“Best Place to Work” – and the managers who create that culture

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

HR departments warn managers that we have no right (and in fact, are prohibited) from knowing or caring about employees’ personal lives beyond the workplace. This is intended to protect employees from supervisors who loathe people who smoke or have a couple beers after work, or who would look down on people having some financial difficulties, or disapprove of those who drive too fast on occasion. Or who would never hire a felon returning to the community after doing time. But there are unintended consequences, too, like giving less scrupulous managers a green light not to care AT ALL about people outside the workplace.

Many years ago, I knew both an XYZ company president (“Martin”) and also an XYZ mid-level manager (“Ray”). In strict confidence, Martin told me that Ray was about to be let go; Ray’s vision had never quite gelled with Martin’s vision of the position, and the owner had decided to “cut him loose.” In a firing situation, timing is everything; it wasn’t optimal for the company to fire Ray until a project he personally was handling was finished, which would be very soon – but not yet.

In the meantime, Ray unexpectedly asked to meet with me about a private matter. He told me, over a cup of coffee, that his wife – after years of looking – had finally found her dream home, and they had made an accepted offer. His wife was a schoolteacher with a set salary, so he was really stressing about his ability to carry the higher expense of the new home, and spending the savings that they had worked so hard to accumulate – their “rainy day fund.” However, the family had seriously outgrown their rented apartment, “and what better way to spend it than putting a down payment on a new, beautiful home?”

Ray was going to sign the papers the next day, and he wanted to set his “neurotic worries” aside, like his wife advised, and allow himself to enjoy a celebratory mood. “You’ve always encouraged me to believe more in myself,” he said, “so I’m excited to tell you I’m doing it.”

I suggested that before he buy the home, it might be a good time to approach his boss and ask for feedback about his future opportunities at work. He pooh-poohed that idea, saying that he and Martin seemed to be getting along so much better lately. I suggested then that he might sit down with a financial planner before making such a big decision, and he told me he’d already done it. In fact, Ray was very conservative with money, and very likely had made sure every dollar was accounted for in the new budget.

But did he plan to lose his job? No. I did let Martin know of the situation immediately after the conversation and asked him please, please, as a personal favor, tell Ray THAT VERY DAY that his job was in jeopardy, but no, that didn’t fit into the company’s plan to have Ray finish the project. It would set everything back three months to bring in someone new to figure out what he had done, and how to finish it. In other words, a premature “you’re outta here” was out of the question.

I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Ray and his wife bought the new home and – three business days later – he lost his job. Since then, it’s been hard for me to face him, even though firing him was not my decision to make or influence. Just knowing about the situation he was going to be left in has bothered me all these years later, even though he later (much later) resurfaced in another job.

A ‘termination’ usually leaves at least two casualties

Since then, like the company president I’ve mentioned, I’ve also had to make decisions that made me feel like scum, but were necessary for the company’s improvement or survival. For example, I had come to a very difficult decision to restructure in such a way that a position would be downsized. Between the decision to do it, and the actuality of it, the person announced that they were about to have another child.

So I’ve coined Patrick’s Law, which suggests that a departure will occur at the best possible time for the one making the decision to sever the relationship, and the worst possible time for the one receiving notice of the separation. Very rarely do the stars and planets line up to make it a “win/win” scenario. And those misalignments leave a lot of casualties behind, a lot of regrets and sorrow, and I’ve met very few managers who don’t also need or want a drink after having initiated “the talk” and “the escorted walk.”

On the other hand, there are bosses who frankly don’t give a damn, Scarlett

I know a man who told me that his second-happiest day at work was the day he hired a person whom he personally detested for having treated him badly in a former job. One career had risen meteorically while the other had stalled mid-flight, and so the tables ironically were now turned 180 degrees. “You want to hire him to make his professional life miserable?” I asked, imagining what it would be like to work for someone who hated me … and knowing that would be a job I’d never take.

“Oh no,” he said. “For one year, I’m going to make this his dream job. I’m going to promote him and pay him more than he’d ever be worth at another company. And then, when he buys that new big home – as everybody who gets a big promotion eventually does – I’m going to fire his @$$.”

“And that will be your absolute happiest day at work,” I predicted.

“Exactly.”

Another colleague and I were speaking about this sort of vendetta hiring, and he knows a company president who does much the same thing, though not from spite so much as from a twisted sense of professional jealousy or a desire to wield power over influential people. He is known for recruiting big-name people (in that industry) from other states. After the courting and honeymoon stage, AFTER these big names are on staff, the owner seems to take great pleasure in reminding them often (and usually in public) that they now serve at his whim – AFTER they buy the home and put their kids in Madison-area schools.

Righteous manager working on behalf of the entire company, or evil-doer?

Differing surveys come to the same result: 86% of the people in any workplace believe they are in the top 20% when it comes to the value they add to a company. Obviously, there is great opportunity, then, for hurt feelings when they discover that a manager doesn’t agree with their personal view of their contributions. And obviously, MOST managers do not enjoy firing people, though they are hired to make the hard decisions about how to put together a cohesive team that can take the company from point A to point B. Sometimes that means restructuring, changing course, and even an employee who was good at doing “A” work is not as valuable if the company now needs “B” work done because of a changing market or new opportunity.

Also, the quickest way to demoralize an entire workforce is to have a manager who can’t justly prune and is too slow to fire people who have different agendas or who, frankly, think their role is devil’s advocate or disgruntled spokesperson, offering lots of criticism but no helpful suggestions or forward-moving ideas. That manager loses respect in the workplace as quickly as the one who fires too soon.

In the end, we are all people and we do the best we can – that’s my personal belief system – and sometimes there are great employment matches, and sometimes there are changes that must be made. Discounting the psychopaths among us, the managers I know and choose to break bread with do care about their staff 24/7, not just the hours they are physically in the office. And some of them go to heroic measures to show that appreciation for the work, talent, and time people invest in an organization; to thank or reward them for the time spent away from their families, friends, and other obligations.

And so I’ve asked IB editors to start featuring companies – writing profiles on them – wherein owners or key managers are doing extraordinary things to show respect and concern for their workforce. You’ll be reading about examples in this area. We all know the bad examples: Let’s shine a light on the best managers in the area and celebrate what a difference they can and do make in our marketplace.

Got a nomination for “Best Place to Work”? Email me the particulars and we’ll talk.

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.