Management by Avoidance

“I see NOTHING!”

Remember that time you thought it would be a good idea to not deal with that issue with your spouse, partner, child or parent? Remember how well that went? While there as many different management styles as there are parenting styles, the fact of the matter is that practicing either, using avoidance as your main driver, will always, ALWAYS end poorly.

Here’s one such story (of far too many) that occurred at my company.

The main character we’ll call “Employee”. Employee started out fine though for whatever reason decided that he much preferred reading blogs, playing fantasy sports and movie trailers to actual work. It was first noticed by, well, everyone who walked by his cube, because it wasn’t like he was hiding what was on his screen. Unfortunately, not all employees are self-motivated. Some need to be guided to find a reason to work. Some need to be challenged. As you’ll see here, there was no positive motivation given to Employee so he fell further and further away.

Employee’s Manager #1, a nice enough and smart enough guy, was unfortunately completely unqualified to manage people as he, by nature, avoids all conflict. The fact is that he never wanted to manage people, yet he was inexplicably given that responsibility (a story for another time). The first part of the story is how Manager #1 dealt with it. You’ll have to trust me that I’m totally not kidding. He would only approach employee’s cubicle from the side that made it harder to see Employee’s screen and he would do so while gently tapping the wall and coughing so that Employee would know he was coming. By the time Manager #1 got to Employee’s cube, the problem was, ya know, resolved.

At appraisal and raise/bonus time, Manager #1 didn’t actually try to pretend Employee was any better than average, rating him a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 means “walks on water” and 1 means “fire now”). Of course, one would hope that a software engineer, who spends more QA’ing Yahoo Fantasy Sports than writing code for his projects, would never be rated higher than a 2 (below average) with a stern warning to turn around or be fired. That, of course, never happened.

After a couple of years of Manager #1 and Director (Manager #1’s manager and mine too) sweeping Employee’s issues under the carpet, there was a reorganization, and it was time for Manager #2. Manager #2 was very intelligent, ladder-climbing, narcissist who lists backstabber and pathological liar as his most endearing qualities. I actually had hopes that a narcissist would realize that a manager is only as good as the people who work for you. Alas that was not to be. The mantle of avoidance was passed to the next person.

So on it went, for years, YEARS. People constantly complained to me that Employee did nothing and then it was demoralizing to have to walk by Employee’s office only to see a blog or fantasy sports on his computer screen. Anyone could’ve run a simple query on the bug database and seen that Employee’s output was next to nil, yet the blinders were, inexplicably, on. One day, my coworker and I did our own test. We shut off the only development server that Employee could use for work. We knew that Employee would never actually figure out how to reboot the server and would come to one of us to say “it’s down” so we’d know exactly when our test was over. Three DAYS it took Employee to notice. Must’ve been a heavy fantasy sports week…

At the next appraisal period it was once again time for sausage to be made. As with all the other meetings, I brought up the facts of the case and every single time I was not just shot down with eye rolls and conspiracy theories (the conspiracy being that I had something against my peer managers which was a standard baseless, 99% false theory with the 1% true being the fact that they weren’t doing their jobs and then had the audacity to lie about it). The only change to Employee’s behavior that ever came out of it was, yes, you guessed it, he was instructed to turn his monitor more toward the inside of his office so that people walking by couldn’t see it. Once again, ya know, problem solved. One day, before the monitor turning, I made it a point to walk by Employee’s office 20 times throughout the day and note what was on his screen. 19 times it was fantasy sports.

It was time for Director to get out his broom and do some active avoidance (interesting term, no?). He was, after all, taught and enabled by some of the best avoiders in the business. So he made the fantastic decision to change the format of the sausage making. Manager #2 and wife (Manager #2a), were to meet separately with Director. He would then, accepting the complete horseshit from Manager #2 and #2a, merge it with our non-delusional appraisals of our employees. It’s important and amusing to note that both #2 and #2a had invented this fantastical conspiracy where I was the villain. (Begin: Tangent) Many years prior, when Manager #2a worked for me, she came into my office during her first appraisal (1 year out of college) and demanded, rather, commanded, that I promote her. Now even though I had consistently rated her as a 5 because she had done a great job, I was so taken aback, I barely knew what to say. I said that we have written criteria for the next level and we have a history of waiting at least 2 years and she should feel free to speak with Director about it (for the record, Director inexplicably caved, thus establishing an awesome pattern of #2 and #2a walking all over him). Additionally, when I told her that her raise was 8%, she angrily responded, “Yeah, that’s just inflation.” So clearly, she was having none of this crazy reality stuff. As a side note, I printed out a chart showing that inflation is historically 3% (at the time it was far less), thinking that seeing the facts would actually make her happy. Alas, it did no good and as my reward she spread the word that I was misogynist. If only she’d spread that word to ALL of the other women who’ve worked for me that could tell you it wasn’t even vaguely true. (End: Tangent)

So the screen had been turned, the sausage making had been reconfigured and, I just know you’ll be shocked to learn that Employee-induced morale was at an all-time low, that Employee’s production was less than nothing and Employee’s office hours were 10:30 to 3:30. He openly admitted that he did no work from home so don’t go thinking he was burning the midnight oil. However, the situation was finally going to take a turn toward reality.

