalties, traditions, procedures and practices that went on there. Other than the costumes, these incidents really occurred. Believe me, I could not make this up

I was completing my first confusing three days on the job. I had been overwhelmed by all of the new jargon, buzzwords, acronyms, etc. The office seemed frenetic. There was a high degree of activity but I sensed a lot of arguing and frustration. There was no organization chart and the phone directory seemed to change day by day. All I had been able to accomplish during the previous two days was to receive my new employee orientation, meet the two members of my team and get set up for voicemail, Email and the various computer systems. I only saw my new boss once. Friday rolled around and I hit the office early. It was obvious that I had a tremendous learning curve ahead of me.

As employees started to arrive, I noticed something strange. Several of them were wearing green clown hats. What the hell was this all about? I ignored the whole thing thinking that it might be some prank or a special event that I was not aware of. About an hour later, this little gnome from the accounting department was standing in my office doorway. She was in her mid-fifties and obviously a veteran employee. She was wearing a green clown hat.

“Where’s you hat?” she asked in a somewhat shocked and irritated manner.
“What hat?” I responded.
“It’s Friday green hat day!” she shrieked. “Don’t you know?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Charlie Schultz wanted everyone to wear green clown hats on Fridays!”
“Who’s Charlie Schultz?”
I received a stunned look.
“He was the president of Monfort!”
“Monfort?” I asked. I had forgotten in the frenzy that Monfort was one of the three companies that were combined into NewCorp.
“What’s Monfort?” she replied with an incredulous look. “What company do you work for?”
“NewCorp, don’t you?”
“NewCorp is Monfort, Heirgizing and the old Shavepoint LLC!” she screeched. “Which one did you work for?”
“I’m a new hire from the outside.”
I received a stunned look. “And you’re a manager?” she asked. “How can you help us out? We need workers here that understand these systems. There are enough managers around here.”
I was slightly insulted and decided to change the subject.
“What’s that got to do with the green clown hats?”
“Charley insisted. It was his policy…”

At that point, I cut her off. I reiterated that I knew nothing about it. I also mentioned that I believed Charley Schultz had been gone for about two years. The gnome became visibly irritated with me and stormed away shaking her head.

I walked around the offices and noticed that about 25% of the employees were wearing the green clown hats, some very proudly too. Some of the hats were even decorated This was mostly in the accounting department. In purchasing and materials, only about 10% were wearing the hats, but a few folks had them on their desks. In engineering, I saw only or two hats on desks and only one silly looking fellow was wearing one.

I stopped by HR and sat down with the manager who had conducted my orientation to NewCorp two days earlier. “What’s with green clown hats? Did I miss something?” I asked. “Oh, those are the old Monfort people.” She replied, “They used to have this president that insisted on the green clown hats on Fridays.”
“But he’s gone.” I interjected.
“A lot of those folks just don’t get it. Charley Schultz was a schmuck! Look at how he made those people dress up like a bunch of idiots on Fridays!” As she spoke she unfurled a red bandana and tied it around her neck.
“What’s that?” I asked, fearful of the response.
“The Heirgizing Heroes program Red Bandana!” she smiled. I worked for Heirgizing for 18 years. Heirgizing was always the premier company of the bunch. Monfort! Phew! NewCorp just kept them because of the accounting systems. Those accountants can be real pests! Heirgizing had the best customer service and sales force. You’ll see. Heirgizing is the backbone of NewCorp.”

I went back to my office but did notice several red bandanas along the way. I began to wonder if this were some sort of “counter demonstration.” I found a neatly folded green clown hat on my desk with a note to call Gloria who was the accounting director. I became a bit concerned with all of this so I went to seek out Ralph, my superior who I had not seen since my first day on the job. I found him in his office. He was reading some reports but was wearing a white armband. I was afraid to ask about it but did.

“Oh, it’s just a holdover from Shavepoint LLC, “ Ralph lamented. “I worked for them in Los Angeles for ten years before the merger. Shavepoint always had the good product lines. There are still a few of us around who remember the good old days. We belonged to the ‘White Armband Club.’ Anyway, I’m glad you dropped by. I’ve been reviewing some the old Shavepoint product line reports. I really like this format. I’ll need your help putting together reports like this with the NewCorp data for Don our boss. He needs to make a presentation to the NewCorp guys.” Ralph handed me the reports and I agreed to look them over. “It shouldn’t be THAT difficult,” he added.

