(Abbreviated version originally published in the April issue of Cariere magazine.)
I have been working since I was 14 years old. I have had jobs in several countries and, thanks to a somewhat impetuous youth full of many moves and short-term employment, I have worked for roughly 35 different companies in my life. (And that doesn’t include freelance writing, lecturing or consulting.)
In all that time, I’ve seen colleagues break things, ruin things, steal things, get facts wrong, insult people, not show up, scream at their bosses, publish lies, hang up on customers, ignore customers, lose clients, embarrass their employer, lie, cheat, and make the most incredible and stupid mistakes possible. And not once did I ever see what I see here.
No, it was not until I moved to Romania that I ever witnessed – or even heard of – the practice of temporarily and routinely reducing an employee’s paycheck when they made a mistake. As an accepted management tool. As an approved HR measure. As a recurring tactic of leadership.
Of course, I’ve not lived everywhere. But whether or not they do it in Macedonia or Myanmar doesn’t matter, because no matter where it’s done and no matter how hard I try, I do not understand it.
Indeed, it appears to be a perfect example of people and businesses performing over and over some generally accepted practice without stopping to think, to reconsider, or to question why it is done or whether it leads to an intended result. As such, it is a terrific example of what might be called stupidity, an ignorance perpetuated because one fails to understand that they don’t understand.
The fact is as a manager of people, one of the most difficult challenges you face is to build morale and loyalty among a group of diverse and self-interested people. You struggle daily to convince your employees they are more than just things – more than nameless cogs in a wheel that repetitively turn bolts, mindlessly fill in boxes, or robotically answer phones.
No, you tell them, they matter. They are valued. They are not mercenaries, coming to the office each day merely for a paycheck. You want them to excel. To care about their work. To strive for more. To be part of a team. To want a career. To be motivated and courageous. Because, you know, if your employees can do that, ultimately, your company will win every time.
Doesn’t everyone know that?
So, I wondered, what on earth are companies like Agerpres thinking when it does what it just did? Oh, believe me (and most of you know), they are not the only ones. But what a perfect example of this misguided practice the company has provided.
You probably know some of what happened. In what Agerpres at first euphemistically (and misleadingly) called a “technical error,” the German foreign minister was handed a brochure on March 9 to commemorate 135 years of Romanian-German diplomatic relations (presumably with a few years here and there left out).The brochure was designed at Agerpres, the national news agency, with some photos coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also translated the photo captions. The project was rushed, including changes on a Sunday night, before it was delivered early the next morning.
Apparently everything was fine – except for the cover. In a stupendously mind-boggling error, the cover showed a map of Romania twinned with a map of France covered with the colors of the German flag. Not since the BBC, The Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian and some others switched a letter and reported that Obama was dead after a raid on his compound in Pakistan has there been a mistake so impossible to ignore.
Obviously, something went very wrong in the production of the brochure. How could such a mistake come out of such an esteemed, 126-year-old quasi-governmental news agency that had worked so closely with a government ministry?
Later that evening, Agerpres issued a statement that concluded with this: “The misprint was a TECHNICAL ERROR ON THE PART OF AGERPRES that we assume and for which we apologize both to the Romanian Foreign Ministry, as well as to the German Foreign Ministry.” [Capital letters appeared in the original.}
Case closed. Right? Enough said? No.
Over at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a spokeswoman was fired. And at Agerpres, an internal investigation was launched “for finding and solving disciplinary deviations,” presumably (one would think) to deal with the internal, private personnel and procedural issues that could allow such a mistake to happen. Yes, the process broke down. Somehow a ridiculous mistake went unnoticed. The many people who should catch this somehow failed in their jobs.
Two days later, we got the answer from Agerpres. And what was the conclusion? It was one woman’s fault. That’s right. It was apparently all because of Mrs. Alexandra Stefan, “an expert with the Communication and International Relations Bureau.” And, by golly, the discipline committee at Agerpres was recommending strong corrective action.