Employee now shared an office with Employee #2. Given that Employee’s screen had been turned inward, Employee #2 could see everything that Employee was “doing” all day long. This is where it got interesting. Employee #2 was one of the few people whose thoughts that Director valued, if he were to say something about Employee. Employee #2 was an interesting fellow, who was all about conflict avoidance. When I asked if he’d go to Director and tell him that Employee was doing nothing productive all day long, he said that he would not. He did say however, if Director came to him, he would tell all. As a proactive person, I found it weird, though understandable. Employee #2 told me it was a “cultural thing.” Finally, I had my ace in the hole. The question was how and when to use it.

As luck would have it, we were about to enter the appraisal period. At the time, our company was using a 360-degree appraisal process (several years after I instituted it for my own group because the company was doing nothing). If used correctly, it’s an awesome process because, as a manager, you get feedback on your direct reports from their peers, subordinates and other people with whom they work. It’s a win-win situation for manager and employee. Unfortunately, as with most good processes our company has had over the years, most of the people who are supposed to support it are intent on figuring out how not to use them, so most either don’t ever solicit feedback or don’t even bother giving appraisals. To my unimaginable surprise though, VP (Director’s Manager), solicited my feedback on Director. Under the “areas of improvement” I mentioned that Director has a storied history of being either incapable of or unwilling to correctly judge employees. As an example, I cited the case of Employee (the Reader’s Digest version of course because I only had 1000 characters). Again to my surprise, VP hit the roof. His exact words were, “I can’t have this type of thing in my group.” I explained to VP that there was more than enough proof if he needed any of it.

Within a day or so of the roof-hitting, it was time for our next sausage making session with Director. This was even more special because we were told that we were losing an employee to go work for Manager #2 and #2a because they were understaffed. So I said, “Wait a second here. We’re losing one of our employees because they have an employee who does nothing all day?” Since it was over the phone I only heard the tell-tale sigh from Director. It was clearly time to play my ace. Director had no choice but to talk to Employee #2. Granted, I knew that nothing would change, however, I selfishly hoped I would at least be vindicated to some level.

Director spoke with Employee #2, got the story and…yes, of course, nothing changed.

However, lo and behold, soon after the appraisal process concluded, we were faced with a rather large “reduction in force” (layoff). I personally had to lay off two people, one of whom is a friend. I made it a point to ask Director, “Is Employee on the layoff list?” The answer was yes. Praise be.

When the day came for layoffs, it was, to say the least, not fun. It was time to layoff my friend. There were tears and hugs for sure. However, what I remember the most was, after I delivered the news, her first words were, “Please tell me Employee is getting laid off too.” Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Later that morning, I was talking to someone when Employee came walking by. He was crying after being laid off. Crying as if he saw nothing wrong with “working” 6 hour days, of which at least 5 of those hours was consumed by fantasy sports. Crying as if he’d never been told that his behavior was unacceptable. Oh, yeah…

So, let’s summarize. Employee did nothing for YEARS. He was rewarded with bonuses and even an office upgrade. He was never told anything was wrong. I, on the other hand, was put in a position where I had to repeatedly stick my neck out and “accept” all the scorn of Manager #1, #2 and #2a. I had to “accept” the private smackdowns from Director. All the while, I was ONE HUNDRED PERCENT correct in everything I said and everything I did.

The true absurdity of the situation is that it ALL of that would’ve been avoided if any one of Employee’s managers had sat him down and had an “uncomfortable” conversation for a few minutes. In other words, it would have been avoided if any of Employee’s managers had actually DONE THEIR JOB.

The morale-killing tenure of Employee was finally at an end there was only one thing left to make this right again. It was time for everyone involved to apologize. I would hope by now that you’re not surprised that nobody ever did. Director, especially, still owes me an enormous apology. He, more so than Manager #1, #2 and #2a, knows the majority of the story.

Unfortunately, in the world of avoidance, apparently one avoids apologizing too.