Natural Consequences Go Both Ways

There is a certain flow to the universe; a balance. When there is an action, a reaction of some kind is sure to follow. A cause has a subsequent effect. And every decision has a consequence. If you poke a hungry, hungry hippo, your arm will get eaten. Similarly, if you decide to skip work for a week without calling in, that promotion you were hoping for isn’t going to happen because, as Arnold once said, “You’re terminated.” 

Each decision has a natural consequence. It’s the way of things. In an organizational context, management practitioners talk about the concept of natural consequences for certain employee behaviors. 

For example, an employee who flat out refuses to work naturally can’t continue his employment. A business needs to make money in order to survive and cannot keep a deadbeat employee on its payroll. A good manager would explain these natural consequences (in much nicer terms, of course).  

I’m a fan of the phrase natural consequences. I much prefer it to “disciplinary action” because the latter implies some sort of parent/child relationship. You don’t discipline other adults. You’re no better than they are. You don’t sit on some higher plane of existence than they do. As your employees, you have an agreement with them, and if either of you fails to live up to your side of the bargain, there will naturally be consequences. However, managers tend to only think of these consequences relative to employee conduct. I can assure you, though, the door of natural consequences swings both ways. And if you’re not careful about treating your employees well, that door will indeed swing back and hit ya right where the Good Lord split ya.

What exactly am I talking about? 

Disengagement. Absenteeism. Presenteeism. Burnout. Turnover. Unionization. Low productivity. Errors and defects. Increased costs. Unhappy customers. Bad publicity. Lawsuits. 

Get the picture?

These are all natural consequences of a negative employee experience. If you bully your employees, overwork them, have unrealistic expectations for them, deny them opportunities for advancement, don’t give them the tools or resources they need, or force them to work in uncomfortable, unsanitary, or dangerous conditions, then something will happen as a result. And it won’t be something you’ll like.

That something might be disengagement or what managers would perceive to be “disloyalty.” 

A few years ago, several DirecTV contractors gave a television interview explaining that the company cut their pay after they were unable to upsell customers a telephone service they did not want. The contractors were subsequently fired for airing their grievances to the public and making the company look bad. A lawsuit led to the National Labor Relations Board stepping in on the contractors’ behalf. The Board ordered DirecTV’s subcontractor, MasTec, to reinstate their employment because they had engaged in what is called “protected concerted activity” to collectively address work conditions. 

The DirecTV contractors hadn’t acted out of malicious spite. They were acting on human nature. It is a natural human response to seek justice when we are wronged. And, as a society, we naturally cannot allow employers to prevent their workers from engaging in activity aimed at improving their working conditions. That’s why we have laws like the National Labor Relations Act.

It seems that there is a double standard in the modern workplace. Employers hold their workforce accountable for production, acceptable conduct, quality, service excellence, loyalty, engagement. Employees’ failure to live up to a certain standard results in consequences. Accountability is unilateral, apparently. Or is it? 

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “shit rolls downhill.” It’s a crude way of saying any abuse, mistakes, poor decisions, senseless processes, and crazy goals eventually make their way down the organizational hierarchy and land squarely in employees’ laps. There are indeed natural consequences for hurling the proverbial “shit” at employees and expecting them just to make the best of it. Natural consequences, in some form or another, hold employers accountable for whatever they send rolling downhill.

Take bullying, for instance. Employees respond to fear-based management in different ways, with passive aggression being one of them. Recent studies have even shown that employees who engage in passive aggressive retaliation — like slowing productivity — against their abusive bosses experience lower stress levels as a side benefit of “sticking it to the man.” There will always be some form of consequence for bad boss behavior, whether that’s withholding discretionary effort, taking more sick days due to stress, or passing the abuse on to customers. Cause/effect. Negative employee experience/natural consequence. 

