Second – We All Work For Somebody

When Eric Clapton did a cover of the song “Serve Somebody”, it was clear he was talking spiritually.  It’s one of my favorite songs and I fold into the music and the words like Gumby (note to those reading this who are too young to remember Gumby, Eddie Murphy skits where he is pretending to

be Gumby or the cartoon show based on the character – I’m sorry).

This is Gumby..

 

…he has nothing to do with this post..

In the context of this commentary, when I reference ‘serving somebody’, I’m talking about work.  After all, we all report to someone – a boss, a management board, committee, owners, clients, etc.  I have written about my perspective on management’s responsibilities; I have not been as prolific about the corollary – the responsibility of direct reports.

There is an interesting article in “Inc” magazine titled “8 Things Great Bosses Demand From Their Employees” By Geoffrey James.  In brief, James maintains that the following represent the most important expectations an employer has of his/her direct reports:

“1.  Be true to your word

2.  No surprises, ever

3.  Be prepared on the details

4.  Take your job seriously

5.  Have your boss’ back

6.  Provide solutions, not complaints

7.  Communicate in plain language

8.  Know your real job”

Recognizing that direct reports could say the same things about their bosses, my view is that the list for them is longer and a bit different.  That said, if both groups could successfully meet these eight expectations, I think most organizations would be way ahead of the game.  Given that everyone answers to someone – what do you think of this list?  Does it seem reasonable?  Doable?  Do you take these expectations on, or are you waiting for your boss to do so (in which case, I would strongly recommend that you go ahead and do the right thing – it will serve you better in the long run).  What’s missing?  Regardless of where you are within your business community, I’d love to hear from you.  If we can make our work environment better, why not try to do so!

Gumby at the DIA

Gumby at the DIA (Photo credit: Jordawesome)

Me? The Terminator?

When I landed in DC, my first boss was an  ‘interesting’ character.   I use the adjective advisedly, in much the same way as ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’.   Shortly after I started working, she brought me a lovely Villeroy & Boch box for my desk.  She told me it was a welcome gift.  Given the environment in which I was working (HR Manager in a national law firm), I was struck by the thoughtful and gracious  nature of the gesture.  She was the least spontaneous person I had ever met.  In fact, she was my introduction to the world of challenging bosses – she was demanding, arbitrary, judgmental, obstinate and more than a little self-righteous.

A week later, she came into my office and told me to terminate G’s employment.  There was nothing in this woman’s file to suggest that she was skating on the edge of the employment abyss.  She was capable, experienced and had the tendency to arrive between five and fifteen minutes late a couple of days a week.  G was also quite confident and never really provided the administrator (my boss) with the deference she expected from everyone.  Of course, that really was the crux of the issue.  I wasn’t prepared to have such a dialogue with an employee who had never been spoken with about her lateness (or anything else for that matter).  So I offered to work with G, with the proviso that if I didn’t get anywhere within a proscribed and sustained period of time, I would do the deed.  The administrator relented – but not before reiterating that she didn’t like G at all and the likelihood of my success was somewhere between slim and none.

To abbreviate the story – G worked out her lateness issues and was more respectful of the administrator’s position in the office hierarchy.  I walked into my office one morning and found a $500.00 check in that beautiful china box, along with a note – “if you had gotten rid of her, it would have been $1,000.00″.  Pretty stunning (please see adjectives ‘interesting’, ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ above).  A single mom with two small boys; I needed the job even though I couldn’t stand the person to whom I reported.  Yet I wasn’t going to cave on these directives which occurred with far more frequency than I care to recount.  Suffice it to say I was there for two years ‘working with’ a ridiculous number of employees and receiving $500.00 checks instead of $1,000.00, before I was happily recruited away.

It really didn’t matter whether there was documentation to support these decisions.  It didn’t matter that she was exposing the firm to charges of unfair employment and/or discriminatory practices.  Her argument was that employment was at will, and at any given point in time she could decide that an employee wasn’t meeting her standard of likability or talent.  In the most simplistic sense, as an employer she was right.  If an employer is making decisions to hire or fire and those decisions have nothing to do with an individual’s protected class, both employer and employee are free to end their relationship at any time.  However, just as a realtor’s  mantra is ‘location, location, location’, HR people repeat ‘documentation, documentation, documentation’.  Arbitrary decisions more often than not upend peoples’ lives, adversely impact professional reputations and cost money (as they should, in my view).

I don’t like severing professional ties – or any ties for that matter.  I’m way too neurotic in my need to help make things better (as if I alone can do that).  Happily, I have never met a successful HR professional who enjoys the process either.  I maintain that if the time comes when such situations elicit no reaction – or worse yet, delight – it’s time to consider your other talents and re-career.  It is difficult, painful and disheartening to initiate these dialogues and I would imagine it sucks to be on the receiving end even more.

