Those Who Can’t, Teach, Those Who Can’t Teach, Manage

The Doctor Is In

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I was sitting at my desk when one that new supervisor we hired, the rounded-headed kid, knocked on my door.

“Can we talk?” He asked.

A can that read Psychiatric Help 5 Cents sat on my desk. I picked it up and shook it. The coins inside it jingled.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a nickel and dropped into the slot in the top of the can. I motioned for him to sit down.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s my staff. I delegate assignments, give instructions, make sure they understand, but when I turn around, they just start playing music and dancing.”

“I’ve seen that. That one guy is great on the ivories, especially considering it’s a toy piano with only five keys.”

“They won’t do anything I say.”

“Why do you think that is?”

The supervisor shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s always been this way. Even my dog doesn’t listen to me.”

I nodded, recalling the beagle who came with him on Bring Your Dog to Work Day. Wore an ascot and a flying cap. “Your dog thinks he’s a World War One flying ace,” I said.

“Still, if I can’t get him to do what I want, how can I get my staff to listen?”

“Have you thought of upgrading your wardrobe? I mean, you always where that same shirt with the black zig-zag. There has to be something else in your closet.”

“I don’t think it’s my clothes.”

“Then maybe you should try getting involved in some of the stuff they’re involved in. Have you thought of joining the company softball team? I know most of your staff play.”

“I did. Lost every game I pitched. They think less of me now than ever.”

“What would you suggest is it then?

“I need a change in title. Supervisor just doesn’t carry enough weight.”

“What about Grand Poobah, or Lord God Emperor?”

“I’m serious. Calling me manager instead of supervisor might make all the difference.”

I frowned. “You know what my title is?”

He shook his head.

“Neither do I. It’s changed so many times, I can’t remember it without checking my business card. Still, I’m here and people listen to me. Why do you think that is?”

He looked at the can on my desk. “Because you’re cheap?”

I rose,  “I’m not cheap, I’m affordable!”

The shout sent the supervisor flying from his chair, he spun in the air, his clothes flying off him before he hit the ground. Stars and hashtags appeared over his head.

After he was dressed and sitting in his chair again, I continued. “They listen to me because I listen to them. Your staff knows their jobs. They don’t need you telling them what to do. They need you to support them in what they already know they need to do.”

The supervisor was quiet for a moment. “So no new title?”

“If I thought it would help, I’d be all for it. But you aren’t going to get the respect you want until you start respecting others. It doesn’t matter what title you have.”

He rose and thanked me, told me he had a lot to think about. As he headed out the door, I asked, “Could you send Patricia in? I need to talk to her about those sandals. Definitely not up to dress code.

Want to See Something Really Scary? Life Without HR

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Did I scare you? Probably not. No offense to John Carpenter and Wes Craven (RIP), but most of us are not terrified by masked slashers or clawed fiends who invade our nightmares. These are fantasies. Reality is much scarier. How are we going to pay the bills? What if we lose our jobs? Will we ever be able to retire? These are the thoughts that run through our heads as we toss and turn at night.

I’m no exception. But it’s the realities of the workplace that frighten me more than any personal concerns. Now, I know some of you think that as an HR Guy, I’m the one who is truly scary. The bogeyman with the pink slip and the empty box for you to pack up your office, lurking behind the door as you walk in to start your day. Many of you wish I was a fantasy, a monster under your bed, a bad dream you could wake up from. But I’m here to stay, and it’s a good thing, too.

Some say we don’t need HR, that managers can and should perform most of the employee relation and performance management functions HR performs. HR, they claim, gets in the way. Here are some examples of why these people are wrong. I may have written about some of these before, but in honor of Halloween, the most frightening ones bear repeating. What’s even more terrifying is that most of what I’m going to describe occurred at places that are overall great places to work. It sends shivers up my spine to imagine what happens at employers who don’t care what employees think.

1) A woman asks her boss for a raise. He tells her that he would pay her more if she was the breadwinner.

2) A manager asks an employee why she is bothering to study psychology, when the Bible has all the answers to life anyone will ever need.

3) A nursing mother asks about a private place to pump. Her manager tells her to go use a bathroom stall.