The takeaway here is to understand that, as an employer, there are consequences for the way your treat your employees. If you mistreat them, they will eventually burn out, check out, act out, step out, or freak out. It’s called being human. As inconvenient a truth it may be, you do business with and work with humans. Employees expect to be treated fairly, with respect and compassion. That’s not unreasonable; it’s only natural. It’s your end of the employment bargain. When you renege on that deal . . . well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Diversity is Fine . . . What about Equity?

I was at the gym the other night when I noticed a little person struggling to reach the free weights. At about three feet tall, he could barely see over the top of the weight rack. Luckily, his friend came over, took down a pair of weights for him and he continued his workout.

Looking around, I realized that my gym was not terribly little-person-friendly. The water fountains were average-person height, as were the machines, exercise balls, and cardio equipment. Come to think of it, every gym I’ve ever been to only serves average-sized clientele. If little people want to work out at a gym, it seems they are very limited in what they can do there.

This got me thinking about the way we look at diversity and inclusion. There has been a strong push over the last several years for organizations to attract and retain more diverse talent. But does more diverse really mean more inclusive? What about equity? Does simply hiring minority talent mean they have the same chance to reach their full potential as the majority? Do women, people of color, LGBT, and the differently-abled have an equal shot at success?

I believe we’re on the right track with the best of intentions for a more diverse, inclusive workplace. But I can’t help but wonder how much progress we will ultimately make if we keep the same organizational structures, beliefs, paradigms, and models that have only supported the majority.

Does it make good business sense to implement changes that benefit only a minority of stakeholders? I think so. I think we’d be living in a much better world if we were more accepting of differences; if we worked to ensure everyone has the means and the opportunity to achieve. Don’t you?

Leadership Lessons from ‘The Good Doctor’

I just recently hopped aboard the ‘Good Doctor’ bandwagon and, boy, am I hooked. It’s such a good show! The premise puts an interesting spin on the television medical melodrama formula. It focuses on a very gifted young doctor named Shaun Murphy, who happens to be autistic. He and several other new residents work at the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure hospital, where they tend to emergency patients, assist with surgeries, and make plenty of mistakes along the way. The hospital President, Dr. Glassman, acts as a mentor for all of the residents and exemplifies what calm, nurturing leadership should look like.

Last night’s episode saw the hospital staff pushed to their limits when a bus crash flooded the ER with dozens of casualties. One patient asks resident Dr. Claire Browne if her wife survived the accident. Upon seeing that she’s not listed on the intake roster and is nowhere to be found in the waiting area, Dr. Browne surmises the woman’s wife is still at the crash site. She locates her in the woods several yards from the bus and determines she has a dangerous brain hemorrhage. After having a breathing tube inserted and the fluid drained from her brain, the patient is transported to St. Bonaventure where an EEG shows zero neural activity: she is deemed brain-dead.

Dr. Glassman catches up with Dr. Browne before she can tell the patient’s wife the devastating news. He asks her whether she checked the patient’s respiration after intubating her. She stumbles trying to remember, explaining her focus was on aspirating the hematoma. Glassman then informs her that she inserted the breathing tube too deep into the patient’s damaged lung causing a lack of oxygen to the brain while she was en route to the hospital. The hematoma did not cause the woman’s brain death; it was Dr. Browne’s mistake that did.

Glassman quietly and compassionately tells Browne what she did and how it affected the patient. But instead of going on to berate her for making an honest mistake, he recounts a story from his own residency in an ER many years before. A patient presented with a bad cough, so he prescribed her antibiotics and sent her on her way. Paramedics brought her back to the emergency room hours later in full cardiac arrest. She was having a heart attack the whole time and he had missed it. She unfortunately died because of his mistake.

This was a perfect example of a leader helping one of his employees learn from a serious mistake while reminding her that we are all human. He didn’t harshly criticize her or go so far as to threaten her employment. This was a teachable experience for her, albeit one with much higher stakes than most any other profession. She understood what she did and the dire consequence it had for her patient. Still, her boss’ intent was to teach her in that moment so she can be a better physician for future patients, not to break her spirit with stern admonition.

