Tuesday, November 15, 2011
'Go Ahead and Buy the House'
The small family newspaper group I used to work for once sent two of its top non-news, business-side executives to a high-level management seminar where they were given the following scenario and asked to come up with an answer.
Ad revenues have been slumping and cuts are going to have to be made, including, probably, terminating some employees. You are still in the process of figuring out what cuts will be made and in what time frame when an employee likely to be let go comes to you.
“My spouse just got a promotion,” the employee says, “and we’ve been looking at houses and saw one we want to make an offer on. The only thing that concerns me is that I know business has been slow here, so I wanted to ask if there’s any reason we should wait.”
That’s a great seminar and real-life question that raises a whole range of judgments a manager has to make involving a variety of ethical and pragmatic business concerns. Given the scope of those concerns and the diversity of employee personalities, there’s probably no one correct answer.
There is, however, one indisputably wrong answer. That would be to look the employee squarely in the eye and say, “Go ahead and buy the house.”
Which was exactly what the seminar leaders said you should do. The two people from our company objected strenuously, saying you can’t lie to your employees like that, but in a room of two dozen executives they were the only two who had a problem with it. Everybody else either thought that was a fine thing to do or was reluctant to dissent.
I remember that story very well because when I first heard it, it was an aha! moment at a couple of levels. Up to that point I hadn’t thought there were such things as seminars that actually taught executives to be slimeballs; I had assumed that was simply an inherent character defect cultivated through practice.
Even more disturbing, though, was the part of the story where almost no one objected. I tried to imagine the people taking that seminar. I’m sure that many of them were churchgoers, family men and women, highly respected pillars of the community. Yet somehow, in that corporate setting, the simple human decency evident in the rest of their lives went out the window.
Although I may not have realized it at the time, it was an illustration of how any corporation or other large organization can corrupt the people who work for it. There is an almost irresistible tendency to get caught up in an organization’s imperatives and interests and to confuse those with what’s right. The organization cares only about its bottom line, whatever that is, and the human panoply of values is not always fairly matched against that single-minded focus. Over time you can see how that sort of pressure could lead Wall Street executives to be clueless about how their bonuses are perceived or could lead an official to treat a report of sexual assault like an annoying memo that had to be cleared out of the inbox and kicked over to someone else as soon as possible.
In my brief management career, I was leaned on to do things I felt uncomfortable about and even did some of them. Maybe it was no big deal, but I’m glad I got out when I did. I’d hate to think that a few years down the road I might have gone to a seminar and remained silent when the facilitator said I should tell my employee to buy the house.