Yes, to show that Agerpres is serious about accuracy, honesty and integrity and the principle that responsibility must be accepted, Mrs. Stefan was (as the expression goes) hung out to dry. Publicly named. Her sins put on display. To teach her a lesson, the committee decided her pay would be reduced 10 percent for three months. And to impress upon the public just how seriously Agerpres takes matters of morality, as the press release makes clear, “the disciplinary sanction imposed is among the largest allowed by law.” This is because Mrs. Stefan, who the company said had “exclusive responsibility” for editing and designing the brochure, did “not properly fulfill job responsibilities.”
Now I’m not looking to do the same here to Agerpres that it did to Mrs. Stefan, that is, single it out for public ridicule. As I said, there are plenty of examples of this ill-conceived behavior in Romania.
But rarely is it so public and rarely does a company with more than one employee so blatantly state that any mistake was all and exclusively one person’s fault. Really?
Then what exactly, I wondered, are the “job responsibilities” of Alexandru Giboi, the Director General of Agerpres? In an interview two years ago with Romania Libera after Victor Ponta picked him to take over the news agency, he said his responsibilities included “management, organization, supervision.” Wouldn’t at least one of these include ensuring that the company for which he is responsible has procedures in place that protect it from such embarrassing oversights and mistakes?
After all, it’s a news organization. Doesn’t it have editors? Doesn’t it have a few people in corectura? Aren’t there procedures and some layers of people who must approve whatever is produced? In other words, did nobody anywhere at any time look at this important gift that was to be exchanged in an act of international diplomacy and not see what was relatively obvious to a bunch of underpaid, bored reporters and attention-addled website clickers?
(For goodness sake, if nothing else, the Romanian Foreign Minister, Bogdan Aurescu, attended the French-Romanian Institute for International Affairs and Cooperation Law and then was later a visiting professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany. Doesn’t he know the difference between the map of France and Germany? Shouldn’t he have held it back at the last minute when he finally glanced at the thing? Or do you mean he’s in the habit of handing things to other foreign ministers that he hasn’t even looked at?)
After initially being told over the phone that Agerpres doesn’t “answer questions over the phone” – a rather ironic policy given their business – I was invited to meet with Mr. Giboi to discuss this issue in an interview.
Pleasant, well-spoken and relaxed, the 32-year-old former spokesman with the PSD explained the facts of the mistake and his opinion regarding the outcome. And while he clearly laid out the rationale for Mrs. Stefan’s punishment and its public announcement, the more he explained, it seemed to me the more obvious was the irony and misguidedness of both the punishment and the Agerpres press release.
For example, asked why he felt it was necessary to publicly shame Mrs. Stefan rather than tell the world it was an internal and private personnel matter and would not be disclosed (the way any private personnel matter should be handled), Mr. Giboi said: “Due to the pressure of some parts of the media and some parts of politics, we had to give out a press statement.”
Yes, but why not say the matter has been handled and keep personal and personnel issues about Mrs. Stefan private and internal?
“I don’t think that would have been a very positive option for us in that particular context,” he said, “in terms of public image.”
Well, maybe. But what that means is Mrs. Stefan was used in an ugly and unfair way. Rather than Mr. Giboi accepting the blame as the man in charge, a scapegoat was needed and Mrs. Stefan was available. It was an act of feeding the wolves of the press and politicians with an employee who Mr. Giboi described as young, inexperienced, but competent and good. (And really, should any of us take seriously the demagoguery of the press and politicians here who suddenly preach the moral imperative of admitting and atoning for mistakes? If either of them will begin to admit theirs, I might concede they had a stronger argument.)
The surprising fact was that the way Mr. Giboi explained the whole affair, one gets the impression that the France-for-Germany mistake was a mistake anyone might have made. The job was rushed. Mrs. Stefan is no expert in layout or illustrations. (She had a bit of training last summer, Mr. Giboi said.) Three brochures came before and the previous one, for France, was used as the template. An oversight occurred in a rush to meet deadline and there was no one to notice. And as many of us do, once we start from a wrong premise (or map) we rarely go back and reexamine where we started.
