Chapter 1: A Workplace in Crisis

The Interview

Looking back, I shouldn’t have accepted the position. I saw problems on the horizon in my interview. Sometimes we ignore red flags, viewing them as minor details in light of the bigger picture.  Employees enter a new job with optimism that they can change the work environment.  It’s possible to have the right attitude in the wrong environment.  I brought the right attitude, work ethic, drive and productivity. Qualities that weren’t valued. I was the perfect employee for the wrong employer.

Let’s begin with the interview. Your interviewer is the face of the company. Was he or she jovial, charming, or confident? Was the interviewer dressed professionally and well-groomed? Were they sitting up straight or slouching? These are details that you should pay attention to during your interview, and I’ll explain why.

In 2008, I began working for a nonprofit government agency providing direct services to the homeless population. I was so excited at this job opportunity for a few reasons. Anyone that works in social or human services knows that they will never become rich. My starting salary was $14.42, which is no reason to brag, but I was coming from a similar position in Texas making half of this. Plus, with my skills I knew climbing the ladder would be easy. So, I moved forward with the interview

ADVICE:

  • Use the interview to go on tour. Some companies wait until the second interview or even date of hire to give a tour.  A unique trait of highly-sensitive people is our keen senses. We can pick up other people’s energy and body language. Use the tour to get a feel of your coworkers and potential work environment.
  • Next, pay attention to the interviewers’ body language and facial expressions. First impressions go both ways. Don’t look at the interview as an interrogation because you don’t come across as the confident person that you are. It’s a conversation. Ask as many questions as you are answering.

The supervisor that interviewed me appeared frazzled. He was taking long exasperated breaths while talking. At times, he slouched in his chair or leaned over the table.  He seemed uncomfortable and agitated. I didn’t judge his behavior because everyone has bad days…right? It was obvious that something was wrong because he wasn’t smiling and had no vocal enthusiasm.  I’ve heard eulogies with more flair and excitement. Frankly, I thought he was going to burst into tears. The only part of the interview that I remember were his last words. He said “Mari, don’t stay here longer than a year. Use this job as a launching pad and move on.” Those words with his conduct was clearly a crisis. One of the main measures of organizational success is its capacity to attract and preserve skilled employees. Employers have overlooked me for second interviews because my five year plan didn’t include the position that I was interviewing for. A supervisor encouraging me to move on was obviously a red flag. Employers are looking for commitment and growth within the company.

Hiring employees is expensive, which leads to my next piece of advice:

  • Avoid companies with a high turnover rate unless moving on is in your plan, if not, you may be forced to leave.

My supervisor offered advice that I could not take. I stayed for five years, which became the worst of my life. I saw a crisis, heard a crisis, felt a crisis, and unwittingly ignored it.  I accepted the position and within two weeks I was looking for other employment.

Just Hired

Management and staff had a high-level of tension and hostility between them. I was fresh meat, so of course, I started off bubbly and optimistic.

  • As soon as you recognize the morale of your work environment is low or underachieving, it’s time to retreat. Your coworkers behave in the manner that management allows. Management’s refusal to respond to low productivity and office chaos is a problem and a sign to look for different alternatives.

Showing how eager you are to learn and produce will make you the office enemy. It’s survival of the fittest. Your coworkers aren’t going to let the new person make them look bad and expose their lack of efficiency.  Not only does management have you under surveillance but the employees are testing you as well. This 90-day probation period will set the tone of your employment.

The office had an open-floor plan. Thirty staff were in one work space with a bunch of desks and computers. There were no cubicles, doors or, privacy.

Our natural response to an unfamiliar environment is assimilating as quickly as possible. Most of us want the awkwardness to pass so we commit these new hire faux paus:

  • Making friends too soon
  • Playing up to supervisors or managers
  • Work overload

I failed by setting a horrible professional tone.

  • I disclosed too much personal information to strangers
  • I was too giving of myself and money
  • I let people dump on me
  • I was too involved in other staff’s workload

Compare the office to a jungle. The most vulnerable time for a giraffe is when it’s drinking water-head down, legs apart. It’s effective but dangerous. Lions usually prey on giraffe’s in this position. I tried to avoid criticism. My insecurities didn’t want others to find fault in me. What they did find was an easy target. Coworkers sabotaged and gossiped about me. They knew exactly what to say and do to set me off. The staff isn’t fully to blame. Unfortunately, they were a direct reflection of management.

