Corporate Titanics

I’m getting it all off my chest today–about organizations leading their lemmings, oops employees, down a path and not recognizing and not caring because they (the organizations) believe they’re too big to fail. If you don’t want to hear it, stop reading now.

My business is helping people to navigate their careers: set their direction and sail toward it while aligning with their organization’s mission. I meet folks all the time who are capsized by the organizations they are in, who are deceived (intentionally or by omission) and whose companies are led by Captains Titanic, industrial age business tycoons who forget that they’re sailing the ship, not the iceberg. So some of my work includes connecting people to business reality, and all of it allows them to shift beliefs and behaviors in order to take responsibility for their career direction. So, I’m all for people taking responsibility for themselves…that hasn’t changed.

A sinking ship

A sinking ship

But you, CaptainsTitanic, you know who you are. [Just in case: C-level, VP and Directors, managers and supervisors, and project leads, this means you.) So, read on.

The way organizations (yours, too, probably) deal with work and job boxes and bodies–directly and indirectly–is nothing short of outlandish. You have jobs, stuffed in boxes along with the people who do them, and when things change (as they do daily and weekly) the boxes and the people have to change, too. When the square pegs no longer fit the round holes, they’re gone. Yet, those very people are your assets in this economy. Rather than change your thinking, you swap out the expensive assets for cheap ones, you cut resources yet expect customer service to stay the same. It’s kind of like the Titanic sailing with not enough lifeboats for all the passengers: people really believed that the ship couldn’t sink. (Exceptions include Cisco, Deloitte & others of course, but are terribly few and far between.)

Your organization does a huge disservice to employees every day by:

1. lying to them;
2. giving them a false sense of security; and
3. abusing them emotionally and mentally.

Lying. Direct or by omission.
How many organizations have you heard spout “our employees are our most important product!” even while the business direction treats those employees as expendable expenses? I’d call that lying.

How many organizations tell their employees, either via executive ‘town halls’ or through email, that while the economy is bad, we’re doing OK and we won’t be laying off employees? How many tell their employees that the economy is hurting us, but we’ll do everything in our power to avoid lay-offs? And then turn around and announce several rounds of layoffs that “can’t be avoided”? I’d call this lying. Few organizations do everything they can to avoid layoffs because that’s the simplest, easiest, most direct way to cut the expense line in the financials. Other options that many organizations don’t even consider (did yours?) include job sharing; shortening hours; voluntary unpaid leave; eliminating raises; asking for employee participation in solutions. Wall Street (why do we still even care??) loves to see fast financial improvements for the sake of the shareholders and the stock price, rewarding short-term and short-sighted decisions at the expense of the long-term viability of the organization. But the options all take too long.

grown in the dark

grown in the dark

Lies of omission are a little different: leaders say little or nothing before or after layoffs, so everyone’s left wondering ‘am I next?’; they don’t educate employees to the reality of today’s business economy–they don’t tell people what’s at stake, how competitors are ‘eating our lunch,’ how the industry is changing and requiring new skills, etc.; they don’t tell employees about how customers are changing and requiring new products, services and care. [Years ago, a cartoon drawing was circulated around offices about employees being treated like mushrooms… I’d say it’s still relevant.] By expecting people to change by osmosis or to become more productive because ‘everybody knows how bad things are,” you’re like Captain Titanic wearing the darkest of glasses.

That false sense of security.

When you give someone a paycheck every 2 weeks whether they do their best or not, just for showing up, you’re reinforcing their sense of security. I know it’s how things are done, but to reinforce security that’s no longer there is harmful. It prevents people from being responsible and sends the message that their security comes not from hustle (the person) but rather from showing up (the daddy). [Read my April 15 post, Who’s Your Daddy? for more on this.] If you want improved productivity, then do it right: pay for performance, have everyone participate in 360 feedback, require learning and skills upgrades, foster employee engagement and get crystal clear about expectations.

