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September 22, 2009

Who's Your Least Trusted Employee?

Blog cartoon 9-23-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

At many companies, the CEO is like the Wizard of Oz, a person no one sees, except as a posed face staring back at them from company-wide e-mail blasts. Those messages often appear to be lies of omission, so who can blame your employees if they don't trust the CEO and his cohorts?

For companies with a CEO who roams the floors meeting and greeting all the little cubicle people, the interactions often are just live performances of their e-mail-blasted propaganda pieces. There are catch-phrases and company culture slogans bandied about in response to the rare bold question from the cubicles. It's understandable that the big man or gal at the top wouldn't want to bare his/her soul to the corporate bystanders he/she meets and greets on every floor, and it also should be understandable why your employees don't trust him or her. Not only is it understandable, but a good thing if they don't trust your CEO. Unless your CEO is a martyr, her main concern is herself, followed in prioritized order by those who can help her—meaning your company's board of directors and/or its greatest shareholders. I've heard it argued that no one can help the CEO more than the cubicle people, and that may be true, but it's a truth that hasn't been internalized by the majority of CEOs. If it has been internalized, then I guess they're just not good at showing their love.

A silly "for instance" demonstrating where the loyalties of the CEO reside is lunch.  When your employees have a lunch meeting in these cash-strapped times, I assume you either ask them to order pizza, bring brown bag lunches, or schedule the meeting so it accommodates participants' needs to head out for a bite beforehand.  When your board of directors have a lunch meeting, do you give them the same menu guidance?  Gourmet salads, pastas, and sandwiches are more like it for them, right?  Why is that?  If your employees are most important to your company's success (or at least that's what your CEO says), then why aren't they, at least every once in a while, given the gold platter treatment (as opposed to the 8th grade lunch tray treatment)?

Similarly, and more seriously, why do CEOs of the People (who love to roam the cubicle aisles, shaking hands or nodding at their workforce soldiers) feel OK about demanding and receiving multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses while they know their average mid-level worker makes $40,000 or less?  The answer, of course, is that their main concern is themselves and the people best equipped to keep them comfortable.

So, I have this idea I think is really fabulous: Instead of trying to get your CEO and executive board trusted and admired (under false pretenses) by your workforce, why don't you make use of the natural (and healthy) adversarial relationship?  What about a Prime Minister's Questions of sorts for the CEO every quarter?  Much as the English Prime Minister appears before his country's parliament to respond to often hard-hitting, uncomfortable questions, your CEO could appear before your employees (or a random selection of, say, 50 employees at a time to make it more manageable) to answer a barrage of antagonistic questions. So workers aren't afraid, tell them there will be free fancy restaurant dinners (have to throw some meat to your dogs heading into the arena to fight) and free vacation time for those who deliver the most substantively probing/difficult questions to the CEO (can't ask him, after all, why he keeps gaining weight despite his expensive, company-paid gym membership).

Would your CEO be courageous enough to face this onslaught?  If he doesn't want to face the questioning squad, why?  If you're proud of your work performance, you'd think you'd be eager to defend it. That's how I am, anyway.  Some of you will hate me for this, but at all the jobs I've had since graduating from college, I've looked forward to my performance reviews.  I know I work as hard as I can, and in the most honest way possible, so why should I dread it?  If there's something a supervisor questions, I'm secure enough in my performance that I always feel ready to spring, in a non-hostile way, to my defense with examples of why whatever they said isn't so.  My guess is a lot of your employees (the same ones who smartly don't trust your CEO) are just like me.  They know they do a good job, work to their greatest capacity, and act honestly, so there's no performance review dread.  For those with CEOs who would shy away from their own version of Prime Minister's Questions, what are they ashamed of, or unable to fully defend?

Beyond giving employees the answers they deserve, rigorous, vaguely contemptuous question and answer sessions between CEOs and workforces, is a help to companies. The angry employees inevitably will ask questions your shareholders (after the fancy dinner) and customers (after they get the products home and see they're not that great) also will soon be bothering them with. Hearing this criticism from inside your corporate "family" first will help your CEO craft his strategy for answering those he can't dispense with by firing. 

They also may get some great ideas about how the company's resources can be better managed. What if everyone at the meeting says a particular vendor the company contracts with isn't worth the million dollars or so you send its way?  That's information that's good to have, right?  Or, what if hordes of employees at the question-answer meeting are incensed about a new work flow routine you've foisted on them?  The easy answer is to tell them they don't have a choice, and that if they don't like it they can go elsewhere, but is that the smartest response?  If participants are set free to force the CEO to probe, they might ask why he'd risk losing so many valuable employees (the CEO said how much they all mean to him, after all), and why he'd risk losing productivity for the sake of a work process? 

How mentally stable is your CEO?  Do you think there's a chance he'd start bawling like a preschooler to just leave him alone half-way through the question-answer barrage?  I bet some of them would have to at least excuse themselves to cry/whine in the hallway.

That thought brings me to another of my brilliant ideas. Should a licensed therapist be on hand to ask your CEO about his childhood, and whether chocolate chip cookie deprivation early in life is why he doesn't want to give cost-of-living adjustments this year?


What are the most uncomfortable questions you think your employees would like to ask your CEO?  Do you think there's a good reason they don't trust him?

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Comments

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