A recent survey by The Conference Board, a not-for-profit organization that disseminates information about business management and economic trends, showed that job satisfaction in America hit a record low in 2009. Part of the problem is managers who run roughshod over morale. Part of the solution is employee surveys that provide an underpinning for managers’ performance appraisals.
Formal grievance procedures against miscreant managers are a drastic option, and often bring adversity to the whistleblower. But so-called “upward assessments” empower subordinates by giving them input into management performance appraisals. Measuring management behavior, not some nebulous notion that “the company cares about its people,” will rein in abusive managers simply because once something is measured, it generally improves.
I don’t need to refer to the human resource trend du jour — I already know this because my previous manager was Darth Vader reincarnate. Recognizing the threat to his evil little empire, he usurped the survey process, twisting it to the dark side.
Published norms, articles about workplace bullying, quarterly process meetings and retreats were all his decoys, but his ultimate subterfuge was the employee survey. He cunningly constructed this devious document to shirk responsibility and shroud his malice. His dastardly plot recognized that direct surveys represented a powerful check upon his unfettered malevolence.
When I started this job I was bemused that our 25-person department had its own set of norms: ten principles that basically boiled down to the golden rule. Everyone else in our large organization was content to operate under organization-wide principles.
On the surface, our department was a group of top-notch professionals working in accord. It seemed we had struck the optimal balance between efficiency, effectiveness and employee moral, but why did we have a special set of norms, I wondered? Why were they plastered everywhere: on the conference room walls, on our manager’s door, in meeting rooms? One could not walk more than a few yards without encountering them.
I was new, but no one on our team seemed capable of belittling, intimidating, disrespecting or otherwise mistreating a co-worker. Was this because of the norms? Or was something more sinister at play that the norms were hiding?
A few months after I started it was time for my first quarterly “process” meeting. As far as I could tell, this was rare, if not unique to our department. Part of the unusual agenda called for a discussion of our norms and a potential employee survey. An extra copy of our norms was posted on the meeting room door, almost as if there had been a recent breach of etiquette. There had been, many breaches, the perpetrator ambushing her victims then squirming to our manager Darth for refuge.
As I ventured more frequently into various domains within our organization I noticed people wincing when I told them where I worked. But I was new, an innocent wookie oblivious to the dark side of the force. I went about my merry way even as my day or reckoning drew closer.
Our next departmental oddity was our yearly retreat. Wait a minute; retreats are for dysfunctional teams, aren’t they? I remembered from business school they might be an appropriate venue for an organization that manufactured widgets even while marketing was promoting screws and operations was into nails. Clearly, they needed a retreat, but not our small, laser-focused workgroup; unless, of course, this was part of the elaborate charade.
It was, and my days of blissful ignorance were ripped asunder back at H.Q. when I fell into the crosshairs of Darth’s personal assistant. Apparently, my tendency to ponder nuances annoyed her. For daring to suggest that inventory items need to be entered into a database for proper tracking I was publicly excoriated. Such was her venom that several witnesses were quite shaken, a 12-year veteran of salty Navy language, I was even taken aback but maintained enough composure to suggest she read our norms.
I was beginning to connect the dots. Our department’s public image was but a cover up, all a happy face on a veil that concealed the twisted anger of an ogre who was mollycoddled by lord Vader himself.
I was but the latest victim of a long line of rapacious rampages where employee pride and self-confidence were laid waste. No wonder everyone was so compliant and cooperative, they had succumbed. After each devastating raid, our resident ogre sought respite in Darth’s chamber. Job done, she then retreated to her cube to suddenly transform into the public image of serenity beneath her conspicuous copy of our incongruous norms.
Now I knew why everyone winced, everyone except unaware upper-level management. Job satisfaction is good for productivity so they must be informed. Not through formal grievance procedures, but by eliciting employee input into our manager’s performance appraisals, Darth could be redeemed, and the ogre laid bare and slain.
By attempting to hijack it, our manager had shown his repressive regime’s soft underbelly: the employee survey. His rendition was an utterly corrupt and deceitful document that deliberately avoided questions about management, misdirecting potential blame to feeble droids. The sham demonstrated that a targeted survey could be powerful straightjacket on managers disposed to running amok.
An employee survey designed to elicit upward feedback would shine light into the dank crypt where he and trusted assistant conspired to wreak havoc. Executives could then expose the tyranny lest another promising career be dashed. Powerful energies aimed at self-preservation could be unleashed toward productive ends, and that represents a big disturbance in the force for good.
About the Author: Noel S. Williams currently enjoys work as an Information Technology Specialist. While he also holds a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, it is his training as Jedi Knight that gives him the fortitude to delve into the dark side of workplace unfairness.