Mid-Level Crises

When you hear of organizational crises, they are referring to an event that draws media attention. For example, Johnson and Johnson recently underwent litigation for cancer deaths and cancer related illnesses linked to some of their products.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of the workplace. Unresolved conflict can lead to a crisis. The crises that I experienced wasn’t to the extent of Johnson and Johnson. They were smaller mid-level crises within the department. The biggest issue was the conflict between management. Lack of solidarity in management produced hostility and tension. The division exposed fault lines around office politics, protocol, and productivity.

I soon discovered why my supervisor was so agitated during the interview. Our director was a tyrant and his style of management didn’t fit her dictatorship. She would undermine and micromanage his decisions whenever he tried to use his authority to manage the department. He had great rapport with executive management and used this leverage to negotiate employee raises and other incentives. However, his efforts were futile because our director would oppose his powers, making him appear incapable.  Dictators do not like confident, freethinking people. The conflict increased when a second staff person was promoted to supervisor to fulfill the directors need to be coddled and enabled. An alliance formed against the current supervisor, putting him in the out-group. We’ll discuss out-groups later.

A dysfunctional management team is a root cause of counter-production in a department. Staff governed themselves.  Employees were taking two hour lunches, running personal errands on company time and engaging in other unprofessional behaviors. When I realized that it was anything goes, I joined the rebellion. We were provided with logo imprinted shirts to wear as a part of our work attire. Let’s just say, I wore whatever I wanted. Rebelling is a choice. I don’t know anyone elses reason for doing so, but I didn’t want to identify with a company with no professional standards of conduct.

The supervisor that interviewed me resigned within a month of my employment, which I understand. As the issues slowly became more obvious, I too lost respect for the workplace.  I was battling a personal struggle with abusive authoritative figures, as well as the workplace issues.

How do you handle showing respect to superiors that don’t necessarily deserve it? Or, how do you respect superiors on an authoritative level, when you don’t respect them on a personal level?

For positions of leadership, if I didn’t see a reason to respect you, I stopped looking for them. There are several reasons I would reserve respect for authority:

  • Unable to effectively communicate
  • You have nothing to teach me
  • I am excelled in more areas than you
  •  Lack of drive
  • Shows favoritism
  • Abuse of power
  • Irresponsible with time
  • Not good at your job

A lack of verbal, physical and positive communication is a primal reason for me to withhold respect. It also reveals several facts:

  • You don’t value my opinion (or me)
  • Not a good communicator
  • You’re a dictator
  • You’re egotistical
  • You don’t respect my time

To answer the questions above, I first focused on personal struggles. Sometimes we, ourselves, have to change to transform our environment. So, I made several professional changes:

1. Reprioritize. Bring the focus back to your position. Accepting employment means that you agree to a specific salary to complete the roles of the job. I couldn’t argue this point. If you’re centered on completing assigned tasks, there will be no time to waste on issues that aren’t directly related to you. If something or someone is directly preventing you from performing your job, then those issues need addressing.

2. Follow the rules. Management was wrong for not upholding protocol, and I, hypocritical for not following it.  So, I started wearing my company shirt, which gave me a small sense of pride in my position.

3. Respect the position. If you can’t find personal reasons to respect someone in authority, respect the position that they’re in. There are stressful aspects of their job that you don’t want or can’t handle. Managing anything is difficult and for that reason your supervisor or manager deserves some respect. Rest assured that you can walk out of that door at 4 p.m. and go home. Managers have meetings, conflicts and responsibilities to resolve of a greater extent.

4. Finding Value. No one is worthless. Enemies even serve a purpose in your growth. Look for traits that you value about management or coworkers and build on them. I can’t tell you how many times I went face-to-face with my supervisor, and wasn’t concerned that he was 6’5. We had the truest form of a love-hate connection. It took time for us to get past our issues. What I did appreciate was that I could go into his office and talk about pretty much anything with no judgment. He never turned us away AND would slide chocolate across the desk, while we were talking. Ha!

My biggest fail was trying to stage-manage my external environment to adjust to my needs and inadequacies. Instead, I should have looked inwardly to find the answers to my problems.

Mid-level crises are outside your scope of power. There is a right and wrong way to deal with managerial or departmental dysfunction. Actively engaging in the dysfunction is unprofessional and the wrong decision to make. I addressed the issues directly and sought a resolution because I can’t effectively work with looming crises and issues overhead. Openly and effectively communicating to reach higher ground is the proactive method to conflict resolution. Unfortunately, management took it as aggression. Eventually, it’s going to come down to you answering the question: Can you work in dysfunction? You can’t create or enforce policies that will transform a person into a leader. Some people can grow into leadership positions with the willingness to change. Earlier in this guide, I mentioned the possibility of forced resignation under certain circumstances. Forced resignation doesn’t always translate into a lay-off or firing. A counterproductive environment could be the influencing reason.

 

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