The best leaders are not those who bark orders, dole out punishments, and crack the whip when followers step out of line. Holding a leadership position is an honor and a privilege because it gives one tremendous responsibility for developing employees into their best selves. Effective leadership means growing and guiding those in your charge. Leaders lift up their people, especially when they mess up. They even admit their own errors to show that anyone can learn from mistakes and grow to be successful in their careers. Nobody is perfect — not doctors, and certainly not leaders. But both do help the people in their care to overcome imperfections and go on to lead better lives because of their support. I’m excited to see what other leadership lessons Dr. Glassman can teach his residents (and us, the viewers) in upcoming episodes.

Why You Shouldn’t Discount Glassdoor Reviews

I’ve seen a number of recent posts on LinkedIn questioning the value and veracity of Glassdoor company reviews. Specifically, the posters dismiss negative reviews as emotional rants from current or former employees who simply have axes to grind. At best, this is dangerously naive. At worst, it’s terribly arrogant.

No company is perfect. And many have serious cultural or operational problems that employees are too afraid to discuss with management, so they resort to anonymous forums like Glassdoor to vent their frustrations.

I’ve worked with such organizations where any employees who raised concerns were labeled as “complainers” and either ended up quitting or were forced out the door.

Organizations that treat their talent in such a way deserve negative Glassdoor reviews in which employees use inflammatory language like “psychological torture” and “evil management” to describe their experiences.

Unless you currently work – or until recently had been working – in that reviewer’s same position, for their same manager, you really have no basis to presume that their words don’t ring true. I challenge anyone – whether you’re in HR, middle management, or executive leadership – who questions another’s negative work experience to go sit at that employee’s desk for a few months, working for the same boss under the same conditions, and then reconsider whether or not their Glassdoor review counts.

There’s a difference between a review written by someone who simply says “this place sucks”, but leaves no other details about their function or experience, and a reviewer who cites specific examples of why working for their employer was so awful. The latter review is more credible, even if its content paints a less-than-flattering picture of the organization.

Just because you don’t like what someone has to say about your company, doesn’t mean it’s not the truth.

Perhaps the reason these issues had not previously come to light in employee surveys or discussions with management or Human Resources is because there are cultural barriers preventing such candid discussions from taking place.

Most workplaces today operate within the cultural bounds that dictate employees should not tell management what isn’t working, unless they feel like jeopardizing their careers. I have worked in environments like this. Although I’m not inclined to write a review (positive or negative) for these employers, I have read through some reviews in which employees shared very specific criticisms that I knew were, indeed, factual, not just disgruntled fabrications.

Instead of discounting a negative Glassdoor review, use it as a wake up call that there really might be something wrong in your organization. The fact that an employee didn’t trust management or Human Resources enough to have an open and honest conversation should set off an alarm indicating your culture is unhealthy.

Job seekers today do use Glassdoor to determine if your organization is a good fit for them, whether you like it or not. Ignoring negative reviews won’t change that.

Attracting and retaining top talent requires more than just pretending everything is A-okay and firing anybody who refuses to drink the Kool-Aid. The practice of reinforcing a broken culture eventually backfires. Just look at what happened to Uber.

By the time you read about it on Glassdoor, the damage is already done. But don’t make it worse by ignoring the bad news or trying to sweep it under the carpet. And certainly don’t try to retaliate by pursuing some form of legal action, because that will just make you look like a bully who can’t take feedback – basically reinforcing what your current and former employees already know to be true about the way you treat talent.

Your people can give you critical insights into facets of your organization that are preventing it from being a great place to work and conduct business, such as ineffective technology, disengaging management practices, or strategic missteps that impact customer service.

Today’s ultra-competitive business environment makes it hard enough for organizations to hire and keep the best people. Don’t make things more difficult by refusing to accept some hard truths about what it’s really like to work for you.

Take feedback from your employees as a gift, and invite them to give it as often and honestly as they need to; then act on it! That way they won’t feel like they have to anonymously post it online for customers, candidates, and the whole world to see.