So might not this, I asked, more accurately signal a systemic or structural issue that would force him to investigate how this could have happened, and how in the future to make sure it can’t happen again rather than lay the entire mistake at one woman’s feet? After all, as Mr. Giboi explained, Mrs. Stefan reports directly to him.
Remarkably, he said, it was the first time he’d been asked that.
“Sometimes as a manager,” he added much later, “you get a tendency only to see the big picture and maybe sometimes pass over the easier or some smaller details which are important at some point as it was shown in the previous days.”
Mr. Giboi said he would have quit if he had seen the brochure and not caught the mistake. But I’m not suggesting he quit. I’m suggesting he recognize the fact that an organization is a unit, in some ways organic and living. And when one part of it fails, the entire thing must be examined. And he, as the man in charge, must accept the responsibility, forthrightly apologize, and then effect a solution, not pick one person and say it was exclusively her fault. After all, what kind of effective management structures their company so employees have exclusive control over anything they do – meaning there is no oversight and no one else responsible?
So again I wondered, why didn’t he announce that he would be implementing a series of changes to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
“Not yet,” he replied. “It’s going to happen because it’s clear that some, apart from the effective mistake, there’s been a lack of communication between that office and myself.”
Ultimately, then, that is the point. No mistake in a company happens in isolation. And while there are two issues at play here – the public announcement and the punishment – the second in terms of management is by far the more important.
Because virtually the entire story points to the blindness of Agerpres to a recognition that effective management does not include using punishment and fear as your primary incentives. Motivation, encouragement, recognition, and reward (whether monetary or not) are understood as more effective ways to manage.
Of course, sometimes an employee does something so egregiously improper that you decide it’s impossible to trust their decision-making abilities in the future. In essence, they deserve to be fired.
But sometimes an employee makes a mistake. Yes, a mistake. And you don’t fire them. Do you truly believe an appropriate alternative is to throw them under the bus? Or even spank them with a pay cut for a few months? Even all the Obama/Osama mistakes didn’t result in the public humiliation of individuals. When a poor schlub at an Ohio newspaper wanted to tell readers that Daylight Savings Time was ending and printed a reminder to “turn your cocks back one hour,” not even he (or she) was the subject of a later press release.
In fact, with all the MBA graduates here, the HR professionals, the strategy consultants, and the other thousands of people studying business and leadership, I invite anyone to show me any textbook at all that suggests that docking someone’s pay or performing a public flogging is an effective and responsible management practice.
As I said, my work experience is mostly elsewhere. I understand in the US and other countries it is easier to fire someone than it is here. For a start, we almost never use employment contracts. So other ways of handling big mistakes are needed. And I understand some organizations are more likely to have bonus structures that can be used for rewarding accomplishments or penalizing incompetence.
“Especially as a public institution in Romania, it is next to impossible to motivate employees,” Mr. Giboi explained. Yes, as long as you treat them as mercenaries and forget there’s other ways to build teamwork – ways that don’t involve mistaking fear and hatred for the semblance of loyalty.
I also know from experience there are those rare moments when an employee is legitimately penalized financially. As a waiter, if I added up a restaurant check incorrectly or gave someone too much change, I probably had to give the restaurant the difference at the end of the night. (Mostly, that helped guard against giving friends a discounted meal.) But if I brought customers the wrong meal, or if I broke a few bricks while working construction, or if I had an accident in my taxi, I didn’t pay anyone for the damage. And the companies didn’t “teach me a lesson” by punitively docking my already abysmal wage and then announcing it to the world.
Instead, they usually recognized (if they didn’t fire you) that the embarrassment caused by the mistake was punishment enough. Or that more education was needed. Or that their system broke down. And that’s why corporations put procedures in place to mitigate risk and establish controls.
