When I left the military service years ago, my first civilian job was in operations management in the trucking industry. I went through an extensive six-month management training program that included office operations of a trucking terminal, accounting and billings practices, ranking and rating freight, loading dock operations, load planning, dispatching, payroll, IIC regulations, DOT regulations, maintenance records, safety regulations, OSHA guidelines, union contract obligations, and making the kind of coffee that will keep you awake on a double shift. I was even given basic training in tow motor operations in which I drove an 18-wheeler around the yard and practiced backing into a loading dock. The philosophy of the company was you couldn’t order people how to do something you have never done yourself. Interesting concept ó but too bad the follow through was less than the intent. But the program taught me to respect what the people did who I managed ó and to see them as the “real” workers. In any business, not just trucking, you have people who “do” and you have the people who write reports on what others “did.” The further away you get from the “doing,” the further away you get from being the person who is actually making the company money. It’s unfortunate that far too many managers assume that by writing reports is “they” are the ones making the money. As pleased as I was initially with my job, I slowly discovered worker/management issues that ultimately made the experience intolerable for me. I worked in one of nineteen terminals in our region. At the end of three years, I managed the operations of the #1 terminal with a 123% performance rating based on our labor-to-revenue costs (to put it in perspective, the #2 terminal was at 91% of goal). Based on our performance, the company rewrote our goals so that our past above-goal performance would only equal, under the new numbers, a 95% goal attainment. At the end of the year we were at 113% of our new goals. The #2 terminal was at 88%. I guess they got new numbers as well. I mention the above not to brag (okay, maybe a little), but to bring to light the first instance in my life of experiencing really bad management. The time had come for my annual review with the regional manager, my fourth review. The conversation went something like this: Regional Manager: Ken, I would like to promote you to the terminal manager slot. But to be frank, I don’t think you’re ready. You’ve been with use for four years, and to date, you have not written a single warning letter or terminated a single employee. Me: But I haven’t had a labor issue or grievance that required either. The staff and I have developed a great working relationship, and they know better than to try to get away with anything, because that would jeopardize the relationship. I have worked to make that relationship something worth keeping. Besides, I run your #1 terminal. Regional Manager: You don’t seem to grasp the situation. Due to you lax attitude, your people are probably getting away with murder behind your back, because they know you are unwilling to take action. Me: What exactly is it that they are getting away with while outperforming every other group of “tamed” employees in the region? Regional Manager: Managers who don’t take disciplinary action are looking for trouble. Me: How many warning letters does the #19 terminal manager write? Regional Manager: That’s not the point. I want you to write a warning letter by the end of the month or I will have doubts about your future. I called the regional HR manager the next day to ask about my options. I was upset that results were less important than draconian gestures. The answer from HR made up my mind for me: “He is the regional manager; what can I do?” This is the battle cry of too many of us in HR/staffing. The first thing I wrote was not a warning letter, but a new resume. The second thing I wrote was in fact a warning letter…to the regional manager. I advised him, “Your short-sighted management practices could result in the early termination of your career, as you do not seem to grasp that the first obligation of management is to make a company profitable and not merely to work out personal frustrations or exercise 18th century management philosophies to compensate for personal shortcomings.” It was a great letter. I was smart enough not to write that letter until after I had received a new job offer. I was leaving the industry, so I figured burning one bridge wasn’t all that bad. One year later, the company was gone. The regional manager was gone. The regional HR manager was gone. Everyone who counted on this company for a livelihood was gone. I have always assumed that this was the result of the fact that too many managers of low profit terminals were promoted because they fit a management mold based less on the principles of successful business practices than on testosterone and Neanderthal-like thinking. But one of the other underlying reasons was that the ultimate watchdog of policies and practices designed to protect the valuable human resources of the company ó the HR manager ó could only answer me, “What can I do?” What do you do? Good hiring practices and good management training programs can only serve to “try” to develop an effective management team. But you will inevitably fail from time to time in your efforts. How you behave when that happens not only affects that singular event, but the company as a whole. Exceptions only prove that outcome is never certain, and employees fear the exceptions more than they trust the rule. If you want to build a solid management team, there have to be consequences for those managers who fail. If the failure is in not meeting revenue goals, sales goals, production goals, quality goals, shipping goals and other “tangible” results, most companies seem to have no issue in fixing the problem. But those same companies often fail to react, or even notice, the tangible losses caused by financially successful managers who are failing as managers of the human resources in their department ó their workers, i.e. the people who really make the money. What are the costs of poor management? To list only a few:
- Excessive sick days
- Excessive turnover
- Lost talent that reduces overall efficiency
- Replacement costs
- Training costs
- Low productivity
- Poor quality products or services (employees always find a way to get even, believe me)
- Lost sales due to customers who are weary of doing business with unhappy people (you want to buy from THIS company? REALLY?)
But since these factors often do not appear on a tally sheet, a bad manager who burns their people up while still looking good often gets away with it. Evidence of poor management is often hard to locate, especially if your approach to eradicating poor managers is to sit in your office hoping nobody comes to complain. Employees are afraid to come forward for fear that they will be labeled as malcontents. They often feel that it makes little sense for them to do “the company’s job.” They are afraid of the consequences if their boss is not removed. They do not believe that HR/staffing will do a darn thing about it. And all too often they are right. The key component of an effective management disciplinary program MUST include:
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- A solid commitment, in writing, from the senior management team. Without the CEO’s real backing, you are merely creating another useless, feel good, “aren’t we progressive?” HR exercise in futility. The axe must fall from high, or it will not chop. The employees have little trust in us already; without the CEO, they will not believe this program either.
- A clear charter. The charter must be clearly communicated and ingrained in the minds of the workers and management through both the initial orientation program and frequent reminders.
- Authority. The authority to enforce must be automatic if the required disciplinary action criterion is determined to exist by a company officer in HR/staffing other than the suspected manager’s functional superior. (Hey, he may be a real jerk, but he is my best sales manager!)
- Employee participation. Participating in the process must be seen by the employees as something the company encourages, expects, and requires to ensure its success and growth through improved productivity. It should not be seen as “squealing” to do your part as an employee.
So where do you begin, and what are the metrics? We will get into that in the next installment. The most difficult challenge will always be not the program itself; companies half-heartedly approve look-good/feel-good programs all the time. The most difficult challenge is in creating an atmosphere where your corporate management is willing to look not only at short-term gains, but at the long-term goal of developing a solid management/worker team concept, one where failing as a manager of your human talent is as detrimental to your career development as not meeting your revenue goal. If you understand business, you know that the two are inseparable. Have a great day recruiting.