Are bosses bastards?

Reprise of a Mike Jones piece from the old ABC Unleashed Blog

Updated 29 Sep 2010, 12:00pm

Just over a year ago I wrote two pieces for Unleashed – Bosses are Bastards, and The Corporate Death Rattle – or how to tell when your organisation is going guts up. Good timing.

Bosses are bastards told the true story of a mate who had been treated badly by his current employer, found a new job with another organisation only to find out that they were short on ethical behaviour too – even trying to chisel him on the agreed salary after the handshake.

Unleashed readers were evenly divided about whether he should have stayed or gone – really a question of whether the devil you know is a better choice than the higher paying but unknown alternative bastard.

Time for an update.

Terry works in a professional services firm. Think about it like say, an accounting firm. As it turned out, he did take the higher paying job with the new employer (who tried to chisel the salary already agreed). It was plan B – that is, no expectation of a long loving employer-employee relationship, but better than being in the frying pan of a struggling firm for less cash.

They put the acid on him from the outset. The pressure was on for him to develop a new strategic plan for marketing the firm’s services. They also expected him to take responsibility for the revenue performance of the new firm. Some impossibilities started cropping up. It takes a while to get to know the people, strengths and resources in a new firm, their current and target clients. Not generally feasible to turn a multi-million dollar revenue firm around in the first month.

Professional services firms often operate like a collection of fiefdoms – that is, a partner will have his or her own team, and the fact that they’re part of a larger firm is almost incidental. These teams protect their own turf and are often unwilling to collaborate or share information – lest some other team steals their thunder – or worse, stuffs up and cruels a nice steady little earner. The scope for collective sales and marketing and national or regional roles can be a nonsense – and in this case, it was.

Of greater concern for Terry was the growing realisation that the CEO and the Chairman had differing views about what they wanted from him – and also whether they felt he was on the right track or not. Dicey position, two bosses. Good cop. Bad cop. And when they insisted that he stay back at work on the week before Christmas (and miss the firm’s Christmas party) to complete the plan – just one month into the job, the writing was on the wall. They were looking seriously like they were trying to steal his intellectual property through the illusion of offering a permanent job where they could get their plan done and then terminate him after the three months probationary period.

So, two days before Christmas, Terry joined the ranks of the unemployed.

But there was a twist.

When a few of the managers in Terry’s former company found out, they offered him contract work such that he was earning and taking home in three days more than when he was working full time. But the illusion of security was destroyed totally.

And three other interesting problems occurred. First, nobody actually was his boss, and everybody seemed to think they were, contracted or not. Second, the woman who had been promoted into the job Terry left was perhaps understandably not too happy about signing off his timesheets and paying him more than she was earning for work for which he was, in effect, competing successfully with her.

Third, this unhappiness expressed itself in a bizarre formal (and unsubstantiated) complaint against Terry for alleged sexual harassment.

Enter the HR department. The plot thickens. The HR Manager told Terry that this woman had a track record of making sexual harassment claims and that she was undergoing counselling following a relationship breakdown. Terry was also advised to avoid being alone with her in the office – lifts, meeting rooms etc. But they still left her in charge of signing Terry’s timesheets. So now getting paid was added to the list of interesting workday challenges.

A month later, after harassment complaints against her from three of her female colleagues had been raised with HR, the firm counselled the woman. But HR bungled that one too. They told her in detail who had made the complaints. They did not counsel her to leave the complainants alone and she went for their throats. So the firm sacked her on the spot.

Then the firm put into action its third restructure in two years and the HR Department started on that tried and true morale crushing exercise of getting people to re-apply for what looked like their old jobs. But when they did re-apply, for many with insufficient patronage from one of the partners, there simply was no place in the org chart. Or the closest similar place was not surprisingly for 20% less money. Young graduate pups recruited six months previously, were “let go”. These folks will make it their mission to poison the firm’s reputation every time they get a chance. And who would blame them?

And so there soon became a growing cadre of Terry-like contractors serving the clients but earning less and without having any job security one month to the next.

I started to wonder what the HR Department really means in today’s organisation. Terry’s experience was that that they were amiable but ineffective beyond doing payroll administration. Moreover they were not to be trusted because in his experience they sanctioned unethical behaviour by the managers and partners. They were the instruments of enforcing unfair and marginal practices that could be successfully challenged at law. Clearly people often see HR as their friends in the organisation, but the circumstances we see increasingly suggest that this view has its limits. In some cases, the HR Department itself faces the unpleasant choice of implementing management policies that disenfranchise other employees or face being outsourced themselves.

Ethical HR is an important contributor to a firm’s culture, but it is not of itself THE culture.

Ethical HR professionals cannot continue to work for essentially evil organisations. They face a choice – like Terry did – to cop working in an unconscionable place day after day, or to leave. That means that evil firms end up with evil HR departments – ones that are certainly not the friends of people who work there.

So then HR retreats to a role of perpetrating bastardry and only putting the brakes on managerial malfeasance in a spirit of protecting the business from prosecution (or successful litigation against their mongrel acts).

In my experience, union membership in professional services firms is practically, if not actually non-existent. But it does seem that a global financial meltdown is a particularly good time for professionals to remember that when the chips are down, it’s the unions who have industrial and employment law expertise and it’s not going to be the HR department that protects their best interests.

Oh, postscript. This HR Department manager and his staff all failed to find a spot in the new org chart and were outsourced. But I guess they would have at least seen it coming. They do, after all draw and maintain the org chart. From psychology and industrial law to graphic arts; such a short trip.