Sunday, June 29, 2014
Relying on karma is not an effective management tool
How responsible is a boss for responding to complaints about a manager who's alleged to have bullied employees, danced around the truth on expense reports, sought favor for relatives over those more qualified, and generally treated employees reporting to him miserably?
For several years, a manager at a mid-size organization had been berating employees reporting to him -- chastising them for not showing up to meetings he'd never told them about, trying his best to embarrass them at company-wide meetings by questioning how hard they'd worked on a presentation, asking a new employee to say she'd been at a company dinner so he could pad his expense report, assigning tasks to a relative that typically would have gone to more senior employees.
Many of his actions involved his word against the employees', so it was difficult to pinpoint concrete evidence of any wrongdoing.
Helping him enormously was the man's ability to charm the managers to whom he reported. In business, the pejorative expression used to describe such behavior is "kiss up and kick down."
Employees who tried to broach the subject with the manager's bosses were generally shunted aside with comments suggesting they were "overreacting."
The manager took full credit for any successes in his division. Any shortcomings were laid fully on the backs of employees.
Morale deteriorated. Some employees asked for transfers to other divisions. Others found new jobs elsewhere.
Finally, the president of the organization asked for a particular member of the manager's staff to work on a pet project. Those involved met frequently as a group. On one such occasion, the employee found himself walking with the president from a meeting back to their respective offices. Sensing an opportunity, he told her about some of the issues that had been simmering for years involving the manager.
The president wasn't surprised. She reassured the employee that all would be well because in her experience "what goes around comes around."
Was she right to presume that those who behave badly ultimately get their comeuppance rather than to address the issue head on?
Whether or not the maxim holds true, the president and other top brass were wrong to turn a blind eye to inappropriate treatment of employees by a company manager. Relying on karma is not an effective management tool.
The right thing would have been for the manager's bosses to take the complaints seriously and investigate. When the reports reached the president, she should have insisted that the problem be explored and addressed.
It's fine to drive employees hard and have high expectations. It is not fine to belittle and abuse them in the workplace.
Ultimately, a new president took over and the manager eventually lost his position. By that time, more employees, including the one confiding in the previous president, had left the company. Karma may have factored into the outcome, but by turning a blind eye the organization lost good employees in the long run.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.