If you thought you had it bad, pity the teacher who gathered she had been
dismissed when her name failed to appear on the work roster, and the man passed
over for promotion because he ‘didn’t smile in the company photo.’ Paul Simpson
takes us on a terrible journey through…
You would think from the billions of copies of management books on the
subject of emotional intelligence that have been sold, that we’d all be working
for fabulously enlightened bosses who were sensitive to their employees’ wants
Sadly, the evidence of our own experience and that of books such as Brutal
Bosses by Harvey Hornstein, suggests these renaissance managers are the
exception, rather than the rule. Examples of truly spectacularly bad human
resources practice can be found, daily, in the press or on the internet. And
here as in so many areas, it is the good old US of A which leads the trend.
This A to Z compilation includes the edited lowlights of truly bad HR. And
by bad, we don’t mean the casually awful, such as the manager who left his confidential
– and unflattering – employee appraisals on the laser printer for all the staff
to see. Nor do we mean the merely miserly, such as the Woolworths branch which
fired a couple of staff for eating two two-penny sweets.
We couldn’t find room for the US electronics manufacturer run by a chief
executive officer, who decided to simplify the management structure by
appointing himself director of marketing, head of finance and head of
engineering, but probably upset his staff most with his habit of using their
waste baskets as a spittoon for his chewing tobacco.
To be included in this alphabet of atrociousness, companies and managers had
to demonstrate a higher level of idiocy. If nothing else, this compelling
compendium of the truly awful suggests that when management guru Peter Drucker
said in 1973, that the ideal of the professional manager had become reality, he
was probably being a tad over optimistic.
A is for American Express, which doubly deserves entry in this
rogues’ gallery. The first HR error was a computer glitch: one in 200 employees
in the US were sent info on other staff’s social security numbers and tax
savings plans, rather than their own. This simple technical error seems as
irrelevant as Anthea Turner when compared to the furore surrounding the case
last year of Vanessa Brennan, one of its British employees. She alleged her
boss Michael Rutter was so abusive, she almost lost her baby.
Brennan claimed that Rutter made her work 80 hours a week, and said her maternity
leave present would be a book called 1,010 Things To Do With A Dead Baby.
Rutter denied these claims although he was found guilty of sex discrimination,
and Christine Robinson, the firm’s vice-president of human resources, admitted
with masterly understatement that she’d had "problems" with his
leadership style. Rutter later vanished abroad.
B is for Burger King, the fast-food giant whose advertising makes a
big virtue out of the fact that its burgers are flame grilled. A dozen Burger
King marketing execs were also flame grilled, while walking over hot coals in a
team bonding exercise in October 2001.
Despite suffering first and second degree burns, the vice-president of
product marketing, Dana Frydman (pronounced Fried-man and no, we’re not making
this up), insisted the pain was worthwhile: "It made you feel that you
could accomplish anything." Anything, presumably, except banning the use
of naked flame in team bonding exercises.
C is for computers that have begun to confirm sci-fi authors’ worst
fears and started sacking people. Carl Filer, an 18-year-old cashier at a
B&Q store in Bournemouth, had hoped to become a supervisor, but failed a
Gallup-designed automated telephone interview. Filer’s managers were not
unhappy with his work, but felt obliged to follow the results of the
D is for Debbie, an employee at a small business which sadly, for
legal reasons, must remain anonymous. In 1998, her mother and sister died
within six months of each other. To most bosses, such a double blow might seem
grounds for compassionate leave, but not so for Debbie’s. When she returned
from her sister’s funeral, she was called into her boss’s office and told:
"If any more of your close relatives die you’ll be fired." Debbie
should have a lot in common with Robert Stennings, a SupaHeat driver for 10
years, who booked a holiday so he could attend his daughter’s birth. When
Stennings got the call that his wife was in labour, his boss told him:
"Don’t come back." Stennings won £1,375 for unfair dismissal.
E is for Enron, of course. It is not simply the fact that on the eve
of its bankruptcy, the corporation found the time and money to pay $105m in
retention bonuses to key employees, compared to an average redundancy payment
of $5,000 for the other staff. Nor that Enron’s ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling
declared that he couldn’t remember a key meeting because "the room was
dark." Or even that the company adopted a ‘rank or yank’ system, by which
it fired the worst performing 15 per cent of its workforce every year. No, it
is all of that, plus the way managers tacitly encouraged office affairs, gave
new sports cars to favoured employees with reckless abandon and allowed the
company to become the ultimate bonfire of the vanities – a symbol of a
corporate America which even investors are beginning to suspect is spinning out
F is for the Federal Aviation Administration, which last July was
ordered to pay an air traffic controller $2.25m after firing him for not
working on his sabbath. Don Reed was adjudged to be a victim of religious
discrimination. He is a member of a non-denominational church, whose sabbath
runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Two FAA managers had
allowed him to miss work on those days, but a third had told Reed his beliefs
were "a scam" and fired him.
