Mean Gene, The Attitude Survey Machine

It had to happen sooner or later. My former company has decided to take an employee attitude survey! This will be the second one in two years and prompted by yet another massive reorganization. The last survey was the impetus for my post If the Employees are Starving for Information, Let Them Eat Cake Dated 9/27/07 and categorized under Never Fail to Amaze. We’ll see what transpires this go around. I’m sure that my contacts will have some great stories to share.

Attitude surveys always remind me of an old boss of mine named Gene. I reported to Gene at a company that I worked for way back in the Pleistocene Era. If anything good came from my relationship with this character, it was that he provided me with the model by which I measure all bad managers. I have never met anyone quite like him. I will forego all of Gene’s other bad behaviors and distasteful characteristics for the purpose of this narrative and hone in on his apparent paranoia (more on that later in the story) about how he was perceived by upper management. It’s an interesting tale about employee attitude surveys.

Gene was always fixated on the superficial. A middle manager at the time, all of his energies seemed to be focused on “impressing” the executives. Backstabbing, double-crossing, blindsiding and one-upping his peers whenever possible were part and parcel of Gene’s tactics used against other managers to gain a leg up on them. He had a real reputation amongst them as a conniving weasel. But his antics were just not reserved for his perceived rivals; they extended to Gene’s direct reports as well. He was a sneaky and vindictive manipulator. You see Gene was also constantly concerned about anything could prove to be an “embarrassment” in eyes of his superiors. Mistakes or missed deadlines on the part of the staff were treated as capital offenses. Failures to help him “one-up” a peer or impress a superior were viewed as high treason. The good news about Gene was that his nature was extremely transparent to the rank and file. The bad news was that top management seemed oblivious to it. People of Gene’s ilk always act differently around their superiors. In Gene’s case, he portrayed the saccharine toady when with the upper crust. You’d think he was St. Francis of Assisi if you saw him in action around them. He was quite different with the staff.

Gene was the ringmaster of an insane circus. His department was comprised of about a dozen employees. Gene was constantly reprioritizing the workload and sending the staff on wild goose chases to impress the bosses. He’d volunteer or hijack anyone at the drop of vice president’s hat for a special project that might prove to be “a feather in his cap” as he’d put it. Always on the lookout for gossip or “embarrassments” that he could use against other managers, Gene had even developed a network of stooges to sniff out the “dirt” for him. Those that fed him the ammunition would be held up as “heroes” and “loyalists”. But sooner or later (usually sooner), he’d lose interest in them after their usefulness waned. He could turn on an employee in a New York minute. Today’s “pet” could easily become tomorrow’s “pariah”. Because of Gene’s management style, the mood of the department was always cold and distrustful. The staff avoided him like the plague. There was a lot of turnover. Gene had this insatiable need to be respected and revered because of his ability to “impress” his superiors – regardless of his tactics. Anyone who openly voiced any disdain for his behaviors was destined for the career scrap heap.

We worked for a rather paternalistic and enlightened company at the time. Back in those days, companies seemed to be a bit more concerned about how employees perceived the working environment, culture and management. It appeared odd that Gene could continue in his ways unchecked and below the radar screen of the Human Resources Department. We’d have employee attitude surveys every few years but Gene was always prepared. I don’t know how he did it but somehow Gene would always get an advanced copy of the questionnaire. He would then pre-survey the staff seeking out those “anonymous” responses that might prove to be “embarrassing” to him. If he couldn’t sweet talk or cajole an employee out of their convictions, he’d tell them flat out that they were wrong and wrong minded. Forewarned about the survey results, Gene would concoct the most outrageous interpretations of the data from his department in an attempt to nullify or devalue it. Every excuse and explanation from, “they didn’t understand the question,” to “here’s what they really meant to say,” would be thrown on the table.

I recall that after one devastating survey, HR asked some of Gene’s reports to participate in private conferences. Gene was irate when not given the chance to participate and be allowed to “set the record straight”. He paced around for hours while the employees were behind closed doors with HR. Later in the day, he cornered me seeking comfort and support. Gene reported to have overheard that one of the staff had described him as “paranoid”. “Paranoid! ME! Paranoid!” he wailed incredulously. He then laughed and walked away. It was like a scene from the movie The Caine Mutiny. Remember Captain Queeg?

All Gene’s antics and shenanigan’s must have worked. He remained a manager for many years. Oh, they’d buy him books and send him to charm school but nothing ever changed. I found out much later on that Gene was really a known commodity in the HR circles. Top management knew he was a goof but considered him to be harmless. I felt somewhat vindicated after hearing this news. I always knew the guy was a jerk. I didn’t bring me much solace, though, when I thought about the employees he had driven out of the company or whose careers he had wrecked. So much for those memories about attitude surveys!

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4 Responses to “Mean Gene, The Attitude Survey Machine”

  1. Dominic A. Says:

    Wow…I think I worked for Gene’s twin sister. Right down to the bad survey results that prompted a visit from HR…. where she snuck over to another managers cube closer to the conference room in hopes of listening in on the private meeting. She’s gone now (finally got pushed out after over a decade of this kind of nonsense), but wow your post sure brought back a flood of bad memories.

    Not sure you’ll see this since it looks like you haven’t posted in years, but thought i’d post anyway.

    • thecorporatecynic Says:

      You are correct, I haven’t posted in years but I am notified of comments. I’m retired now but could write another book about the last 5 years I worked until I could not take it anymore. I was hired by a private equity group to help restart a company that they purchased out of a bank foreclosure. Of course what they didn’t tell me was that after my hire, they brought on a twenty-five year old wunderkind (with the maturity of a sixteen year old) to be CEO. He had some kind connection to them through family or something. He immediately cut off all of our contact with the group and followed every order – however ridiculous. The place went through some wild ups and downs. The leftover staff was a crazy mob. They were the only ones that understood the legacy “systems”. Wild, loud disagreements and screaming always filled the office. The young whippersnapper could not or would not control it. He would hold meetings and use the word “awesome” incessantly. In one ten minute meeting, he said it at least twenty three times. I lost count.

      But guess what? about four years in he called in a consulting firm to help. Their first order of business was, of course, to conduct an attitude survey. I gave noticed of my retirement shortly after the results were announced. NEVER believe that these surveys are confidential and that the participants cannot be identified. Cheers!

  2. Dominic A. Says:

    I still have 13 years before I can look at the earliest possible retirement…ugh. Now my company has brought in a bunch of Lean consultants. The first thing they said was “Lean is not about cutting jobs but making things more efficient by eliminating waste”. So far, almost every department that has gone through “lean” has cut jobs, and implemented practices that don’t seem to be very efficient. Morale is constantly an issue at the lower levels, and upper level management / executives have grown so distant they might as well work for another company.

    Glad you got out. What are you doing now that you’re retired?

    • thecorporatecynic Says:

      I garden and fish. My wife and I travel. I think about my past work experiences a lot – even dream about them. Based on what you just reported, I’m sorry to see that things haven’t changed. Stay strong. Cheers!

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