A warning to employers

Oh, employers. The tide has just turned. After seven plus years of hearing and saying "in this economy" as an excuse for treating workers poorly and for employees to just take it because they're scared of being unemployed, it's no longer an employers' market. The economy has improved enough that people aren't afraid of leaving a job that doesn't fit or that has bad management, because they know they can find another job. 

How do I know? Because I just said "What are they going to do, fire you?" to the third person in two days.

I am not a career counselor and I'm not on the employee side of What To Do At Work. I work with managers and upper management to help them create organizations and departments in which employees are engaged and happy and productive. But the other side of that is that I get to hear from a lot of employees what their managers are doing wrong. (And they're doing so very many things wrong.)

[Side note: My 13-year-old is at his dad's house today and he just texted me that he just watched the movie Office Space for the first time. I wanted to text back "Today you are a man" but thought that might confuse him. Later we can talk about how the movie is really not that different from the daily lived experience of a majority of people working in offices in the United States and the rest of the world. And why my whole mission is helping people not be Lumbergh.] 

Even a few months ago, when people were telling me about the random and disheartening things their managers did, they had a pervasive sense of sadness. Of realizing that there wasn't anything they could do about it and they'd have to just suck it up if they wanted to stay and be able to pay their mortgages. People were being put on Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) because their employers had reduced the number of jobs to reallocate roles so people were being asked to do too many things in ways that they couldn't possibly succeed at, and then were being penalized for not being magical. Of course, when you're on a PIP you're scared and demoralized, so you're not going to work any better (even if you are working harder), so there's nothing useful or good about a PIP for anyone in the equation except from a documentation perspective that shifts all the risk from the organization to the individual. PIPs are all the negatives of capitalism without any of the positives, basically.

[Another side note: Every time I see "PIP" I think of Pip in Great Expectations, which makes me think of that scene in the old version of the movie in which Miss Havisham catches on fire in her wedding dress. My high school freshman English teacher, Mr. Oehlers, rewound and showed us that bursting-into-flames scene half a dozen times. (We loved it.) Little did I know then that it was the perfect metaphor for what happens when an organization gets so entrenched in structures and appearances that they stay mired in the past and can't make good use of the real live people in front of them: flames.]

But now, people are getting mad about being treated poorly and are realizing that a PIP often means more about the organization's problems than it does about them, and they're poking their heads up and looking around and realizing that they are marketable workers. With skills and knowledge and flexibility and perspective. And that they can find a job that uses those skills and isn't going to be as demoralizing as where they are now. So they're looking, and not caring if they get fired while they look.

I was giving a recommendation for a friend to a potential employer last week. I knew my friend had been impressed with the organization during the interview process, so I figured I could be honest and go a little deeper with the company rep who called me. He and I ended up talking about two of the traits I think are most impressive about my friend--her sense of perspective and her loyalty to people and process. I knew he'd get it because those traits are values of the organization he hires for, and he did, and told me he was happy to hear it because it's hard to know those things just from four or five interviews with a person. She got the job, and it was absolutely no choice to leave her current job, which sees her as an interchangeable cog with nothing special to offer. Her current job thought (until the moment she gave notice) that she was lucky to be there, even though they ran an organization that couldn't deliver on the basics of being decent people, let alone put in the thought work about what kind of organization they are and what that means for their management or workflow process. They are never going to be able to keep good employees, because they don't know or care who they are or who they employ.

When my friend and I were talking about how she spends her time in her last week at her old company, I said, "What are they going to do, fire you?" And then I had virtually identical conversations with two other people I know about how they can act while looking for an organization that values them so they can leave organizations that devalue them on the daily.

When I hear (or hear myself saying) something once, fine. Twice, I notice. Three times--there's something going on and I should pay attention. And this is three times in two days of recognizing that being fired isn't a threat anymore.

So, employers, managers, bosses, team leaders, anyone who needs people to help you do what you're doing: You need to go a little deeper. Put in the deep work it's going to require to see your people for who they are and what they actually have to offer your organization. Think about who you are as an organization and what you can be. Who do you need to fit that mission? (And if it's not a mission, maybe you need to move on, too. Life's too short to do work for bad systems.) Are those people sitting right in front of you, slowly withering or trying to get out?

If you have the wrong people working for you, fire them in a human, decent way that honors both of you. They will move on to something that fits them. (And maybe you know what that thing is and can help them make a connection.) And you now have the ability to hire the right person who fits in with your organization and your mission.

But know that it's the employee's market again. You decide who you hire, but if you can't deliver on giving them a real reason to come in every morning that honors who they are, they'll leave. The threat of being fired isn't even remotely enough to keep them there, because they can find something else.

 

If you want to talk to me, lmk at magda at tilmorgroup dot com.