So You Think Your Manager is Slimy
Check out five tales of managerial dirtbags, from the guy who grabbed his protégé's job offer to the one who stockpiled 'hires' for free consulting
By Liz Ryan
I collect workplace stories. I love to read about clever ideas, employee-motivation schemes, and wise leaders working their magic in the workplace. Still, there's something gripping (if horrifying) about bad-manager stories. Maybe that's because they remind us that whatever we're dealing with at work, someone, somewhere, has it even worse. Or maybe it's because the stories get us to wonder: "How would I react if that were to happen to me?" Here are five stories (out of many more shared with me) about horrendous managers. Enjoy.
REFERENCE? SURE, I'LL TAKE THAT JOB
"Our company was being acquired. We were mostly forbidden to talk to our counterparts at the acquiring company in the weeks leading up to the closing of the deal. But one of my colleagues, Debra, got permission from our general counsel to have dinner with her counterpart manager while both of them attended a conference in Salt Lake City. Debra told us about the dinner. 'The guy was dying to tell me how he got his job,' she said. It turns out that he has a protégé, a young woman who's worked for him in a couple of different companies. This woman (call her Annie) asked him whether he'd be a reference for her. 'Of course,' he said. He got on the phone with a recruiter to give Annie her reference, and while he was listening to the recruiter's description of the position Annie was up for, he decided he wanted the job for himself. 'No way,' we all screamed. The employer let the guy steal a job out from under his protégé's nose? 'They did,' she said, 'and now he tells the story proudly. He called it 'out of the box thinking' to stab his protégé in the back and take the job away from her.'"
What I love about this story: Not only is this manager a first-class dirtbag, but so is the hiring manager who let him turn a job-reference call into an employment pitch. Let's not forget the recruiter, either. In this story, there are slimeballs everywhere you look. At least we can be happy for Annie. The young woman was spared the fate of working with any of these turkeys.
DIGGING YOUR DAUGHTER'S PROBLEMS
A human resources colleague shared this story with me. In her last company, a weaselly HR manager played both sides of the fence. He presented himself as the employees' friend and adviser, encouraging people to open up to him and share the most sensitive details of their work and home lives. At the same time, he used the information he gained to curry favor with higher-ups and to improve his own position. "You can be onto a guy like that and still fall victim to his wiles from time to time, especially when you are feeling vulnerable," my colleague reminded me. One day, a middle-aged employee shared a sad family situation with the HR counselor. "I'm distraught," he said. "My daughter dropped out of high school, moved in with some very unsavory people, and is working as a stripper at a club in town." "Oh, that's awful," said the HR guy. He was as understanding as a person could be. "Let me look up some resources that might help your daughter."
A few weeks later, the heavy-hearted dad and some co-workers were crossing the parking lot, returning to work after a departmental lunch. The HR guy got out of his car and joined them. "You'll never believe what I did over my lunch break," he said to the assembly. "I went up to the Whistle Stop Lounge and watched Doug's daughter on the pole. She's flexible!" It's a miracle the HR guy didn't get his nose broken right there in the parking lot.
The Lesson: When you need a shoulder to cry on, use extreme caution. Lots of people will want to hear your tale of woe, but that doesn't mean they have your best interests at heart.
BABIES ARE TOO EXPENSIVE
I got an e-mail message from an administrative director at a white-shoe law firm on the East Coast. "I need some advice in a hurry," she wrote. "I have an employee who must be pregnant—she stopped smoking and she's getting a definite baby bump. I need to find a way to fire her before she tells anyone she's expecting." "Why would you want to fire her?" I asked. "I can't have her staying here until she delivers," wrote the clueless manager. "That'll cost us a temp to replace her and I'm sure she'll start missing work once she has the baby, dealing with colds and whatever else babies get." "Are you serious?" I replied. "It's illegal to fire an employee because of her pregnancy." "That's why I want to do it fast, before she says anything," the manager wrote back.
At that point, I abandoned my usual "no free consulting" rule and called the lady. I was able to talk her out of the termination, but only by sweetly threatening to share our e-mail thread with the firm's partners if she wouldn't back off her plan. "Do you really believe that people who work shouldn't have babies?" I asked her. "I think it's appropriate to choose motherhood or a career," she said. "Not both."
The Lesson: This story and a steady stream of others like it serve to remind me that just because people are adults and manage others, they aren't necessarily up-to-date on the laws, don't necessarily have good judgment, and (most of all) don't necessarily feel any need to keep their private beliefs and their professional decision-making separate.
THE JOB IS YOURS—ALL OF YOU
I've worked with some jaw-droppingly lousy managers over the years, but one in particular stands out. Looking back, I'm certain that Kevin was (and is) a sociopath—conniving, me-first, incapable of empathy, and blissfully unaware of (or insensitive to) any harm that his actions might cause. One day, Kevin came into my office, grinning from ear to ear. "I'm set with my purchasing agent hire," he said. "I'm golden. I've got five guys doing free consulting for me right now." Which candidate is getting the offer? I asked. "They all are—the top five of them," said Kevin. "I wrote to each of them and called a couple of them to say 'the job is yours.' Then I sent them a bunch of things I want them to look into and research for me. That will save me thousands in consulting fees, not to mention time. I'll have a huge amount of useful industry information within a few days."
"Wait a second!" I said. "You told all five of them 'the job is yours?'" "I did," said Kevin. "That way, they'll be so gung-ho, they'll write plans for me, research the heck out of our competition, and generally work for free right up until the time I hire someone else, if I do that—maybe even longer."
"So who will actually get the job?" I asked. "I may not hire anybody," said Kevin. "I may not need to. I can string these five guys along for weeks."
The upshot: Kevin's evil plan was foiled once I made the vice-president of manufacturing aware of it. Kevin himself was booted a few months later (for an unrelated, running-a-side-business-that-competed-with-ours scam), but the 'job is yours' story kept me mindful of the moral lows that an unethical manager (or leadership team) can reach when so inclined.
HELP WITH RÉSUMÉ … AND DINNER
The worst hire I ever made was a divisional HR vice-president who turned out to have a problem with comely young women, including a 20-year-old who was temping for me in the corporate HR group. When her temp assignment ended abruptly after a disappointing quarter, the young woman stayed in touch with some of my colleagues. I'll always be grateful that she did. The HR vice-president saw an opportunity to be a mentor to the young woman. As he had just started the job, he was staying alone in Chicago while his wife wrapped up their household in Texas, so he called the ex-temp to say: "I'll help you with your résumé." He picked her up at her parents' house and took her straight to his rented suite, where dinner—complete with candles and wine—awaited. "As soon as he opened the door, I got the picture," the young lady later said. There was a physical tussle, but she wriggled free and got home on her own. There, she called her best friend in the company and related her tale. It's never fun to fire a person, but I'll admit that firing Mr. Skeevy came close to it. (He protested mightily that he didn't even know the young lady in question; our security chief reminded him of hundreds of calls he had placed to the young lady's cell phone. Maybe it wasn't fun, but it was satisfying.
The Epilogue: The Skeevster was a major player in a lawsuit when he tried to engineer an off-the-books sweetheart deal for the executive team in a company merger a few years later. His ex-wife threw him under the bus by spilling the beans on the side deal. When you imagine what her married life had been like, can you blame her?
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.