4) A verbally abusive manager tells his staff that if they complain to upper management or HR, he will fire them because they are “at-will”.

5) An employee leaves over a fifty-cent raise ($540 annual) the manager refuses to sign off on due to budget constraints. It costs $3,000 to replace that employee.

6) A manager has the habit of looking female employees up and down when he talks to them. He tells one that she would look more “professional” if she wore more skirts and heels.

7) An employee gives other employees derogatory nicknames, and even uses them directly. The manager does nothing about this. He claims employees have no problem with the nicknames, because who doesn’t like being referred to as ugly or stupid?

I could go on, but I won’t. I’m breaking out in a sweat as it is. The bottom-line is that what scares me most is, despite all the training, all the coaching, all the talk of fostering a positive work environment, managers will still go and do something unethical, illegal, or just plain stupid. And when they do, it’s HR that has to pick up the pieces. But don’t feel bad for me. It comes with the job. Feel bad for the employees who work too hard to have to put up with bad bosses day-in-and-day-out.

And as for those managers who insist on being jerks, what about them? Maybe they should try something novel for Halloween, and dress up as human beings.

Settling for Adequate: More Lessons from Madmen

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For HR, Madmen is the show that keeps on giving.

Last season, Don Draper, a partner and the creative force behind the Sterling Cooper & Partners (SCP) ad agency, had become unpredictable, unreliable and was drinking even more than usual. After a rare display of honesty (he told Hershey executives that he grew up in a brothel, and the only time he got a Hershey bar was when a prostitute bought him one after going through a John’s pockets – hardly the image Hershey wants to be associated with) the other partners decided to put him on “indefinite leave”. While some of the partners thought this was just another way of firing him while providing him with a graceful exit, others saw it as giving him time to sort himself out.

One of the latter was Roger Sterling, his long time friend and President of the Agency. So when Don comes to him to find out where he stands after several months of being out of work (but still being paid), Roger tells him he can come back starting Monday.

The problem is Roger didn’t consult the other partners. A long debate ensues. Roger thinks that Don’s genius more than compensates for his behavior and doesn’t want him as their competition if he goes to another agency. Others think they are better off without him. All of them agree that, as a partner, buying him out would be expensive.

Then there’s the man they hired to replace Don, Lou Avery. Lou is dull and lacks Don’s brilliance. He is also a jerk to his staff. Lou has a two-year contract. During their discussion of what to do about Don, one of the other partners, Jay Cutler, describes Lou as “adequate”.

Now there’s a rousing endorsement.

Creative Director is arguably one of the most important positions in any ad agency. He or she is responsible for every aspect of an ad campaign. Success or failure relies on this person’s skills, talents and experience. Yet this agency is willing to settle for adequate.

I know it’s just a TV show, but in this case, it reflects the real world. Mediocrity flourishes among management throughout all sorts of organizations. These managers are not completely inept, or committing fraud, or causing great losses for the organization. They come in every day, they complete their assigned tasks, they don’t make waves. But they aren’t leaders who are going to grow the organization, either. They make the trains run on time, but don’t expect them to lay any new tracks.

In one organization I used to work for, we had one such manager. In discussing his lackluster performance with his supervisor, the supervisor told me that while he wasn’t doing a great job, he wasn’t doing poorly enough to fire him. In other words, adequate was good enough. Meanwhile, the organization suffered.

How these people reach management positions is a topic for another day. Once they get there, however, there is one main reason they don’t lose their jobs – their supervisors, senior management, are cowards. Firing, or even disciplining, subordinates can be messy and uncomfortable. You might think that people who have reached the pinnacle of their careers would be used to messy situations, comfortable with conflict. A lot of senior managers got where they are because they were great engineers, salespeople or financial analysts. Leadership never factored into their success. So they are ill-equipped to handle the difficult staffing decisions that come with their position.

One manager I know fired an employee one day, only to have him show up the next. Turns out, he was so roundabout in giving the news that the employee didn’t realize he had been let go. This is why I suggest using a script for terminations and sticking to it. It makes an unpleasant interaction quick, clean and clear.

