Help Employees Survive Bad Bosses

November, 2002
By Carol Patton

everal years ago, an employee was promoted to president of a corporation's small business unit that sold long-term-care insurance to the elderly.

He was a nice guy. Everybody liked him, but he lacked the necessary management skills and vision to lead the unit. After six months on the job, it became obvious to staff that he was in way over his head. Instability quickly permeated the supervisory ranks. He refused outside consultation and soon closed himself off from the rest of the company. The situation grew so bad that the unit's turnover rate soared to 200 percent and its customer service was deteriorating.

Unfortunately, this true story resembles countless others and reflects an all-too-common scenario: employees managed by an incompetent boss. It's so typical that some HR consultants believe as much as 20 percent of all organizations are being managed this way.

The boss may be the type who screams at staff in front of others. The one who thinks workers can read her mind and criticizes them for not executing her thoughts. Or the kind who just makes bad business decisions - one after the other.

It doesn't matter what management style they practice or what fault they flaunt. Employees disrespect them, don't like them and don't trust them.

Uncontrollable factors like a tight labor market or favoritism typically perpetuate the situation. What isn't common is how HR responds to it. Who's right isn't always obvious, but what works best is. To avoid serious carnage such as high turnover, workplace anger, employee sabotage and even internal theft, HR must help employees develop alternative work attitudes and behaviors that support their bosses and get the jobs done.

In the Trenches

Terence Conley recalls working with the president of that business unit. Conley, now executive vice president of Cendant Corp. based in Parsippany, NJ, says it's critical for HR to build relationships at the client level.

"I put in a new HR head for that unit who had the courage to put her body across the tracks to stop the train," says Conley, who would not reveal the company's name. "Otherwise, the problem would never have been sent up the flagpole."

In a short period of time, she built a non-threatening relationship with the president, alerted him to potential problems and persuaded him to allow HR to hold a series of staff meetings to identify specific issues and resolutions.

Among the first exercises were workshops to retrain the unit's managers and supervisors on proactive management practices like how to motivate employees. Conley says the place had turned into a glorified sweatshop where people were worked to the bone to sell more insurance policies.

Although the president was kept in the loop, he didn't attend any of the meetings, so staff could be candid with their comments regarding why people were quitting and what changes needed to occur. Over the next several months, HR helped staff rebuild the unit's entire management philosophy. In the end, the president left the company.

"It's never going to be a perfect world," Conley says. "If employees know you're serious and working on it, they generally give you the benefit of the doubt. They can at least see some light at the end of the tunnel."

One of the first steps HR takes at PG&E National Energy Group when it hears employees complaining of bad managers is to verify the accuracy of the information, says Erin Andre, vice president of HR at PG&E in Bethesda, Md., which supports 2,400 employees.

"It's not unusual for employees to come to us saying their boss is having a number a problems, especially if the boss is watching more closely the requirement from the employee," she says. "We make sure we hear both sides of the story."

HR then begins working with that manager's boss to evaluate whether he or she has the right skill set or is struggling to perform the job. The boss is also clued in on specific issues that are impacting the work group, such as if the manager isn't clearly setting goals; the boss then begins coaching the manager from behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, HR helps employees identify what job tasks they can control on a daily basis to avoid escalating frustration and helps them strategize on how they can support their boss by filling in skill gaps.

However, in order for this to work, managers need to share aspects of their professional development plan with staff. This creates an open work environment, says Andre, and gives staff permission to offer constructive feedback without fear of retribution.

"My preference is to have the managers talk about what they're working on," Andre says, adding that HR also needs to monitor the situation by periodically checking in with all three parties - manager, boss and staff. "It's a lot more powerful and usually lets the manager save some face."

Another way to alleviate the frustration is to ask the manager's boss to get more involved in daily operations, says Manny Avramidis, vice president of HR at American Management Association, headquartered in New York. Employees will immediately recognize that HR is taking their complaint seriously and the manager won't lose total credibility.

He says it's not out of the ordinary for workers to possess stronger skills in specific areas than their managers. As an example, he points to employees with strong verbal skills being supervised by a technical manager who barely communicates. In other cases, a manager's abilities in one area may be so strong that the boss tends to overlook other faults.

