Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is Your Manager Setting You Up to Fail?

Recently I ran into a friend of mine who told me he's quitting his job and going back to school to become a registered nurse. I was a bit surprised: Quit a job in this economy? Take on more student loan debt?

When I asked him why he was leaving a job that he seemed to love the last time I spoke to him about a year ago, he told me that he was simply exhausted, both emotionally and mentally. The position that he had fought so hard to get had become an anvil around his neck.

Over cold drinks at a nearby cafe, he told me that the job he was leaving in no way, shape or form resembled the position he had accepted two years ago.

"We had two people leave, so I took on a lot of their stuff. Then, a third was laid off," he said. "I was given those duties in addition to what I was already doing."

While he said the boss often assured him that he would get some help, it never materialized. When he would remind the boss that he was being spread too thin and he worried about the quality of the product, the boss told him that better time management -- and better use of technology -- would solve the problem.

That's why a recent story about companies combining mid-level and lower-level jobs -- and then hiring someone at the junior level for a lower salary -- really struck a chord.

I have been hearing similar stories for a while: Companies laying off workers, then rehiring one person with what I call a "kitchen sink" job description to do the work of many.

Let me give you another example: A woman I have known professionally for years works for a company that has been bought and sold so many times she jokes that she's not even sure who she works for anymore. But under that humor is a lot of stress: In the last three years, at least five people have been laid off in her department, and each time she has been given their duties.

I asked her whether she's received additional compensation for her additional duties. She told me no. Instead, she's been continually reprimanded for missing deadlines and not meeting goals. I have to wonder why the company doesn't fire her for her "poor performance," but I suspect it's because they can pile on the work -- and keep those notes critical of her performance in her personnel file to drag out when she wants to discuss more money.

(You may think this woman should have bailed on this job a long time ago, but because of her personal circumstances, she needed to stay in the position and try and make it work.)

I just don't get it. Why would companies set employees up to fail? If they hire lower-level workers, pile on the work until they break, then what's the point? They may have saved some money in the beginning, but it takes time and money to recruit and train a new body, so it seems that's pretty short-sighted.

At the same time, how can you ever make a good hire if you're using job descriptions that are laundry lists of so many disparate duties that no one human being can meet it?

I know that many employees rise to the challenge. But what I'm hearing goes beyond that. If we've got workers limping for the exits, where does that leave us in terms of training the next generation of managers? If we think that only time management and technology is the answer to overworked staff, then how can current managers create a team that's capable of competing in a global economy?

Please, someone clue me in. I just don't get it.


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Anonymous said...

This has been happening in my office for a couple of years. We're asked to do more, but not given any resources (extra money, equipment, etc.) to get it done. The managers get promotions because they get credit for doing more with less, but in the meantime, the people who are doing the work are fed up. Our turnover has been really high lately, and I'm quietly sending my resume out. I'm just afraid it's as bad everywhere else.

Anita said...

While it may sound daunting, there are plenty of good bosses and companies out there. The key is doing your homework: researching the company culture; networking with others to gain an insight into how the employer functions; and making sure you clearly understand the job duties when you interview. Also look for signs that things may be tough: unsmiling workers, empty desks and an obvious air of "neglect" around the company facility. Remember, you should interview the employer as much as they interview you.

Anonymous said...

A friend was talking about being setup to fail yesterday, one of the final straws was a critical software project he had to go in on the weekends for & another director shut the power off of his computer (the other computers had power) because the director doesn't want to their failed project revived & the politics was strong in that Hong Kong branch of the small outsourcer. ( It seemed crazy that anyone would even consider to do that)

I think ration sometimes doesn't apply when the numbers says otherwise; When employees are intangible assets, but viewed as expenses.

In the case of IT outsourcing, the numbers in their existing cost goes down, but a lot of unforeseen cause appears at implementation, communication or just plain errors.

Anita said...

I think you're right. Once companies started viewing employees as commodities, then they lose site of the real cost of overworking and undertraining their people. The numbers may make sense on paper, but when you think of the long term consequences of such shoddy and irresponsible behavior, it is, as you pointed out, totally irrational.
Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

I'd contribute three items:

1. Managers do not understand how employees do their jobs anymore (because they, too, are doing the work of 2-3 managers).

Consequently, they can't determine how much work can be done in a given time frame.

2. In a place with lots of persistent problems, a siege mentality comes along and you don't even realize your are taking on three different jobs.

3. Management refuses to NOT do things as a result of layoffs. I had an instance where much of my staff was laid off. Yet, three months later, another group said they could help me with this function that the laid off people were doing. I told them we weren't doing that function any more -- that's why we laid the people off in the first place! DOH! Yet, they were persistent in trying to do the function. So I gave them all the documentation for the work and told them to have fun.

If your company is downsizing people and not downsizing the work to match the work force, you don't have a management team willing to make the hard decisions needed about what it takes to serve customers.

Anita said...

Very enlightening. And depressing. I just wonder what the consequences of these actions are going to be down the line for many of these companies who are trying to compete globally. It can't be good.
Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

I think that if the company is a publicly traded company, then the focus is value of shares in the short-term. Delivering shareholder value regardless of what it does to the long term health of the company become the focus. When companies get into the mental rut of "delivering shareholder value" and are perhaps up to their eyebrows in debt to those shareholders, the desperation sets in. They start to fiddle with the way things are counted, and set up shell companies to shift expenses to income, all to make it look like things are fine. All to deliver short-term shareholder value to hold off until the executives in charge finish planning their permanent retirement to Paraguay.

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely been set up to fail, I think this was this manager's goal. He gave me a work scope that would be impossible for even any of the seasoned employees in this task to do. It boils down to metrics and numbers on charts to show where our department stands. I have two very large scopes of work that must be done in a week's time. Because of all the labor intensive data pulling,and organizing and reorganizing data to send it where it goes, I'm not quite left enough time to take on the other large task that I have been assigned to do. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. This manager runs on fear and intimidation, no encouragement of any kind comes from this manager. I am slowly....slowly.........sinking into the abyss. Helpful suggestions anyone? Just call me B62.

Anita said...

Think about having a conversation that runs something like this:"I'm committed to doing this job, but after carefully budgeting my time, I'm running into a conflict with these projects. I'd like to brainstorm some ideas with you about it." And then see what he comes up could be he'll take something off your plate and delegate it to someone else. Any time he tries to put more on you, say "I'd be happy to help, but I will need to give something up or move something down the priority list to get it done by the deadline you have given me. What would you like that to be?"
In the meantime, dust off your resume. Jobs are opening up, and there's no reason to stick with a job that is sinking you into an abyss.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had a solution to this. It may be a new corporate mentality that ultimately saves them money in the long run. I'm going through this myself. I feel like my boss has saddled me with three full time jobs. I make mistakes becaue I'm juggling too much and then get repremanded.
This could be an unspoken corporate mentality has proven to work for them on some level, that's spreading.

Anonymous said...

I am also being set up at work. I work in a gas station. We get no breaks, the manager gets to go out upwards of 13-20 times in 8 hours. I completed all my shift duties, including stocking a cooler i refused to do at first because i got accused of stealing from, and he gripped about having to be on the register for 10 minutes.. yet if I say something, I am a whiner.. its not fair.. 7.35 an hour isn't worth this hassle

Anonymous said...

Can relate to having too much to juggle then making mistakes. The other thing is not being given all of the information during briefing, then I "should have known" the info I wasn't party to, why withhold it? I am not a psychic and when I ask about various things, "its all in the data package"