Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Much Trouble Can One Employee Cause?

Image source: CaptainComics

Please tell me you remember Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine or I am truly, truly old.

Every time I look at this picture I have to smile and remember that classic line: "What, me worry?"

Back in the day, this being the late '70s, I would go to my grandparents' house in the Catskill Mountains. They had this candy shop, Joe Rota's a few blocks away. My mom would give me a couple of dollars and I would go to this fun place and get some atomic fireballs from the plastic jar, flip through a copy of Mad, and just laugh.

In any case watching the whole Snowden affair play out I have to ask myself how much time and money is being wasted, waiting and wondering about what this person could say, how to deal with it, what the timing ought to be, and so on.

Like so many of my internal communications colleagues over the years have said, if only the company would invest more time upfront in engaging people, in taking their pulse, they might have to spend less time down the road fixing up the screwups they delight in causing.

Look at how much airtime Snowden is getting. He's in Russia, he's not in Russia. They see his plane, where is his plane. He gave an interview here, he is flanked by security guards. Everywhere you go, there is Snowden having a grand old time, while the U.S. deals with the fallout. Think about it - we're the ones whose data got stolen, and we look like the bad guys!

To my mind all of this could have been avoided if only someone had paid closer attention to this guy and discerned what he was truly out for. Didn't he tell the South China Morning Post that he expressly joined Booz, then the NSA, so that he could gain access to data and then release it? If this is true (and who really knows what is true) this is not really a whistleblower but a premeditated act of theft. Whistleblowers join the organization in good faith, find out that something is wrong, and then tell. Either Snowden was very good at hiding his intentions, or nobody was paying attention.

Oddly organizations seem to have no trouble recognizing employees' potential to cause damage when it suits them. We saw this for example with the IRS and the "rogue employees" comment, the idea that they are "off the reservation." It turned out that there was quite a lot more going on, that in fact the use of employees was nothing more than a cheap way to deflect attention from cultural rot. But it worked for about two seconds. Which leads me to ask -- where is all this intelligence about employee engagement on the positive side?

Overall it has been my experience that organizations tend to be reactive in nature, paying attention to the worst crises first and ignoring or glossing over the need to prevent them, particularly where relationships are concerned. In this they are a lot like people in relationships, right? The partner who "seems to be doing fine" doesn't get much attention, while the one who is staying out all night or threatening divorce sure gets a heck of a lot. And similarly with kids.

It is a mistake to treat workers like they are invisible, but companies do it anyway. They spend a lot of time and energy on recruitment, but once there the employee is taken for granted. The value is extracted - it's "churn and burn" - "be grateful you have a job." Why bother to explain what you are doing or why - "they should look it up." Why tell them where to go when they have questions or concerns - "let's not stir up trouble." What is the value of helping them to manage workplace and family stresses that are getting in the way - "there's no time for that, they're adults." And why should we bother to mediate disputes as part of the ordinary course of life -- "we didn't do anything wrong, let them prove it."

It is so clear on paper that we screw up royally in terms of how we treat other people, isn't it? But that doesn't seem to make any difference in real life. Unfortunately it takes incidents that threaten our safety and our professional standing to make us wake up and pay attention.

Just like in real life, when the person in the nursing home says - "I wish I had spent more time at the baseball game with my kids, and less time worrying about the trophies I was chasing at work."

* As always, all opinions are my own.