Archive for May, 2008

A Post Memorial Day Rerun of My Rant about “Volunteering” in the Workplace

May 28, 2008

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I would reprint a post originally published on February 12, 2008. Hope you enjoy!

“Never Volunteer!” Words of Wisdom from a real Veteran

Eddie Thompson came to my office last Thursday about 5PM. Eddie’s a manager in charge of small accounting group that seems to be getting smaller and smaller. He was really frazzled and upset. I believe that Eddie was more upset with himself than anything else. You see Eddie had committed the latest blunder in modern corporate America. He had “volunteered” and would now pay the price. Eddie had allowed the “powers” to get their foot in the crack of the door. Before Eddie even realized what had happened, the door had blown wide open. Eddie’s heart was in the right place. He just wanted to help out a fellow manager whose staff was cut. Eddie got sucked in by the pleas of his boss and now he was stuck. Eddie and his team would have to take on a myriad of additional tasks. Additional resources? None except one – their time. Eddie had to explain to his department that they now had to start coming in on weekends to get everything done. Of course Eddie and his team are conveniently exempt from overtime pay.

I’m seeing it more and more. Jonesy’s a sharp financial analyst. She volunteered to “help out” and just run some preliminary numbers for a new acquisition. The financial analyst who worked for the acquired company had just resigned. They told Jonesy that it was nothing special and just a broad-brush look at the bottom line, “It shouldn’t take that long and it’s just an overview. C’mon Jonesy! We know you’re busy but just this once.” So Jonesy put her other work on hold and ran some prelims. True to form, they didn’t like the results and demanded a “deep dive” into the details. A week later, Jonesy’s still plowing through the data. Of course she’s now being screamed at to deliver all of the other tasks she put on hold. So much for your scheduled week of vacation Jonesy. PS She bought the whole enchilada on this one. Since she’s now the “expert” with the data, all of the future reporting is hers as well. Just think of the savings here! There’s no longer a need to hire a replacement financial analyst for the acquired company.

Hey, I’ve caught myself doing it as well. You know “giving one for the team” and all that. I did it a lot more when I was younger and more idealistic. I still put in over 60 hours a week at the office. Old habits are hard to break. I’ll even help out when necessary but am very cautious now about getting the staff and myself in a jam (as well as keeping others’ feet out of the door jamb). We’re supposed to work to live and not live to work.

Volunteering and helping others in one’s private life is a great thing to do. There are too many altruistic values and motivations for such behavior to mention here. The rewards for such volunteering are personal and spiritual. When it comes to the workplace, however, those same altruistic values and motivations are oftentimes manipulated to prey on the goodness of people in order to obtain some other desired “outcome” for the corporation. I’ve written gobs about the psychological gimmicks, threats and guilt trips thrown at employees who come to work really wanting to do a good job. It’s always in that ever-changing definition of what constitutes a “good job” where the manipulation comes in to play. Aiding a fellow employee through a hard task or helping out a department in a pinch is also a great thing to do but it is NOT the same as adding hours to a workweek, foregoing vacation, or working on a holiday or weekend to meet some arbitrary deadline, please a superior or save on cost. There’s no personal or spiritual reward here.

When I was a young man, I remember my Dad giving me some good advice that I, of course, ignored at the time and for many years to come. His two-word admonition came when I had returned from my first ROTC field exercise and proudly began the tale of one my “exploits.” Dad’s words came out both sharp and stern. It was as if something I had said triggered an automatic response. I must have mentioned some magic word because he never even let me finish my story before snapping, “NEVER VOLUNTEER!” That was that. I never got to finish my story.

“Never volunteer!” How strange? Those words coming from a decorated WWII veteran. Dad was an Army platoon sergeant who had spent three years in combat overseas in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. It was not until many years later and after a lot of research that I realized how never volunteering was one of the main reasons he had survived the war at all. My Dad was very proud of his service. He also had the wisdom of harsh experience.

Now that I’m a lot older, I’ve gained that same type of wisdom myself. There are no medals awarded for valor in the lower levels of corporations and there is no glory. A “Make it Happen” certificate (suitable for framing) won’t compensate you for the loss of valuable time with your family or your health. There are only obscene bonuses and rewards for the corporate generals. Killing yourself for a company gets you only one reward – death.

I remember reading a survey a few years ago. The survey asked if people would be willing to “volunteer” to work an 80 hour workweek with no time off for three straight years if at the end of that period they would be guaranteed that the rest of their working lives would revert to a normal 40 hours per week schedule. If I recall the results of the survey, most respondants answered NO. I believe that these negative replies came from people like me. People who now know that there are no such guarantees and that once one commits to such a regimen, it never stops.

