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When someone at the top gets it wrong

Sometimes being nice isn’t so nice after all

Posted: August 26, 2008 5:19 p.m.
Updated: October 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Years ago, I happened to be in the warehouse of the company where I worked. As the president of the company walked from his office to the offices on the other side of the building, I observed a low-level employee approach the president, and ask him if he could get a paycheck instead of taking the week's vacation he was scheduled to start in a couple of weeks. The employee said he needed the money more than he wanted the time off.

The employee did almost all the talking, ending his pitch in a question to the president. The president answered with a single word: "Sure."

As I think back on it, the president wanted to help his employee. After all, it was the president's company, and he should be able to make these kinds of decisions because he is the one who signs the paychecks.

I am also sure that this individual, like many others who own companies, wanted to be liked by those that they led. One way to be liked is being able to solve these kinds of issues to the satisfaction of an employee when they are raised.

Being more of a task-oriented employee, I was more focused about getting the actual count of the inventory than listening to conversations that didn't concern me. Or so I thought at the time.

But it did concern me, and it should have been an issue for everyone in management at that company. The president, by uttering a single word, had breached the respect and authority level of every manager in his company. He broke his own policy his own company had instituted related to vacation time for every one of his employees.

The company had changed and grown from a small business to a large enterprise over the years. The president, recognizing the need to add talent to the firm to maintain the growth, had hired professionals from the outside to help him bring systems, policies, procedures and compliance to governmental regulations.

Because the company had been successful, the number of employees the company had grown, and additional considerations were necessary to make certain that the company was in compliance with various local, state and federal regulations regarding employment practices. The president was vaguely aware of these things but lacked any specific knowledge of any of them.

In his quest to demonstrate he was still a nice person and still had the ability to make decisions, the president made an error.

What the president didn't know is that the employee had already asked the question of his supervisor, who did not know what the policy was, but sought help from someone who did, the human resources manager. The request was reviewed and compared to the policy and the employee was told in no uncertain terms that he had to take the time off from work for his own health and well being and could not just take the pay and work.

What the employee did was ask the president to break policy based on their personal relationship and to ignore what his supervisor had told him. The employee thought that he could get what he wanted by doing an end-around by taking his hard luck case directly to the president, his long-term employer.

Why did the president violate the policy? Because he wanted to be a nice guy and demonstrate to that he could still make decisions and that he still was in charge.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia, bringing business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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