Although employees can still do their jobs, these situations prevent them from performing at an optimum level, Avramidis says. So it falls upon HR to help them identify different ways to behave and follow through on work tasks.

"We often coach our employees to rise above and beyond and take responsibility to do whatever is needed to improve the situation," he says.

Masking Performance

Most of the reasons why employees are dissatisfied with their supervisors fall into two categories, says Mark Holmes, president of the Consultant Board Inc. in Springfield, Mo.

Either the manager isn't equipped to handle the job or lacks people skills. What's more, he believes many company execs don't even realize a manager is under-performing, especially if sales in that department are matching preset goals.

Holmes recalls the story of a manager at a small manufacturing company in California. She was very proficient in all aspects of her job except one: employee relations. She often yelled at her staff on the factory floor, called workers names and publicly berated them. Her employees felt embarrassed, angry and unimportant.

"We laid out particular things the employees could do to help sustain the work environment and avoid sabotaging their work and under-performing on purpose, which would be very easy to do," Holmes says. "We said, 'Realize this issue is right before senior management so don't lower your performance.' "

Initially, most employees scoffed at this request, but came around once they saw the big picture. He says HR needs to send the message that most workers stepping into a management role don't possess all the tools required for the job and that employees have the power to help shape that person into the ideal manager. This approach transforms staff from problem identifiers into problem solvers.

Other tips include helping staff set simple, short-term goals like not gossiping about the manager for 15 days. He says this helps employees funnel their energies into something positive as opposed to scorning every decision or move made by their manager.

"When you help them begin to see that they can influence somebody positively, it can be a powerful thing," says Holmes, adding that most employees will wipe the slate clean if they believe they can contribute toward management changes.

Mark Gorkin relies on a more creative approach. Gorkin, a clinical social worker and trainer based in Washington, addresses such issues in workshops.

He divides staff into small groups, then asks each group to draw a picture of the workplace tension. Employees draw everything from savage dinosaurs to sinking ships.

"It's a great way of getting out the anger without turning it into a traditional gripe session," says Gorkin. "When they're ready to address specific concerns, they've worked off some steam and can put the problem into perspective."

He adds that involving employees in new projects will also help minimize their obsessions over their problematic boss. Likewise, through a job-rotation program, they may realize that no manager is perfect.

Multiple Choice

At Chevron Texaco Products, there are several ways its HR department identifies troubled bosses among its 15,000 employees, says Skip Culbertson, the company's general manager of HR in San Ramon, Calif.

Besides typical tools like biannual surveys that query employees about their relationship with their boss, the company supports six ombudsmen - neutral third parties - who report to senior-level management. Culbertson says they are well advertised among Chevron's workforce as internal problem solvers.

Trained facilitators are also part of the company's upward feedback system. Their responsibilities include processing employee complaints and jointly developing recommendations. Supervisors, who have been coached to listen and be open-minded to constructive criticism, are later brought into the process to develop an action plan that improves their relationship with staff.

"We try to get the employee out of the lower loop of, 'I'm a victim,' " says Culbertson. "Generally, we set up meetings with employees to hear their side of the story before we confront the supervisor and try to coach employees on dealing with this themselves."

He says it's HR's responsibility to help employees think out of the box when it comes to their own behavior, such as inviting a third party to discuss sensitive issues with their boss. But at the same time, HR must avoid fostering employee dependence on its services by helping workers develop problem-solving skills and techniques.

As president of Birol Growth Consulting in Solon, Ohio, Andy Birol believes any organization can function whether one employee or more are completely incompetent. But this often requires HR to lay down the law: that all managers have quirks and it's the employee's responsibility to support those managers in performing their jobs.

While it may sound like brute force, this approach doesn't minimize HR's most important role as employee activist. Yet, many HR departments stay too detached from staff, act more as spectators and are either forced to steer clear of problems or choose to play a role of benign neglect.

"That's unconscionable," Birol says. "If they don't know about what's going on, shame on them. If they do know and aren't doing anything about it, they're really serving in a 1950s personnel mentality. The best HR folks are truly engaged in recognizing that line managers need support and are not looked upon solely as whistleblowers."

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