On my way back to the office, I passed Don, Ralph’s boss, who was grabbing a cup of coffee. He waved as if to beckon me but was otherwise occupied with a bevy of employees wearing green clown hats. They all seemed to complaining about something. I did notice the tip of a green clown hat sticking out of his pant’s pocket. I waved back but kept on going. He looked too busy for socializing.

When I returned to my department to prep the staff about the need for the reporting package, I ran into Shelly who was also a newly hired member of the team. She had preceded me with NewCorp by about two weeks. We had commiserated earlier about the seemingly confusing way that NewCorp did everything. Shelly was a bright individual. She was wearing a green clown hat. I just had to ask.
“Why are you wearing that hat?”
“It’s Friday green hat day. I know it looks silly but that’s the way they want it.”
“They? Who?”
“Them. You know. The powers that be.”
“Who?”
“Gloria in accounting. She really got after me the first week I was here. If you want anything from accounting, it’s Friday green hat day or else! By the way, Gloria has been looking for you. She said something about some 952 reports. She says you know about it.”

We then searched out Frank, the other team member and only veteran employee in my new group. You guessed it! He was wearing a red bandana. Frank looked at Shelly and shook his head in disgust. We sat down went and over the reports that my boss had provided. Frank had never seen these reports but mentioned that they must have been generated from Shavepoint’s old Crolox system. He also mentioned that any new product reports would have to come from Heirgizing’s Ajax system as all NewCorp sales information now resided there. Shelly noted that the information would somehow have to be merged with the accounting data in the Monfort TakeAim accounting system. Shelly was only there two weeks but already knew that this was going to be a major undertaking.

I went back to see Ralph and recounted my findings. “It shouldn’t be THAT difficult to do. We had these reports all the time with Shavepoint,” He remarked. “Get with Brian Jones and he’ll point you in the right direction.” “Who’s that?” I asked. “He’s head of customer service and an old Heirgizing guy. He knows that crazy Ajax system.”

I went to see Brian who was proudly sporting his red bandana. I listened to a twenty minute speech about how his old customer service unit had been gutted by downsizings and how he was now stuck with a bunch of new hires and Shavepoint employees who didn’t know the Ajax system and were just getting by. He looked at the Shavepoint reports from the Crolox system and shook his head. “They could never do anything right. I don’t even know if we have any of this information. It figures that Ralph would come up with something like this. He’s still trying to prove himself after the downfall. You know Don used to work for Ralph at Shavepoint. Don left and joined Monfort. Ralph really badmouthed him for that. Now Ralph reports to Don. Time for a little payback, eh? Anyway, I can’t figure this out. Go see Sue Williams in IT. Maybe she can help.”

I then went to see Sue Williams. Thank God she was not donned in any of the aforementioned accouterments. Sue was also a new hire and looked pretty frazzled. “Listen, I’d like to help but I’m new too. I’ve got three different computer systems to maintain and we’re just getting by. You’ll need to fill out a priority one request. It will have to go the IT overreach committee and be approved by the new Sr. VP. That will take awhile. We have tons of backlogged requests.” I asked where to get the request form. “From the NewCorp all employee website!” she scowled. It was as if somehow I should have already known this. “That’s another problem we have to address. Those NewCorp guys keep piling this stuff on. We’re just keeping our heads above water.”

On my way back to figure out how log into the NewCorp system, Ralph grabbed me and told me that we were commanded to appear before some NewCorp corporate executives. It was now early afternoon as we entered a large conference room over in the “executive suite”. One wall was covered in the NewCorp logo and there were many NewCorp labeled glossies, catalogues and materials displayed everywhere. I felt much more comfortable now. This was NewCorp. NewCorp had hired me. I could finally identify with something. Unfortunately, my comfort level would soon evaporate.

Two NewCorp executives entered the room with Don, Ralph’s superior. They were laughing and carrying on about some sports event that had occurred the night before. I noticed that Ralph’s white armband was gone and I could no longer see the tip of the green clown hat in Don’s pocket. There were some quick introductions and then one of the NewCorp Exec’s took over.

“As you all know, we have a NewCorp investors’ meeting on Monday morning and we want to show them some product line reports.” he began, “Don here says that Ralph has some good report formats.”

