Employee Appreciation, Or: Happy Peasantry Day!

by hulk

So I got appreciated today. I wish it never happened. We were all sat down in the conference room to listen to a six minute taped message from my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. The main points of his message?

1. We need to save money
2. We need to get new customers
3. You all need to appreciate each other more
4. We can only accomplish our goals if you all work together
5. This company is really about you

I would’ve burst out laughing if my boss weren’t right there. Ironically, earlier in the day I had mentioned the movie “In Good Company” to some co-workers because of the scene where Dennis Quaid questions the CEO on the nonsensical phrases and buzzwords and meaningless entreaties in his speech. Something about synergy, I don’t remember the CEO’s speech exactly. My boss sidled right up to my side and I didn’t want to be obvious so I finished what I was saying about the movie. Then I get a pretty similar speech from the boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. Now you might be thinking, “Yes, but you’re just a cynical employee. You’d never be happy.”

You may be right. I could name a few things that would make me happy. Perhaps a speech with this message:

1. Here are my major priorities
2. Here is how I will find solutions to these priorities
3. Here is where you fit in to that (followed by some division-wide examples)
4. No meaningless slogans!

W. Edwards Deming devotes quite a bit of attention in his book “Out of the Crisis” to meaningless slogans. If you’re a manager, take heed, because Deming was part of the team that taught Japan all it knew. Deming was a genius of industry who could solve all sorts of industrial problems on a high level. He knew that meaningless slogans simply made the worker more frustrated. They would feel that they should attain the goal referred to by the slogan but would find it impossible to do so from their level and would thus feel frustrated. Examples? “You make a safe workplace” or “We drive customer quality” or “Aspire to improve revenue” or “Only you can prevent forest fires”.


Why are they meaningless? Let me interpret what they mean. Let’s start with, “You make a safe workplace”. This would mean that when I come in in the morning and I have a few items on my to do list, the first thing I should do is to study my work area and look for unsafe conditions. Well, gee, looks pretty safe. Then later in the week Becky heats an egg in the microwave. She takes the egg in water out, puts a spoon in to retrieve the egg and gets scalding water on her face as the super-heated water bursts through the colder water. (This happens.) So your boss makes a copy of the sign that says “You make a safe workplace” and puts it on the microwave. This essentially blames Becky and anyone else using the microwave for any accidents that occur there. Next time a microwave accident occurs?

Or better example. Say Stu trips on the stairs coming in to the office and sprains his ankle and is out of work for a few days. The boss holds a special meeting to talk about safety and inform everyone how they should not trip or burn themselves. Perhaps he will pass out useless pamphlets on stretching at your desk to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome. Then he will ask everyone to remember that “You make a safe workplace”. Let’s move it to my world. Say Eric on the floor accidentally knocks over a drum of potentially hazardous chemicals onto the factory floor. The boss chews Eric a new one and puts up more “You make a safe workplace” signs. Then next year say accidents are down a little bit. You all hear about the success of the the “You make a safe workplace” campaign. Then next year accidents are up by three. Clearly new measures are needed. So everyone must take mandatory safety training. Next two years accidents are down. No action needed. Year after that, the boss repeats the actions of several years ago by posting “You make a safe workplace” signs on the microwave. Except by now that’s changed into something better, “Think Safe”, which is clearly better in making people be safe. Meanwhile the boss gets a nice checkmark on his performance review every year the safety numbers are good and a slight scolding every year they’re bad. It continues up the chain to where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss gets a hefty bonus every year the safety numbers are low, and several meetings and poster campaigns to plan every year the safety numbers are high.

I’m sure plenty have considered how to actually fix safety. But for the rest of you, here’s a few hints: analyze the underlying problems. Another hint is that the people aren’t the problem. It’s the system. If Eric on the floor drops a drum all over the place, maybe the placement of that drum should be considered. What was Eric doing with it? Where was he trying to move it? Should it have been strapped down? Should there be a procedure for safely moving drums, something simple but documented and reviewed with Eric and anyone else pertinent on a regular basis? What about a pipe for that particular chemical? See, thinking is harder than a campaign of posters.

Let’s go back to my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s message.

1. We need to save money

Gee, Chet. I guess being a stupid employee I didn’t know that. It’s a meaningless spurting of words that makes me feel like I don’t understand the value of money. I’m sorry for spending on chemicals and trips to suppliers to solve technical issues so our parts work. I’m so sorry for wasting money. What? You went to an all-vice-president meeting that was scheduled in Florida? Oh well, I guess that’s your right. You don’t need to save money! The rules don’t apply to you!

2. We need to get new customers

I’m a process engineer. I work on the things my boss says I should work on. He tells me to work on those things because they are the priorities of my boss’s boss. Granted, I spend a good amount of time on other necessary things that are not priorities of the whole organization but still important. But priorities get handed down. So shouldn’t the message instead be, “We need to develop such and such a system to get marketshare in this specific field, and I’ve conveyed that to those directly under me. They will be drafting a plan to meet these needs and relay their needs to you.” No. We get the meaningless exhortation.

3. You all need to appreciate each other more

This is the icing on the cake. It’s employee appreciation week and I get told how I’m deficient for not appreciating my fellow employees. More over, he goes on to say that it’s nice and fine when the boss appreciates you but really you should do it for each other. Does that mean the company should stop paying us and we should form a communist society to support each other? What am I doing wrong here? What am I supposed to do to “appreciate” my fellow employees? Isn’t that your job?

4. We can only accomplish our goals if you all work together

There are huge political problems at my company. Lots of big egos colliding. What can I do about it? What can I do about people one to two levels above me preventing me from doing good work because my boss’s boss’s priorities conflict with those of a boss’s boss in another group, and therefore I have problems working with that group and getting their assistance and cooperation on an important project? Again, this should be done at a higher level. I cannot solve my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s problems for him. This is why he’s paid an obscenely large salary. To think and deal with difficult problems.

5. This company is really about you

I sure feel that with this shiny new light pen. Wowee! It’s a pen that shows lights! I would gladly give this pen back if it meant you would do a better job at being a boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. Just do your job! Think! Think hard! Sit down and shut up and stop attending meetings and flying all over the place and think about what you should really be doing rather than kissing your own boss’s ass. Give me real leadership as opposed to sitting there with the plaque on your desk that says “Boss” and handing down decisions from on high without explanations

I’m serious. A pen that lights up. It makes me want to quit my job and become a tree farmer.