In an ideal world, every employee is stellar, productive, consistently enthusiastic, highly skilled and committed to team play.  All the time.  Oh – they’re also loyal, have the utmost integrity and remain motivated from the first day forward.  Did I also mention that every supervisor is killer smart, engaged, dedicated to their people, visionary…Ok, wake up now – the dream part of this blog is over.  Performance does not occur on one upward trajectory; performance waxes and wanes.  That’s a predictable and honest course of professional – and personal – life.  If a supervisor is offering consistent, regular feedback then an employee knows where s/he is on the performance spectrum (on a separate but related note – if conversations like this become the norm, the evaluation process wouldn’t be viewed with such derision).

After thirty years in this profession, I have arrived at a conclusion I can live with.  If I can say that I have done everything I can do to help an individual improve his/her performance, if I have mentored, advised and documented (and may I add that I can’t use the acronym P.I.P for I always think of Gladys Knight), if I have clearly articulated the expectations and consequences involved if they are not met – and there is no positive result, then I am not terminating the employment relationship – the employee is making that choice.  I realize that this is a little bit of a shift from the way we typically approach this topic.  Please recognize that I’m not suggesting that the employer is divested of responsibility, rather I am leveling the playing field so that these discussions leave no victims or passive recipients of terrible, life-altering information.

I can hear your rumblings in cyber space.  Certainly, there are mandated economically driven RIFs where there are truly victims and I have been the harbinger of those awful messages more times than I would like to recall.  That’s a topic for another day, I hope.  And yes, there are really lousy bosses and ineffective supervisors and employees let go for reasons that elude them and employees who aren’t let go for reasons that elude everybody else.  Perhaps that too is a future subject.  For now though, let’s go back to where we began – you couldn’t pay me to terminate the employment of someone without trying to improve the problem.  You couldn’t pay me to engage in this exercise if I didn’t have the employee’s buy-in to do the necessary work.  When it fails, the individual is making a decision and a choice and when it succeeds?  To paraphrase MasterCard – it’s priceless.

The Complaint Department

For those of you unfamiliar with the verb ‘kvetching’, I think it’s best defined as bitching in whine.  Though it’s a Yiddish word, it’s derivative is really irrelevant for we all do it.  I would suggest that it’s yet another aspect of the human experience, but I honestly think other species kvetch too.  Yesterday a flock of Canadian geese were heading who-knows-where, and clearly there were quite a few issues being addressed en route.  They sounded pretty much like this:

“Who died and put Louie in charge?  Didn’t we all agree I was going to take the lead this time?”

“I am SO tired and not in the mood for a field trip right now.”

“Why do always have to wait for Marge?  We could have been there and back by now.  She flies like a turtle creeps.” (you never know, geese may watch the Animal Planet too)

“Why are we going this way?  The traffic is terrible..”

“I hate flying in a vee.  Does anyone else hate flying in a vee?”

And so on.  They’re loud, sound very irritated and undoubtedly have a  few young ones in the group repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”

Kvetching is a side benefit of people sharing their day-to-day lives.  On your way to work you know that once you arrive, there will be others who will moan that they don’t want to be there either, understand your need for a second cup of coffee, appreciate how much work is on your plate (though arguably, if a lot of work is on your plate you really shouldn’t have that much time to kvetch about it), shake their heads when you mention the idiotic comment your boss made, etc.  People at my old firm used to complain about the absence of fresh fruit on doughnut day (we had bagels and doughnuts every Friday morning), even though no one was required to eat anything at all and the food was free.  Later, when fresh fruit was provided, the group kvetch reverted to the quality of the bagels.  Group sigh…

Parent groups, coffee room confabs, team meetings – kvetching goes on everywhere.  It crosses gender, age, ethnicity – and as I mentioned above – maybe species too.  On some levels, complaining is cathartic for one can get an irritant out in the open and be met with empathy and agreement.  That said, sometimes you do meet the person who responds to your comment about a ‘lousy headache’ with “You think you have a headache?  I’ve got a migraine”.  This is the kind of person who has to trump your kvetch with a kvetch squared.  These people defeat the purpose of a good whine.  For the most part though, a little whine and sympathy feels good.

A word of caution – all of this requires perspective and some semblance of self-control, for such conversations can easily derail and become dangerous to one’s spirit.  Where is the line?  At the place where kvetches turn chronic, complaints turn into gossip and vitriol replaces feelings of mild irritation.  Gossip is toxic and serves no purpose but to inject distrust and ensure the participants that they too will be the unpleasant topic of conversation sometime in the karmic future.  Gossip is conjecture that is offered as fact.  Where kvetching can be benign, gossip is malignant.  Ironically, it’s so easy to stop – requiring the simple phrase “I don’t want to hear it”.  A bit naive on my part I realize, for curiousity usually interferes with our desire to take the higher ground.  Sometimes though, I think we have to just reinforce our boundaries and despite the lure of a sensational story, stick to a kinder authority.