Companies also work hard – and sometimes spend a lot of money – to find ways to motivate employees with positive messages, rather than threatening and scaring with the fear of public punishment. Indeed, what usually happens elsewhere is that public announcements about an employee include the reward of announcing that someone is outstanding, not announcing they screwed up. You might become the employee of the month. You might be given a bonus, and if the company cannot give a bonus, then you might get a plaque. You might get a private lunch with someone to discuss your success. You might get a signed thank you from the top guy in charge. I know that might sound a bit silly, but what you will get is motivated and thanked and honored for great service, great performance, and for being a great employee.
You might be surprised how happy people are to stay at their job for years when they are happy to come to their jobs every day.
Besides, it seems to me your salary is what you deserve for condescending to show up and tolerate your boss day-in and day-out. If nothing else, the amount you are paid is what the company offered you originally because it decided that was what you were worth. Did anyone get quoted a fixed monthly salary followed by the word “maybe?” Isn’t it management’s job, as much as yours, is to make sure you have the tools and support to do a good job? And doesn’t that include protecting you from yourself when the inevitable mistake occurs on your desk?
Again, isn’t this obvious?
Now, my aim here is not to pardon or excuse Mrs. Stefan, whom I’ve never met nor spoken with. My aim is to ask what message this fundamentally misguided, ill-conceived, despotic, and counter-productive punishment sends. Not that we will help you do better. Not that we understand everyone makes mistakes. Not that you are motivated next time to try harder. Not that management recognizes it failed also.
No, it tells you that you are a thing. And that we at this company are barbaric and crude in our thinking. In this case, you can almost hear the Agerpres disciplinary committee conclude that cutting the pay of Mrs. Stefan was the only choice they had, and that they had to do something, and well, that’s just what they do. But does anyone really think it was a necessary punishment to ensure that Mrs. Stefan is more careful the next time she prepares a brochure commemorating the 135-year relationship between Germany and Romania?
I don’t think so. In fact, I can tell you what the effect is because this happened to me here. Although I was lucky enough that it didn’t matter to me and I knew I was leaving anyway, a few years ago, I was docked some amount for one month because of a small disaster at the office where I worked. Of course, (and I suspect it is the same for many people), the disaster was caused by a decision not made by me, but by my boss. In fact, it was a disaster I saw coming and one I had warned him against. So I can tell you the result. There are two things you feel: Firstly, you feel disgust, resentment, anger, a sense that you work for a bloodless, small-minded, and mean little organization. Secondly, and even more damaging to the company, you conclude, not incorrectly, that the best thing to do to protect your paycheck is to never make a decision and always to avoid anything that might fail.
So personally, I say let Mrs. Stefan pay Agerpres back the 29.4 lei, which was the cost of the brochures, give her someone to work with, fix the process for design, and create new procedures for double-checking Agerpres products before they go out the door.
I suggest that companies concerned about their public image first look inward, because if you have employees being treated with respect, management accepting its responsibilities, and everyone working in an atmosphere of integrity and camaraderie, your company’s public image is guaranteed to be strong.
And I suggest that the discipline committee (and other HR folks) forget about the old procedures here, what is done, what is accepted, what is routine, and stop and think about what they are doing. Stop and think about the impact these policies will have, not just on one employee, but on the organization as a whole. Stop and think about their ill-considered (or unconsidered) common practices and see them for what they are. Then they should ask themselves whether these procedures are effective in achieving their goal, which is (or should be) fundamentally to inspire you to be motivated, enthusiastic and productive employees.
Or to the contrary, do their policies result in you learning to do exactly what your boss has perfected? To protect his ego. To protect his job. To protect his paycheck. That is, discovering the best way to succeed is to make sure you don’t do anything, and that as long as you always get others to make the decisions or do the work, then nothing can ever really be your fault. And though your employees may hate you and your company will suffer, at least you know your monthly salary is safe.