If this rant seems rather jaded, it’s meant to be. You’re visiting with The Corporate Cynic. I know that many young starry-eyed up-and-comers and corporate big shot wannabees will revile at this notion. So be it! You’ll learn.

At the end of my career, I want to be able to say the same thing that my Dad would say when asked about what he did during WWII, “I survived and served proudly.”

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The “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives offers Words that Work

May 21, 2008

It took me over thirty years to understand this but the following chapter finally opened my eyes. When it comes to the use of words, rank has its privileges. I guess this is why I’ll never be asked to join the “Double Secret” Society for bad Executives.

Chapter 11 Powerful Words for Powerful People

As executives, we must be familiar with the true meanings of words and how they might be used to reinforce our power over lowly subordinates. This chapter will serve as a refresher course on the use of two terms that we’re all familiar with: Excuses and Reasons. We hear and use these words all the time but it’s important to use them properly and at the appropriate time and place.

Let’s begin with some dictionary definitions and then parse out the key distinctions

Excuses: explanations offered to justify something and to explain (a fault or an offense) in the hope of being forgiven or understood

Reasons: underlying facts or causes that provide logical sense for a premise or occurrence

Please note the key words and phrases here: In the definition of excuses, we find the words fault, offense and…in the hope of being forgiven or understood… In the definition of reasons, you’ll note …provide logical sense… and occurrence

Get the drift here? Those that offer or are accused of making excuses are at fault. Those that offer reasons are just stating facts.

Reasons are reserved for the powerful. Reasons are logical, intelligent, well thought out – perhaps even brilliant – like us. There’s no need to ask for any forgiveness. Our explanations are FACTUAL. On the other hand, those that offer or are accused of making excuses are doing so out of guilt. They know they’ve done WRONG. They should be begging for forgiveness.

Excuses connote failure. Holding the accountability for failure over the heads of your subordinates is a sure fire way to keep them in line. Their guilt will provoke them to work even harder. Your power to forgive (to be used only to keep certain individuals in your hip pocket) will validate your authority and superiority. Their squirming may even provide you with some well deserved entertainment.

It’s your role to offer reasons for failures or non-conformances. Again, reasons are FACTS. Reasons are explanations about events totally out of your control and tantamount to acts of God. You cannot be held accountable for these occurrences. There’s no guilt to be had.

It’s all so simple and it’s all about power.

Let’s practice some applications of the words excuse or excuses when dealing with subordinates:

You: “Why is production falling again?”
Them: “The equipment keeps breaking down. Because of all of the cost reductions and cutbacks, we’re holding it together with Band-Aids.”
You: “I’m tired of your excuses! You were told to increase production!”
Them: “Sorry, we’ll try harder.”

Or

You: “The financials are late. What’s your excuse this time?”
Them: “They compressed the reporting calendar again and increased the data requirements. We just don’t have the staff to support this.”
You: “That’s no excuse. You’re supposed to make it happen.”
Them: “Sorry, we’ll try harder.”

Fun Eh?

Now let’s practice the use of the words reason and reasons with your peers and superiors:

You: “Exogenous variables in the current market segment are the predominant reasons prohibiting us from increasing sales.”

Or

You: “The reason is simple. Had the macroeconomic climate been more amenable to our strategy, we certainly would have met our metrics.”

Best yet

You: “The reason for our lack of success is the pervasive culture of excuses within the lower levels of our organization. We’re aggressively and continuously assessing our workforce.

You’ll note that we’ve eliminated the need to detail the reaction from “Them” here. These reasons speak for themselves and will dazzle anyone. Notice there is a never is a need to be sorry or apologize. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

So there you have it. Now go forth and use these words that work for you. No excuses!

When the Shoe is Suddenly on the other Foot

May 15, 2008

Sometimes turnabout in organizational reporting relationships is fair play. Should the experience result in feelings of justice, vengeance, a combination of both or neither? In the corporate world, revenge is sweet but all too elusive. Everyone says “What goes around comes around”, “Every dog has his day”, “Be careful how you treat people on the way up…”, and “The bigger they are…” etc. You can hope and fantasize all you want but having your prayers come to fruition is rare. I don’t know about you but I sure enjoy watching an arrogant pompous ass get their comeuppance. Seeing some “Born Jerk” who has abused power, destroyed their subordinates or double crossed their peers get publicly humiliated is one of life’s small pleasures.