G is for getting engaged, not advised if you’re working for an RAF
nursing home. Care workers Richard Shepherd and Denise Keddie got engaged in
spring 2001 while working together at an RAF nursing home in Brecon. After
being initially congratulated on their happy news, they were told their
employment would be terminated as their relationship might make it harder for
managers to fill the 24-hour shift schedules.
H is for Her Majesty, currently basking in public adoration, but who
last June finally agreed that her staff had a point when they complained their
wages were ‘medieval.’ Pay was held back by a grading system of labyrinthine
complexity which saw, for example, three different grades of dresser. The Queen
finally approved pay rises of up to 16 per cent for her domestic servants and
made more staff eligible for free meals. Not before time, either.
A probationary kitchen porter at the Queen’s Sandringham estate was
dismissed in February 2000 after joking about putting cyanide in Her Majesty’s
food. That’s what you get for employing staff on a starting salary of £9,000 a
I is for the Indian Army which, recognising that morale among its 1.1
million soldiers and officers isn’t quite what it could be, has come up with
the novel solution of offering troops inflatable penile implants.
High altitude living and stress are reputed to be sapping soldiers’ sex
drives. Colonel P Madhusudhanan, an army urologist, says the surgery costs
£3,500 a time, so the army sees "this very much as a last resort for
soldiers reporting marriage problems". The treatment has been modified
after earlier attempts to insert ‘semi-rigid rods’ left soldiers with painfully
J is for Japanese civil servants who must suffer at the hands of some
seriously unfit managers as, when asked to pick their ideal boss in 1998, they
voted for Mr Bean. Shipping Rowan Atkinson’s elastically limbed creation to the
relative obscurity of the Japanese bureaucracy might be a very tidy solution, certainly
preferable to having to endure another TV series or movie.
K is for kidnapping, used by Tony Toms, Field Marshal Montgomery’s
former bodyguard, in a bizarre bid to raise morale at the perennially troubled
Sheffield Wednesday football club. Toms joined the Owls during Len Ashurst’s
1975-1978 managerial reign and soon impressed the players with his personal
credo: "If you’re not tired, you’re not working hard enough." He took
all 20 players on a night of survival training – in January in Yorkshire, with
sleeping bags and, he boasted, "practically no food".
Throughout the night, he interrupted their sleep with army-style roll calls
and then kidnapped one player, Dave Cusack, to see if the other 19 noticed.
Astonishingly, they didn’t. Toms later forced most of the squad to go through
the ‘black tunnel’, a pipe filled with jet-black water. One player was so
scared, his colleagues heard him shouting for his mum
L is for lies. Your mother probably told you they could come back to
haunt you, but alas, so can the truth. A US project-management company asked an
employee during a performance review, whether he liked pie-charts.
The employee confessed he didn’t like them at all. At his next review, he
was criticised by another manager for his refusal to do pie-charts. The
employee pointed out that he’d never been asked to do pie-charts and had merely
expressed an opinion about them, but his alleged refusal to do pie-charts
remained part of his personnel file.
M is for ‘mea culpa’, which Andy Pearson, previously labelled one of
the 10 toughest bosses in America, was big enough to say when confronted with
some of his more neanderthal managerial habits. When he ran Tricon Global
Restaurants (which owns Pizza Hut and KFC) he liked to walk into a meeting and
say: "A room full of monkeys can do better than this." Pearson has
now realised that as a motivational method (let alone as a decent way to
behave), this had its limits.
N has to be for Neal Patterson, who is still head of the Cerner
healthcare company, despite berating his staff last year in an e-mail which,
when leaked, wiped 22 per cent off the value of the group’s shares. The
forthright Patterson had e-mailed managers to complain that: "We are
getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of employees. As
managers, you either do not know what your employees are doing or you do not
care. In either case you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace
you" [emphasis as original]. His e-mail ended with the parting shot that
"hell will freeze over" before employee benefits were increased. The
e-mail, posted on a Yahoo financial message board, sent the stocks plummeting.
Cerner had, the year before, been voted one of the 100 best companies to work
for in Fortune magazine.
O just happens to be the round but insignificant number of games (ie
zero) that Peter Cormack was allowed to prove his worth as manager of Scottish
football club, Cowdenbeath. This football manager’s 10-day reign isn’t the
shortest – Scunthorpe United’s Bill Lambton lasted just three days in 1959,
although he left of his own volition. But few exits are as painful as that of
Fulham manager Jimmy Hogan, sacked while in hospital in February 1935 having
his appendix out.
P is for ‘poor English’, the reason Michael Jones, who worked for a
UK sushi firm, was fired by his Japanese boss. A tribunal awarded Jones £20,000
after deciding that one of Jones’ superiors had "very poor written
English" and that his immediate boss "could barely converse in
English at all". Murray Ingram might sympathise. He lost a temporary job
on a telephone helpline because he had a "harsh and aggressive
accent" – ie he sounded Scottish.
