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Employees Will Tell Stories -- Send the Right Message

December 1, 1998
What do you do when stories run counter to the company’s core values? Could you harness them to make them useful? What kinds of stories are circulating in your workplace?

Employee Disempowerment
We recently replaced our windows, which were about 30 years old. The new windows have cranks that allow you to roll the window out to open them. The president of the company collected all the window cranks and announced that he would hand them out on days when it may be appropriate to open a window. All cranks had to be turned back in to him personally at the end of the day. This is done by the president of a multi-million dollar company owned by a multi-billion dollar company!

The lesson: Employees watch how you spend your time and prestige.

Discouraging Creativity
Working as an engineer for a major defense manufacturer, I was summoned to the factory to deal with a problem involving a critical part of one of our defense systems. The problem had existed before, prior solutions had been tried without success, and production came to a halt. This was important, as there was a penalty clause in the contract.

I went home weary. That night I took my wife out to a movie, during which a unique approach to solving the problem came to me. We left the movie, drove to the plant, and I went in and marshaled the second shift (it was 11 pm) to try the new approach. It worked and solved the problem once and for all. The next day I was chewed out by my supervisor for entering the plant and working without prior authorization.

The lesson: Solve problems at your own risk.

Whose Idea Was This?
I work for one of the nation’s leading insurance providers. We have a large campaign for customer service. One planned event required us to dress up in NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) attire. I never understood how that would increase customer service, since we had no ties to NASCAR whatsoever. The event was canceled because there was a customer visiting that day. I don’t know; I just work here.

The lesson: Send a consistent, clear message.

Devaluing Employees
Several years ago, I worked for a large credit card company. One day a very sick person put a bomb in the basement cafeteria. We never learned how this person got into the building, so we think it must have been an employee. Upon receiving word of this bomb, upper management immediately left the building. While leaving, they instructed the security guard at the entrance to let no one in or out.

The security guard, taking his instruction very seriously, refused to let any of the middle management or employees out of the building, and refused to let the police and fire department in! He had to be arrested and removed. Adding insult to injury, the police and fire department wouldn’t let middle management or employees out either, citing the need to interview all who were on the premises. While this interviewing process was going on, the bomb squad was defusing the bomb -- inside the building!

Once it was defused and everyone was interviewed, we were allowed to leave. The next day, some very quick-witted individual put out a tongue-in-cheek memo on bomb evacuations. It was very clever, citing how to step over management and what windows to exit from following the blast. Unfortunately, someone let the cat out of the bag. The author was found, then fired for bad-mouthing the company. We were ordered never to speak of the incident again, and were told that speaking to the media would result in immediate discharge.

The lesson: Whose life has value in this company?

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, p. 38.