Don and Ralph smiled at each other. Ralph handed Don the old Shavepoint reports and then dropped an atomic bomb by adding, “And here’s the guy who’ll put it all together for us!” There was a deafening silence as everyone stared at me.

It seemed like an eternity but I finally composed myself after the shock and spoke. “I’m afraid you me have at a disadvantage. I’ve just seen these reports this morning. The staff tells me that getting all of this information together will be a major undertaking. There seems to be a lot of different systems involved here and…” I was cutoff by Ralph. “Didn’t you get with Brian Jones?” he asked in a seemingly incredulous manner.

“Yes, he told me that the information might not even be in the Ajax system. He sent me to Sue Williams in IT. She mentioned that she was swamped and…” I was now cutoff by one of the NewCorp Execs. “IT issues? Hold on, I’ll call John Fisk our Sr. VP of Corporate IT. He’s an old friend of mine from my former company. We brought John on last month. He works out of his ranch in New Mexico. Pretty cool, eh?” The exec pulled out a cell phone and dialed a speed number and then stepped away. A few moments later, he was back and slightly irritated. “John says there aren’t any IT issues. He said to get with Sally Wilson.” “Do you mean Sue Williams?” asked Don. “Isn’t that what I said?” was the reply from the exec. “There you have it,” snapped the other NewCorp exec, “Problem solved.”.

I managed to blurt out a few more words on the subject, “There are also interfaces with the accounting system that….” Don now cut me off. “Get with Gloria in accounting; she knows how the Monfort Take Aim system works. It should be piece a cake for her. She’s been around forever.” Meeting adjourned.

Don and the NewCorp Execs continued their conversation about the sports event. As we left the room, one of the NewCorp Execs looked over at us and mumbled, “Go team.”

Ralph and I walked back together but we were both silent and for distinctly different reasons. As he slipped his white armband back on, Ralph broke the silence. “Couldn’t you get Brian to help you? He ought to know how to do this.” I related my discussion with Brian Jones leaving out all of the tidbits about Ralph’s relationship with Don. “Why don’t you get back with Brian? The two of you should be able to come up a solution. I shouldn’t be THAT difficult. We need these reports.” By now, my frustration level had reached eruption. “Ralph, I’ve already talked to him. Brian and I are at the same organization level. I can’t force him to do anything. Besides, I wouldn’t even know what to ask him to do. He’s the expert here. Does he have a superior we can talk to?” Ralph was silent for a moment. “Brian reports to Ed Maxim. He’s an old Shavepoint guy. Ed works out of the Connecticut office. Here, I’ll give you his phone number. Get with him and work something out.” I could see that this was going nowhere. I could also see that Ralph was in a hurry to go home.

I went back to my office and tried to call Ed Maxim. I got voicemail indicating that he was out of town. I left a message and then tried to reach someone else in the Connecticut office. It was Friday afternoon EST and everyone was gone. It was some kind of old Shavepoint tradition to close the office early on Fridays.

I returned to Brian Jones’ department. Brian was holding a staff meeting. I interrupted the meeting and received a very sharp rebuke from Brian. “Listen, I told you to get with Sue Williams. I’m trying to straighten out a major issue with some customer related problems here.” I could see that this was going nowhere either

By now, it was 3:30 and I was getting frantic. It was back to IT. I was informed that Sue Williams had left for the day due to a family emergency. I asked someone for her cell phone number. It was grudgingly handed over by an IT analyst who also gave me one of those “You’ll be sorry!” looks. Voicemail, voicemail, voicemail. I left three messages.

I got Frank and Shelly back together to try and figure a way to prepare the reports on our own and from scratch. It was now 4:00 on Friday and they were both nearly as irritated as I was. Frank had mentioned that he might be able to get the raw data from other reports but it would take hours to sort through it all. Shelly said that she might be able to mock up some formats in Excel but that we’d need the accounting data from the TakeAim accounting system and she did not know how to access it. They both looked at me for direction. I apologized and set them to work. It was now off to the accounting department and Gloria.

It was now 5PM and Gloria was tidying up her office. Gloria was a zealot in more ways than one. A neat crisp green clown hat adorned her head. “It’s about time. I left you a note this morning. Did you find your hat?” she chirped. “Your department is behind in providing us with the 952 reports. I’ll need them on Monday.” I was taken aback by this request. “What are 952 reports?” I asked.