When you require performance reviews for every employee once a year and expect that every manager knows how to do this well, you’re reinforcing false security. First of all, managers who don’t like to do this or don’t know how put this off as long as possible and give it as little thought as possible. If you provide no training on effective feedback, then the manager thinks his/her approach is OK. Any one who gets a review expects to be told what their weaknesses are and what they need to do to improve. If their manager doesn’t tell them, then their expectation is that ‘my work is fine, I don’t need any training or improvement.’ This thinking reinforces sitting back and waiting to be told what to do with no concern for new learning. And frankly, in this economy, that’s the last thing you need your workers to be thinking.

Emotional and mental abuse.
I’m calling your (outsizing, downsizing, rightsizing) treatment of employees “abuse” because of the devastation you inflict, probably without even knowing it. And you hide behind “it’s a business decision.” It may be fast and convenient for you, but this is one business decision that’s bad…it’s not financially sound. The costs outweigh whatever financial gains you think you make.

Fifty and sixty-year old men and women tear up when talking about being let go and thrown into a job hunt in this economy and within a society that dismisses experience in favor of ‘cutting edge’ and values ‘inexpensive’ above all else. When you don’t communicate with your employees, when you give them false feelings of security, when you first cut budgets that maintain and improve employee skills and education, and when your response to a financial challenge is to cut heads, you are treating your workers like machines that can be idled and started up again when things turn around. We left that economy a long time ago.

You might even provide outplacement services of a few weeks or months for employees, in an effort to assuage your guilt. Leading them to think (and believing yourself) that a good resume and a place to meet with a counselor is going to provide the support needed to land again is 1) short-sighted; 2) ignorant; and 3) cruel. The first time a worker submits a resume for that “perfect fit” and doesn’t get a call because the HR person had to sort through 400 resumes, you have contributed to the results of abuse: lack of confidence, low sense of self-worth, ineffectiveness when it’s needed most; and a steep learning curve to learn how the market really works. Mentally and emotionally, when people are tossed into the market place they automatically revert to the job-search skills and the beliefs they’ve always held. Both are outdated and extract a considerable price from even the strongest person.

I will always say personal responsibility is critical to security and success, and particularly today in an unsettled, highly-competitive economy that is global in scope. But it’s time that organizations pick up their responsibilities and shift the messages they continue to feed employees, through intention or ignorance. The sooner organizations begin to support their employees in learning how to stay on top of the information and service economy, the sooner those employees will ‘pay it back’ in action, initiative and engagement with customers.

Could it be so bad if all stakeholders win?

6 Responses

  1. Managers have spent millions of dollars on the latest equipment, software, systems, and technology. They have rushed into LEAN to save their business. They have reduced inventories and maximized cash flow. They have addressed every aspect of business except the most basic and that is how to maximize their relationship with their employees.
    The time has come to quit giving lip service to employees as the greatest asset and put some thought and effort into optimizing the employee for the sake of the employee, the customer and the employer.

  2. Your comment makes an interesting point, Bob, and that is that businesses will do anything and everything except maximize their employee investment. I wonder why it is absolutely the last thing on the “maintenance” list for organizations–even land and buildings and equipment have maintenance budgets that don’t get cut in order to take care of those assets. But training and development and coaching…those very aspects that get the best out of people assets… are always among the first cuts in lean times.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. I feel your passion pulsing through in this article. I support your position but would like to offer another perspective – I think it’s a classic failure of will and imagination on the part of management – a knee jerk tactic with no strategic vision that permeates stagnant organizations. And, they’re making the situation worse – adding chaos and fear to an already overburdened, financially jittery company. Knee jerk downsizing is the equivalent of reviewing your household budget during a financial squeeze and deciding to eliminate your health care premiums while maintaining all other expenses!
    I’d wager that every one of those downsized employees could offer a minimum of half a dozen suggestions to streamline inefficiencies, increase productivity, customer service and sales during their exit interview – if they were inclined to be so gracious on their way out the door!
    Those employees are the company’s assets and they are extremely underutilized and undervalued – even while they’ve been overworked and overlooked. Any ‘good’ manager (regardless of level) knows that the answers to the ‘big picture’ usually lie right in front of them. The strategic option – the good management decision – is to maximize your strength. Getting rid of ‘the fat’ is the overburdened unnecessary process stuff that bogs everyone down – your employees, your customers, your cash flow – not reactionary downsizing.