When I wrote the book 160 degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, a reviewer quipped that although well-written, the book read like a revenge opera. While that wasn’t my original intent, perhaps there was a bit of that going on – at least subliminally. Having been on the receiving end of insults, brow beatings and unreasonable expectations at the hands of a variety of Bozo’s in “leadership” roles over the years, I admit to taking particular delight in watching their downfalls. I just don’t have much of an appetite for bad leaders and I don’t think that others do either. Is it so wrong to revel in the misery of those who have caused so much?

I recently had the opportunity of speaking with a colleague who had been suffering under the boot of such a tyrant for the last three years. My amigo is a good solid individual who tried time and again to escape from the clutches of this blackguard. It would take several posts to fully relate the horror stories told to me. There was nothing illegal or even immoral going on but the boss’s arrogant, abusive and maniacal behaviors were so bad that my friend’s and his co-workers’ family lives began to suffer due to the torture. These are highly educated and experienced professionals. They work for a very large corporation and transfers are quite common provided that the appropriate approval comes from one’s superior. In this case, my friend had been blacklisted by this thug for not helping him gain favor with his superiors.

Then a strange thing happened. Through some stroke of luck or the overwhelming evidence of the insidious behaviors of the executive in question, the corporation decided to quietly and graciously, but nonetheless forcefully, demote the transgressor. There was a huge administrative reorganization and my friend suddenly found himself in a peer position with his abuser. The new leadership role had not yet been announced. My colleague called me to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate the release from the clutches of this maniac.

I asked my friend how he felt about the new relationship with his former boss. I also asked about the odds that he might get the nod and become his nemesis’ superior. Surprisingly, my chum responding that it was a real possibility. Exploring the opportunity even further, I asked about his plans for dealing with the malefactor should that occur. Being a stand up individual, my chum confided that he would be torn between exacting revenge and being magnanimous toward his former torturer. He had fantasized for years about what he’d do if he found himself in that position but now it seemed mean spirited and vengeful. His better side was taking control. He didn’t want to be like his old boss. “Do you think he ever cared about you, your feelings, health or family?” I asked as we ended the conversation. He did not answer. “Just think about it,” I said, “If the shoe finds its way to the other foot, go kick some ass!”

A Springtime Reprise from the “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives

May 7, 2008

The weather is finally starting to break. It’s been a long, cold and dreary winter – at least here at the office of the Corporate Cynic. The birds are chirping, the trees are budding and the tulips are in bloom. Thoughts turn to making those well deserved vacation plans. But before you get too excited about that respite from the daily grind, remember that there are those with “other” agendas.

I’ve decided to reprise a post from last summer that was catagorized under The “Double Secret” Handbook. Let’s see what some of your “leaders” might have in mind for you this summer.

Summertime Reading from the “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives
August 3, 2007

The security guard found a stack of travel brochures in the executive parking lot. He was shocked when he found this chapter of the handbook in the pile. He immediately turned it over to me for review. I swore him to secrecy.

Chapter 2 Ration that Pesky Vacation

Just when you thought that there were no more ways to squeeze that last of drop blood out of your staff, we’ve contrived a fiendishly clever method to achieve just that. The best part of it all is that you can point to company policies as being the villain here. It’s the best of all worlds.

What policies could be so useful to an executive who needs to impress their superiors with cost controls, instantaneous responses to their insatiable need for information, adherence to ever-changing deadlines and a high level of uninterrupted productivity? Why the vacation policies! It’s the Human Resources department’s fault that you’re strapped with having to deal with the cost and nuisance of staff being away from work on “vacation.” Employees are paid to work and not to be absent for such a non-value added activity. HR is the group that determined your staff members were due this silliness as a company benefit. They also came up with a variety of rules and policies regarding vacations. So whatever you have to do to manipulate those policies to get the results you want is really HR’s problem and not yours.

It’s an expensive proposition to keep additional staff to cover for those who are away on these boondoggles. You need to trim your budget to score points with the top brass. What about all those emergency requests, revised deadlines and meetings that arise constantly and out of the blue? You can’t disappoint your superiors by telling them that John or Betty is on vacation and the report or meeting will have to be delayed or postponed. You certainly can’t be expected to cover those contingencies yourself. You’re an executive after all and you wouldn’t even know how to get the actual work done to do it anyway. So let’s get down to the business of administering those vacation policies – the way you decide to interpret them anyway.

