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Fix It Or Forget It?

July 27th, 2011

Nearly every workplace has cut budgets in order to survive, but how they do it sends messages to staff about how they are valued as people.  Many employers are surprised – or oblivious – as to what messages employees receive with these changes.

Lucy* was somewhat embarrassed to tell me her story when we met.  I began by asking her basic questions about her work, employer, coworkers, etc., and was puzzled about why she was looking to leave and find another job.

While she did have talents that could likely reach beyond the position, she could probably be promoted after spending more time with the company.  It seemed like it was just a matter of time.  I had trouble finding the problem that was leading her to look elsewhere, frankly.  Was it salary?

Again, the response was that she would be delighted to earn more, but her pay was appropriate for her education, experience and time with the company.

Finally, she admitted that over the last year or two, the company had experienced a harsh several rounds of budget cuts, which led to a different office environment.  Although people weren’t pleased, they didn’t seem to be hostile toward one another.

The final difficulty for Lucy, she told me, was that the ladies’ restroom had replaced the toilet paper with something so abrasive, it ended up causing her problems.  She had begun bringing in her own bathroom tissue to use, she confessed.

She was mortified to do this, and to have to constantly have the presence of mind to hide prepared stashes of toilet paper in her desk, and to conceal wads of it on her person whenever she went to the ladies’ room at the office.  It had become embarrassing and stressful for her, worrying about being discovered.  Eventually, she was resenting her employer for putting her in such a position to begin with, and decided to Forget It! since this was simply not a topic she could ever discuss with HR or her supervisor.

“Even if I could bring it up, I don’t think anything would change – except that I’d be an object of ridicule,” Lucy told me.

Along with her interview preparation of good questions to ask, since this was a topic of importance for Lucy, she added arriving a bit early to her interviews and making a trip to the restroom as part of the visit.  After several months, she found a new job that was a good fit with a different company.

“I would have never thought that this would be a factor – or deal breaker – in employment,” Lucy said, “And of course, I couldn’t tell my previous director my real reason for leaving.  I simply said, ‘I was looking for new challenges.’  What else could I say?”

Mildred* had many duties in her position with her company, including managing events, and when her director informed her about upcoming budget cuts that would affect staff activities, she tried to explain to him how it would affect morale, which, frankly, had already taken a few hits over the last year.

Her director really didn’t understand (or seem to care) that there had been more theft of food in the employee refrigerator, or that people’s lunches were cut shorter, now that one of the microwaves had broken down, leaving people less time to prepare their food – and more time waiting in line.  The lower quality coffee, cream, etc. didn’t go unnoticed by staff, either.

Now, he informed Mildred that the semi-annual company parties were to be eliminated from the budget.  She worked to persuade him that celebrating twice a year and congratulating the staff for a job well done was a necessity – and pointed out that the cost of food and facility was not terribly high.  What about having it on company premises, she suggested, as a compromise?

Her director cut the compromise deeper than that:  He told her that the only way he would agree is if employees essentially paid for it all themselves, by bringing all of the food, and taking no more than a two hour lunch break.  Then, to add insult to injury, she felt, he remarked, “Make sure everyone lists what’s in their dishes . . . I have allergies.”

Although Mildred was both shocked and insulted at her manager’s short sightedness and pettiness, we discussed it as a potential opportunity.  Instead of choosing to update her resume, she decided to Fix It!

Mildred worked on convincing her director that, since they were having the potluck lunch in-house (and saving on caterers, etc.) it would be necessary to officially have the event run all afternoon.  Because it would be on the premises, many people would go back to work anyway, but others would be needed to help prepare, clean up afterward, etc., so they wouldn’t be able to return to work immediately after.  Also, the goodwill of having the afternoon to socialize would help counter the surprise response to not having the entire day.  He finally agreed.

To help offset objections staff might have to cooking the food themselves, Mildred pitched the event as a Share Your Favorite Recipes event, and encouraged people to boast and bring dishes that they were most proud of.  This also took care of participants labeling dishes, for attendees with any allergies, but in a much more positive way.

Since Mildred’s background was that of an event planner, she also worked with other departments and secured several prizes from local vendors in exchange for advertising in the company newsletter.  Participants who brought dishes signed up for various categories of food, and attendees voted on “best of category” at the lunch.  Later in the day, Mildred awarded the prizes to the winners.

Mildred posted photos of the winners and participants on a designated Facebook page, allowing participants to review, comment and enjoy the event for days and weeks afterward.  The comments posted on the page clearly demonstrated that staff members enjoyed themselves . . . to the point that people were already providing input on what the next staff event should entail.

Overall, staff response was quite favorable to the in-house, low budget event, and Mildred’s director was very pleased with how she handled it.  In the future, he made a point to consult her for more decisions, and trusted her judgment on how to deal with staff matters.  Within the next year, morale improved and Mildred was glad she stayed.

Do you have a Fix It or Forget It? story to share?  Send it to me, and it might help others.  Identifying features will be altered prior to publishing.

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Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
—  Rita Mae Brown

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