Interestingly, many senior managers who have trouble firing someone to his/her face have no problem with laying off hundreds, or even thousands, with a stroke of a pen. Of course in those cases, they don’t actually have to sit across from those being let go – they can sit safely up in their corner office and leave the dirty work for line managers, consultants and HR.

In the end, the ad agency in Madmen commits the ultimate sin when it comes to getting rid of employees. They don’t tell Don he’s fired. Instead, they put conditions on his return that are so restrictive they hope that he’ll say no and leave on his own. This cop-out often occurs in real life, too. A manager doesn’t have the guts to fire someone, so they just make work life so unbearable, the person eventually leaves.

I’ve had managers suggest this tactic to me. My response – if the employee isn’t a fit for the job, don’t play games. You owe it to the organization, and even to that employee, to cut the cord right now.

These managers even have the impression that if the employee quits and isn’t fired, the employee won’t have any grounds for a lawsuit. Untrue. Forcing an employee to quit is called constructive discharge, and if proven, is seen as no different as firing someone in the eyes of the law. This may also have applied to Don’s case. If he had said no to the offer, he probably could have sued and been compensated for his shares in the firm.

But Don accepted their restrictions, which either means he has resigned himself to his fate, or has a trick up his sleeve. Regardless, after their poor handling of this situation, maybe its the other partners who should be placed on “indefinite leave”.

Ode to a Mentor

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I met Nina Pavlov through my first job out of college at the Kroch’s and Brentano’s Bookstore in Skokie, Illinois. A year before, I had gotten the job of assistant manager. It had nothing to do with my degree, but I had worked retail throughout college and high school. It was in the middle of a recession. I had bills to pay and couldn’t go on long without health insurance. They didn’t pay well, but I learned a lot and they had good benefits, including the ability to check out any hardcover book in the store – a great perk for a reader like me. It was a stepping stone and sometimes you just have to take advantage of the opportunities that come along (are you listening new grads holding out for you dream job?)

The store manager left. He was high strung, and couldn’t handle the pressure that came with the long lines and ringing phones that were retail. Often I would end up stepping in to do his work when he couldn’t handle it. Because of this, I naturally expected to take his place. Back then, I considered running my own store to be the pinnacle of my career.

I was stunned and even a little angry when Nina walked in to take charge. The President of the company told me about her in glowing terms while I hid my disappointment. She had just moved from Boston, where she had been managing stores for a local chain. He hired her almost immediately, unsure of what she would do for the organization, but sure she would be an asset.

Disgruntled as I was, I sucked it up. I was a good soldier. Besides, Nina and I hit it off almost immediately. Looking back on it, it was probably a conscious decision on her part to win me over. I had the respect of the staff, I understood how the organization ran (important for someone with no experience in the company) and I understood the organization’s culture and personalities. I was an asset.

Nina was not your typical bookstore manager. She wasn’t some guy with a ponytail and three useless masters’ degrees who had never taken a business course. She had once been high up the ladder at a Manhattan-based manufacturing company. Her job, she told me once, was to take the blame when things went wrong. They must have gone wrong often, because the job burned her out. So she settled into the life of a bookstore manager, using her skills to make them run more efficiently and profitably. This background gave her a unique perspective. She understood that as important as her job was to her, there were other things in life. No matter the situation, she took it in stride.

Not everyone shared my admiration. Nina could come off cold to those looking for a manager who was more touchy-feely. She didn’t become too friendly with her staff. She spoke in a tone reminiscent of an East Coast blue blood. Her look was reminiscent of a commissar in Stalin’s Russia – her dark hair pulled back, rarely a smile, almost always wearing black (often, she’d come in covered in blond hair from her dog). She was no-nonsense in her approach. She didn’t mince words. You always knew where you stood with her. She didn’t suffer fools lightly.

In those days, I was young, uncertain and insecure (I’m still all those things except young. But I hide them better nowadays). She showed faith in me. Provided me with the confidence that I had potential to do more, to be more. After we no longer worked together, we ended up talking on the phone often, sometimes meeting for lunch. I was a store manager with another chain by then. She often got upset with me that I hadn’t moved beyond bookstores yet. Not that there is anything wrong with being a bookstore manager. It was just that she knew I was under-challenged, and that there was more out there for me.