  4. Well said, Marie…your assessment is a sound one! I have to think that the knee-jerk reaction of downsizing is more than a lack of strategic vision. For too many years the business world has embraced the “employees are assets” language while totally utilizing those (name only) assets as expendable chess pieces…how many years and what kind of failure does it take for an alignment of words and actions? Seems that there must be something more behind this… arrogance? total control? egotism? narcissism? insular blindness?

    I do agree that processes are often at the core of inefficiencies and low productivity, but I think leaders who insulate themselves from the reality of their assets must share in (and maybe even lead) that waste.

  5. You’re absolutely correct when you say ‘there must be something more behind this’ – it is a major failure of will and imagination that is held hostage by fear – fear of failure, fear of being perceived poorly by those higher up, fear of rocking the boat and being held accountable, fear of losing status and all the financial benefits that go with that status.

    The lack of strategic vision I witness over and over again – and how it’s related to processes and therefore to the people who have to work within those processes – is how things begin to get out of balance in the first place. It starts with a series of poor management decisions and bad tactics – tactics focused on personal gain rather than the strategic vision of the company.

    The manager who knows her staff is struggling everyday to get over, under, around inefficient systems, arbitrary rules and counterproductive procedures but is afraid to push the issue up for fear of being perceived as a failure or fear of losing status. Knowing full well that her staff is overworked and under supported she resorts to resenting their stress and unhappiness because it puts her in a position of needing to do something she doesn’t want to do – speak up, be a manager, support her staff.

    She most likely reports to a manager who really doesn’t want to know what’s going on. He’s not going to rock the boat (he’s either got bigger and better places to go or he just wants to maintain equilibrium until he hits that magic retirement number) and so she is actually encouraged to not bring the issues forward.

    The manager who enters into an agreement with a vendor for a CRM system, or a new billing system, or the cutting edge incentive program without seriously investigating the impact and value (or lack thereof) on those within the company who will actually have to work with this new system. It was a personal tactic meant for professional gain – a major coup to place the spotlight on them – and the ancillary perks from the vendor. This is the person who is so often promoted shortly afterward and always remembered by those below him as the guy who put that frustrating system in place.

    The HR manager who builds their personal portfolio by rolling out a new training initiative with no consideration for impact or value of enhancement for those who must make the time to participate in the training. Is it pertinent, is it timely, will it enhance employee and company value, are there timelines and measures in place to value the effort?

    I view ‘business processes’ very broadly. A process is far more than the series of steps it takes to complete a task. The way in which an organization is created, staffed and managed is a process. The methods used to determine a promotion to management is a process. The decision making in acquiring new systems within a company is a process. How a company undertakes performance reviews (assuring managers are trained and qualified and capable of providing a fair, accurate, honest, productive assessment – and the necessary follow-up) is a process. You can roll out your very expensive 360 Degree Performance Management initiative with all the bells, whistles, team meetings, picnic lunches, hats and logoed cups you want, but if you’re not going to do much more than pat one another on the back at the highest levels for this ‘great effort’, you just wasted a whole lot of money and engendered a boatload of resentment and frustration from your staff.

    When issues like these aren’t addressed – a failure of will and imagination – organizational stagnation and paralysis sets in. Management becomes emotionally isolated from the ‘real’ issues related to ‘real’ people. It becomes easier to make the decision to outsource that overworked, overstressed, under supported department whose manager wouldn’t stand up for them. And management can feel completely justified in their decision making because the numbers support the fact that the department wasn’t efficient or profitable. It would take more than a little honesty and soul searching on their part to acknowledge the inefficiencies in that department were not only created by management but that they were solely responsible for failing to find creative resolutions – which is precisely what a good manager is supposed to do.

    Most companies need regular maintenance (a tune-up) that utilizes both of our core competencies – yours for career development within organizations and mine for cleaning up the unproductive, inefficient processes that develop over time. You and I are both passionate about empowering and engaging individuals within organizations – we just approach it differently – with different perspectives and with a different set of intentions that actually result in a holistic approach to revitalizing and enriching a company and its greatest assets.

  6. Well said, Marie! You are experienced and wise…wouldn’t common sense, thoughtfulness and ‘good of the whole’ thinking go a long way?


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