Don’t give up on office problem

SATURDAY, AUG. 7, 2004

An e-mailer described a situation in which a mid-level manager consistently gets to work late or doesn’t report to work at all. Around the office, the manager states she has not worked 8-to-5 in 15 years and she’s not going to start now. The e-mailer says the woman’s attitude and conduct lowers the morale of everyone in their office. The mid-level manager tells her co-workers that their immediate supervisor has said “he doesn’t have a problem with it.” Apparently, no employee has ever heard those words from the supervisor.

The e-mailer concluded the message with this: “Surely there is some solution that would not jeopardize our employment if pursued. We all know we would be history if we tried the normal avenues to address this problem.”

I responded this way: “Two or three people should approach the supervisor together and explain the problem. If the supervisor defends the employee again, march up the chain of command, including Human Resources. The three of you need to stay together so one of you can’t be labeled a troublemaker. It’s important to go to her supervisor first so you are not accused of ‘assuming’ the supervisor’s reaction. You can’t be sure the supervisor is aware until you present the facts. Take all emotion out of this equation. Just report the facts, the statements of the employee and the impact it is having on the other employees.”

I thought my advice was wise and cautious and appropriately built in protection for everyone. But the e-mailer’s reply was simple and a little abrupt. She told me it is impossible for the employees to address the problem in any way.

Employees consistently seem to think problems like this are going to be solved by divine intervention. They are convinced someone else should solve it. And they usually assume that top management knows about the behavior when that may not be the case at all.

Employees often just don’t know what they should do when there’s inappropriate behavior in the workplace. People often know there are boundaries that should not be crossed, but few employees ever have a solid sense of what those boundaries are. Management is often unclear about those boundaries or, more commonly, management sets those boundaries by actions rather than words. Top management’s failure to address this mid-level manager’s poor attendance tells other employees that such behavior is acceptable and it is off limits to protest.

When employees fail to report behavior like this, they are forgetting their responsibility to each other and to a larger society. And they are making three unfair assumptions.

They are assuming the leadership will automatically defend egregious, non-productive behavior. They should ask themselves if they are justified in having so little confidence in the integrity of the leadership.

Secondly, they are assuming the job is worth their silence. Is the job so great, and is their inability to find another job so clear, that they can comfortably work for an organization that tolerates this kind of behavior?

Finally, they are assuming that this company is going to automatically fire them for helping them rout out an unproductive employee. Do you really want to work for an organization that is so lacking in integrity?

I am not naive. There are some behaviors that are not worth risking a great job for, but this woman is stealing time from the company. The process of testing these three assumptions will allow you to determine how problematic you really find the behavior.

If the behavior is wrong, illegal or dangerous to others, we all have a responsibility to step up and report it.

Tip for your search: If you are silent on unethical, illegal or dangerous behavior you may have convinced yourself your self-interest is threatened by speaking out. You need to figure out how to ask productive questions about the behavior of everyone involved including yourself. If you have concluded bad things will result from speaking up, you need to ask yourself more constructive questions. This week’s resource can help.

Resource for your search: “Change Your Questions, Change your Life,” by Marilee G. Adams, PhD. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2004)


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