At the same time, she didn’t let me get away with much. I recall once showing up 15 minutes late to a meeting that included a lot of head honchos in the organization. The glare she gave me told me that she disapproved. Some years later, I told her I was dating someone with whom I worked. She shook her head, told me I should know better.

Okay, she wasn’t always right. I married that woman and it’s been 18 years of marriage. Still, it stung not to have her approval.

We lost contact over the years. It’s one of my many flaws. I am not good at staying in contact with people I do not regularly come into contact with. It takes a real effort for me to call or email someone in another state, another city.

The other day, I learned that Nina Pavlov had passed away.

I only know this because I searched her on the Web. You know how it is. You find yourself reminiscing about someone you haven’t seen in years, decide to do a keyword search or look the person up on Facebook. We’ve all done it. Usually, they are old girlfriends or boyfriends who we learn are now married with three kids. Or childhood friends who have gone on to become doctors or lawyers or ended up doing time for selling drugs.

Nina had very few entries. No Linkedin or Facebook page, The first one I came across was a record of her home in Chicago being put up for sale. The second was a donation made in her memory to PAWS Chicago. It could have been another Nina Pavlov, but it did list her husband, and she always loved dogs.

The third was an entry was from Old St. Patrick’s Church, a remembrance from November 4, 2012. But I couldn’t find any information as to the circumstances of her death. If the records I found were correct, she died October 11, 2011. She was only 62 Years Old.

Only now do I regret not keeping in touch.
When leaders are asked to mentor others – either through an official program at work, through a professional organization, or informally – they are often hesitant. They have never mentored before, they aren’t sure if they can provide their protégé any real value, they don’t know what to do or what to say. When asked, I usually, give them one piece of advice: Just be there.

Listen, share, advise if necessary. Encourage. Promote. Don’t judge. Be a role model.

All the things Nina was for me.

It isn’t hard. Yet it is vital for young people (and even some older people) moving up through a profession to have that mentor. Is there some cost benefit analysis that can be done to show this value? Unfortunately not. But I don’t know of anyone who is successful in their field – whether it be the arts, business, science, etc. – who didn’t have at least one person who helped them along the way.

When I am asked to take the time out to help some up-and-comer, I try to make time to do so. I recall how Nina helped me, and hope, in some small way, to measure up.

And You Call Yourself a Supervisor

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So The Supreme Court delivered another ill-conceived ruling yesterday.

In a 5-4 decision, they determined that a black employee of Ball State University who was relegated to menial tasks, subject to racist comments and even slapped by her supervisor could not file suit against the University for discrimination. While this supervisor managed the day-to-day work of the employee, the supervisor could not take “tangible actions” against the employee and so was not legally a supervisor, only a coworker. In other words, organizations are only liable for the actions of those who have the authority to hire or fire employees.

Oh yeah, and corporations are people, my friend.

This is what happens when you have people making an employment law decision who have their jobs for life.

While the supervisor in question could not take “tangible actions” against the employee, she could make the employee’s life a living hell. The supervisor could give her the worst jobs and the worst schedules. She could make her look bad in front of other employees. The supervisor undoubtedly had influence and input over pay, promotion and termination decisions.

The law makes employers liable for its supervisors so that they take responsibility to ensure that those they put in charge comply with the law. Without this liability in place, employers have no legal reason to hire or train supervisors who are discriminating, and no incentive to discipline them when they do. Of course, many will anyway, because they are decent people working for decent organizations who understand that a workplace where everyone is treated with respect increases productivity. But there are also those who won’t give a damn unless there is a threat of losing a chunk of change in a lawsuit.

In organizations I’ve worked for, no one has the absolute power to fire or demote someone. Pay changes go through a strict authorization process. Decisions are generally made between the direct supervisor, senior management and human resources. Yes, we rely heavily on a direct supervisor’s input, but if they summarily fired someone, they would be soon to follow. These processes are prudent to ensure good business decisions. It could also protect a company from liability. It could argue that since the person does not have sole decision-making ability, that person is not a supervisor, no matter how high up the rung that person is. A stretch, I know, but still, a question left unanswered.

All, in all, most organizations won’t change based on this ruling. Good employers will continue to be good employers. The jerks will always be jerks.