We all know that that the more tenured the employee, the more vacation time they are entitled to. It makes sense to rid your staff of all of the old-timers that have amassed a high level of vacation eligibility and replace them with new hires. Who cares about experience and knowledge. The veterans don’t need to impress anyone. You do.

So what if employees are told in offer letters, new hire orientations, or handbooks that they are eligible for paid vacations. We’ll bet that there’s a policy indicating that paid time off must be scheduled around the company and/or department’s requirements. Find that policy and keep it handy.

Since you’re in charge of your department, you’ll decide those requirements. They are quite simple actually: When you’re in the office, the staff needs to be there to support you. When you’re not in the office, they need to be there to cover for you.

Start with the managers and staff employees that report directly to you. These folks are always malleable enough to be convinced that scheduling their own vacations is a big no-no. They must be both openly and tacitly discouraged from doing so. These employees always feel a certain loyalty and responsibility to the company. They enjoy feeling needed and indispensable. They’d like to identify themselves with the executive team and many believe that by constantly giving their all, they’ll reap some reward down the road. They also fear for their positions. They have families to feed and mortgages to pay. This loyalty and fear needs to be exploited. They must be made to feel as though the company can’t do without them for even a week here or a week there – and certainly not for two weeks in a row. Use your powers of persuasion to discourage any thoughts of even trying to string two or three vacation days together. They must be subtly pressured and cajoled into believing that the company’s needs outweigh their own. Remember, if there is a “use it or lose it” vacation policy, once the magic anniversary date rolls around, they’ll lose any of that time they had coming. There will be no massive vacation accrual to deal with next year. If anyone gripes, feign some concern and then simply forget about it.

If they must be out for a day, be sure to jot it down so that your response to their next request might go something like, “Another vacation day? It seems like you were just off. How many vacation days have you taken already? I’ll have to think about that. Are you sure you really need to take off? We have blah, blah, coming up. Will you be ready? We really depend on you. OK (sigh), if you must.” It’s a guilt trip/ego boost/power play combo that puts the onus on them to consider all of those feelings about themselves, their responsibilities and their paychecks. They’re probably good, honest and caring people. We’ll bet you get the results you’re looking for out of 99% of them.

We all know what your thinking. What if your company is in one of those states that mandates employees be allowed to carryover or even (gulp!) be paid for accrued and unused vacation days? What if your company has such a policy even though not mandated by law? No Problem. Just fall back on the policy that allows you to schedule their vacations around the department’s requirements.

Start forcing you direct reports to take individual vacation days (or even “vacation hours”) when it suits your needs. If you know that tomorrow will be a day without any pressing requests, command them to take the day off as a vacation day. In fact, right after the next scheduled morning meeting might be a great time to order some staff out for the rest of the day as a half-day of vacation. Always make it sound like it’s a reward and your doing them a big favor. So what if it’s a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. Work it right and you can eat up all of their vacation time without even a hiccup in productivity. If anyone carps about it, point to the policies and remind them that they work in a “fast paced environment” with “ever changing priorities.” No one will be able to say that they weren’t given the opportunity to use all of their vacation time. These are company policies. Your hands are tied.

Most importantly – always ensure that any task or work not performed while the lollygaggers are away is made up after hours or on weekends. Your direct reports are exempt from overtime. It won’t be a ding to your budget and they’ll learn the lesson of being away from work during the week.

In time, you’ll see a trickle down effect as managers who report to you begin to believe that what you’ve instigated is what the company wants. They will follow your lead. If not out of loyalty, they’ll do it to make everyone else suffer. Morale Schmorale! You won’t be around for more than another year or two anyway. Let someone else pick up the pieces after you’ve moved on.

Keep in mind that you’ve done everyone a favor here. You’ve kept costs down and productivity up. If your company has a policy of holding over or paying employees for lost vacation time, you’ve saved even more cost and administrative time and effort. The employees will have no vacation time to “lose” because of your efforts to ensure that all of it has been “used.” You’ve saved your staff the expense of hotels, gas, theme park tickets, airfares etc. They should actually thank you. But that’s OK. You can deal with their ingratitude.

That was a lot of work but well worth it. We see that you must attend the annual budget meeting in Orlando, FL this August. Hmmm, your kids will still be out of school and you need a well deserved rest after all of this executive decision-making. The stress and pressure of having to deal with all of these policies and rules is taking a toll on your psyche. Why not tack on some extra time in Orlando? Maybe a week or even two. Grab the frau and the kiddies and head on down. Hell, the company is picking up part of the tab anyway. Your department will be covered. You need a break.