When one of my dearest friends was alive, she used to call  me  and when necessary, preface our conversation with “Hi sweets, this is a kvetch call”.   And I would listen to her gripe of the moment, share the indignation du jour and she in turn provided me with the same forum.  The most cherished element of the memory though is how we laughed when we were done.  You have to hold on to a bit of humor when you feel a good kvetch coming on, for in the incomprehensible hugeness of the universe, there are bigger injustices than stale bagels.

No One Calls It Work For Nothing

There are certain immutable truths I’ve learned about working with others.  I also believe that everyone knows them, few people practice that which they know and none of these concepts reflect untapped genius on my part.  It amazes me when I am consulting and/or speaking with people frustrated by their colleagues, supervisors, etc, that I am met with enthusiastic agreement and surprise.  Not to shoot myself in the foot, but people shouldn’t be paying for this information – they know it already.  Please don’t misunderstand, I appreciate and enjoy every professional opportunity I’m provided – truly I do.  Sometimes though I wonder what the workplace would look like if we assumed our responsibilities with the common sense already in our possession.

1.  Everyone is in the middle of the hourglass.  Everyone feels that no matter which way the hourglass is turned, they’re getting sand on their head.  And they are.  Everyone has to answer to someone and/or entity above and below them.  It may be unpleasant, but no one really ever moves from that spot – regardless of how high up the food chain you get.

2.  Email can be great.  It can also be enervating, a massive time drain and a manipulative medium to hide behind.  How many times are emails sent to avoid a discussion, to cover one’s butt (which tangentially is a very funny visual to me) or to lob a problem onto someone else’s court?  The back and forth exchange becomes comical after awhile, and worse still nothing gets done.  We employed the ‘M’ rule at the firm – if emails involved more than two exchanges, the writers had to speak with each other to ensure shared clarity and come to closure.  I told you this was simple.  At the risk of sounding like a typical boomer, there really is something to be said for the human voice.  Inflection is a wonderful complement to understanding another, emoticons be damned.

3.  What if the word “manager” was removed from every position title where supervision of people was a requirement?  Processes are managed, time is managed or mismanaged; people aren’t.  Perhaps we could substitute the word “developer” in its stead.  If each supervisor saw himself/herself as responsible for the professional development, enhancement and growth of those with whom they work, I am confident companies would see tangible ROI in recruitment and retention.  The highly valued companies with the most outstanding employees, provide continuous learning opportunities, mentorships, cross-training – and their supervisors, managers, directors and c-level officers are held accountable for the effectiveness of these programs in their objectives and compensation.

4.  If you’re too busy to take care of your people, you need to re-think what you’re doing.  It really isn’t complex.  It’s your first priority.

5.  I joined a newly minted HR Manager at her first firm wide HR meeting.  The introduction to the meeting involved each manager admitting what they most disliked about their job.  Her response? “The people”.  What made this event even more cringe-worthy was her passionate reiteration of this view.  The laughter in the room was uncomfortable.  I think I hid somewhere under the conference table.

This one is easy – if you don’t like working with people, you should consider a career where you have no responsibility for their professional well-being.  That may be a bit cut and dried – and yeah, it probably is, but this is after all a blog.  In short, you can’t fake it – I’m sure you’ve seen as many people try it as I have.

6.  If risk mitigation is important to you, try fostering trust (see #5).  Typically people who feel invested in their workplace, who feel pride of ownership in their work and loyalty to those around them don’t engage in unethical and/or illegal behavior.  I recognize that systems get hacked, funds are embezzled, time is inflated and my intent is not to minimize the precautions that organizations must take to self-protect.  Nonetheless, skipping these first steps on the preventive ladder increases the likelihood of serious slips (to maintain the analogy).

7.  Laugh – take work seriously and take yourself lightly.  Enjoy what you do and remember what it is you want to be remembered for.  I forgot this shortly after I retired from the firm.  After more than twenty one years it was stunning to realize how easily I was replaced. For a few weeks I struggled to adjust to the absence of emails, phone calls, etc.  I had a pretty nice pity party for myself with no guests.  Honestly?  I had to get over myself.  I’m still in touch with many people; I’m no longer in touch with some I thought I would be close to forever.

At the end of the day, I have been incredibly lucky – I had a ball, had an amazing boss who is still an amazing friend, had some lousy bosses who taught me which of my buttons could be pressed and how to protect them, worked in an environment that embraced my chronic irreverence and still trusted me to mentor hundreds of people.  All of that said, I don’t want to be remembered for what I did at the office.  I want to be remembered for being a great mom, wife, sister, friend.  I hope the people at the firm remember my exhortations that the greatest professional success is realized when it stops being about you and starts being about everyone else.  I hope they remember to smile – God knows a work day is l-o-n-g, might as well enjoy it as much as you can.