“The 952’s!” she blurted in an extremely irritated manner. “Didn’t Don tell you about the 952’s? Your department owes me 18 month’s worth! I need them on Monday. I told Shelly to tell you.”

“Wait a minute,” I countered, “Don never talked to me about any 952 reports. Besides I report to Ralph. He never mentioned them either. How can we be 18 months behind?”

“Oh, you report to Ralph. I wouldn’t expect him to know. Ralph’s a Shavepoint guy. These are Monfort reporting requirements. Don knows. He’s Monfort. Your predecessor .did these reports and we need them.”
“My predecessor?”
“You know. Rex Cohn.”
“I never heard of him. I was told that I was hired for a new position with NewCorp,”
“Rex Cohn headed up a group that did something similar to yours. He was cut from Monfort when NewCorp took over. His group always did the 952’s. I talked to Don about these months ago and he promised that once your group was in place, you’d provide those 952’s.”
“I don’t understand. How did you get by for the last 18 months?”
“We estimated them and it’s caused a lot of extra work here. I’ve lost half my people and we’re barely getting by as it is. It’s enough just keeping with the merger and that Heirgizing and Shavepoint bunch.”
“I’m sorry but I….”
“Didn’t you read the policies and procedures manual?” Gloria pointed to a four-inch thick bound document on her desk. “It’s in section 14A sub B. Here take my copy and read it over the weekend.”

After all of that, I had to broach the subject of the accounting information that Shelly said we would need to prepare the product line reports. This really set Gloria off on a tangent. The upshot of it all resulted in her pointing to a huge set of report binders in a bookcase. She insisted that they be returned in pristine condition after use and reminding me again about the 952 reports.

We worked all weekend on the project. Late Sunday afternoon, my office phone rang. It was Sue Williams. She chewed me out for getting her in trouble with her boss. Come Monday morning, I turned in what we had to Ralph. He wasn’t happy with the results. “I just can’t believe that it could be THAT difficult to whip up a few reports,” was his only response. Don got involved and made a variety of snide comments to Ralph about the performance of his group (meaning my team). He also mentioned that Gloria had complained to him that very morning about the 952 reports. I found out later that Don had told Ralph about the 952’s but that Ralph had forgotten to tell me. Ed Maxim from the Connecticut office left me a message later that day. He asked just who in the hell I was and told me to get with Brian Jones if I needed anything.

This confusing and counterproductive activity seemed never ending. Now there was a new twist. Word spread like wild fire that I was on the property. I was somehow viewed by other managers as if I were a veteran Monfort, Shavepoint and Heirgizing employee who intimately understood the inner workings of each of the three companies despite the fact that I was only recently hired by NewCorp. I was seen as an expert who could solve everyone’s problems and was bombarded with pent up requests from other departments for information and detailed reports. I was the new hand in a short-handed organization and it was becoming evident that my so-called “newly created position” had actually replaced several others that had been eliminated during the many reorganizations.

I attempted to become a psychic in order read everyone’s mind and considered seeking out a witchdoctor or shaman who might help me divine all of the duties, systems and people that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. The NewCorp execs seemed to think that I was an expert in each of the old companies’ systems, knew exactly what they were looking for and could deliver at the drop of a hat. There was virtually no IT support. Shelly tried to help but was also new. It was like the blind leading the blind. Frank went on extended medical leave and I was somehow expected to perform all of his tasks while he was away. After all, Frank reported to me and no one else was left in the company that knew how to perform his function. Ralph was absolutely no help. He had never been involved with any of the systems or the actual work. Regardless of his lack of hands-on experience, Ralph maintained that nothing could be THAT difficult. His answer to every question was to “get with” this or that person. Even when I could do so, those other managers were too busy with their own issues to help out. Gloria kept pestering me for more and more reports that Rex Cohn had once prepared. Don was always disappointed. His penchant for snide comments was amazing. For the next twelve or so Friday’s, I kept a green clown hat, red bandana and white armband in my desk drawer, donning and doffing each depending on to whom I was speaking or from whom I needed something. Just like the other workgroups in the corporate office, mine was just getting by. It was a nightmare.

Three month’s later during a rather heated conversation with Ralph about another cross-departmental debacle, I blurted out the following, “If I only knew three months ago what I know now….” Ralph cut me off and finished my sentence. “…You never would have accepted the job offer!” He then shocked me with his follow up statement. “I wouldn’t have blamed you.” Lesson learned. Exit stage left.

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