Q is for questionnaires, especially the self-assessing variety that
cost Mike Davies his £70,000 a year job as head of a Marks & Spencer store
in Warrington, Cheshire, two years ago. The retail giant, which later admitted
unfairly dismissing Davies, said that his scores were in the bottom 10 and that
Davies "was too passive and not proactive". These scores were given
more weight than the fact the store Davies had managed had been one of the most
successful of its kind for four years.
R is for Robert Huskisson, a dyslexic banker with the Abbey National
Building Society who, earlier this year, was awarded £95,000 after he was
taunted by colleagues (he says his boss called him "Trebor" – his
Christian name spelt backwards) and fired for failing to meet sales targets.
A tribunal decided he was not given a proper time to meet the bank’s
standards and his disability was ignored by his employer. Abbey National is
appealing against the award.
S is for Sam Goldwyn, the legendary foot-in-mouth Hollywood movie
mogul, who once famously declared: "I don’t want yes men around me. I want
everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs their jobs". Staff who
took Goldwyn’s advice, usually found that it did cost them their jobs.
T is for timetable, not of the semi-fictional railway variety, but
the timetables schools and colleges set out for staff for a forthcoming term.
When Margaret Crump, who had taught art and design at Bristol’s Clifton College
since 1982, spotted that her name was not on the staff timetable for the term
that started in September 1995, she began to fear the worst.
Six weeks later, she received a P45 with no accompanying letter at home.
Nine days after that, she got a letter from her headmaster, saying her
employment would be terminated from the very next day. After a tribunal
condemned the college’s actions, the employer agreed to pay an undisclosed sum,
believed to be £25,000, in compensation.
U is for unsaid, as in ‘some things are better left’. The most
spectacular example being the remark in the October 2001 issue of the
Association of Lloyd’s Members newsletter, that 11 September represented a
"historic opportunity" for insurance underwriters to raise their
profits. Whatever happened to such high falutin’ ideas as ‘corporate
reputation’? But U is also for underwear, which Disney tried to issue to its
theme park employees last year.
Workers were told they would have to wear company-approved underwear on the
job and have it laundered by company employees. After complaints that the
laundered undergarments contained scabies and lice, the company relented.
Employees must still wear company-issued underwear, but they can at least take
it home to be washed.
V is for vulgar, which is what bosses of the previously discreet New
York equity investment firm Carlyle thought of this (edited) e-mail sent by
Peter Chung, its new recruit in Seoul, in April 2001: "So I’ve been in
Korea for about a week and a half now and life is good. I’ve got a spanking
brand new 2000 sq ft three bedroom apt. with a 200 sq ft terrace running the
entire length of my apartment with a view overlooking Korea’s main river and
nightline……Why do I need three bedrooms? Good question the main bedroom is
for my queen size bed,…where Chung is going to f*** every hot chick in Korea
over the next two years (five down, 1,000,000,000 left to go)…. the second
bedroom is for my harem of chickies, and the third bedroom is for all of you
f***ers when you come out to visit." Chung went on in similar fashion:
"After I learn a little bit of the buyside business I’ll probably go out
every night. I have bankers calling me every day and they cater to my every
whim – you know (golfing events, lavish dinners, a night out clubbing). What
can I say,… life is good,… Chung is King of his domain here in Seoul…..
So…. all of you f***ers better keep in touch." His bosses got in touch
very quickly indeed, to inform Chung he was no longer king of his domain.
W is for weather forecasting. Not normally a stressful business,
unless – like BBC weatherman Michael Fish – you famously assure the nation not
to worry as the worst storm in decades rips the countryside to smithereens. But
Sean Boyd, a weatherman for a Californian radio station, earned the order of
the boot for refusing to change his forecast on the afternoon of his station’s
public picnic from ‘partly cloudy’, to ‘partly sunny’.
X has traditionally signified the unknown and analysts, investors and
ex-employees, still don’t know why 45 executives at Polaroid felt they had the
right to claim $19m in ‘stay bonuses’ after the company had filed for
protection from its creditors under Chapter 11, sacked one in four of its
workforce and ended healthcare benefits for retirees. (The bonus would have
worked out at $422,000 for each exec.) Rather than take responsibility for the
company’s failure, they decided the most appropriate response was to try and
take a bonus. But then giving bonuses to execs at bankrupt companies is one of
the hottest new crazes in corporate America. Enron tried it and so did Pacific
Gas & Electric, which ‘only’ asked for $17.5m in bonuses for its
Y is for ‘You’re not a team player’ – what a manager at a US company
told a software engineer who asked at the start of his performance review why
he’d been passed over for promotion. The engineer then asked why he was not
considered a "team player", and was told: "You didn’t smile in
the company photo."
Z is for Zimbabwe, which isn’t big on HR acronyms, whether they are
human rights or human resources. Robert Mugabe’s regime celebrated the end of
the millennium by announcing pay rises of up to 90 per cent for public sector
staff, and the immediate dismissal of 20,000 of the same staff to save $75m and
keep the International Monetary Fund off its back.