One of the most difficult aspects of being a manager, or worse, a middle manager, is that you are caught somewhere between company policy and individuals who are people, actual human beings who face life and have a wide variety of life experiences. Sometimes the life experiences hit them actually while they are working, and that always makes for interesting conundrums in the ever litigious world of corporate America.
Honestly, it isn’t really so much that people are a bunch of sue-happy, ambulance chasing, leeches trying to put one over… ok, maybe there are enough of those out there to make people nervous and cautious, but the sad fact of the matter is that all it takes is one. Have you ever read warning labels? I mean really read them? They are ridiculous, and if anyone out there used half the brain cells that they were granted upon development of their being, they would not need to be told that an electric hair drier shouldn’t be used in the shower or that the plastic bag is not a toy or not to eat the silica packets in your leather jacket pocket. Oh, and if you thought that those warnings were intended for children who may not know any better and would be tempted to stick things in their mouths to experience the world like tiny little sharks… think again. How many toddlers do you know who read on a 6th grade level (there probably are a couple out there, but chances are, not many and surely those gifted little geniuses would be less likely to actually participate in the asinine activities described by the warning label).
Warning labels, written standard operating procedure, and documented policy are not there for people with common sense. They are not there for your average every day individual who might just blunder into a situation with ignorance and good intent. They are there for the perpetually inept or the trolls that exist in the world that want to push that envelope, ignore common decency, or use their access privilege to circumvent the normal drudgery of the day to day and win the litigious lottery via a personal injury lawyer. I’m generalizing. Of course, I am. I’m painting the absolute worst case and dirtiest scenario possible. Why? Because that is what the legal and ethical departments of corporate entities have to do. Just think for a moment of what life must be like for the people who always have to look for the worst in their fellow humans all the time. Think about what it takes to generally perceive those around you looking for angles or trying to guess how stupid the general populace might be and try to counter the negative effects of their actions like some sort of fortune teller with a broken, ugly crystal ball that only shows the bad stuff. Sometimes I feel sorry for them. I said sometimes… obviously there are other times when I think they should take off the warning labels and let Darwinism sort that @#$%. However, as a middle manager, I can’t do that. I have to not only follow the dictates of common sense and corporate policy, I also have to make sure that those for whom I am responsible are AWARE of said policies, ATTEND to said policies, and ADHERE to said policies… even when the policies seem to make no sense at all (until you think like the aforementioned folk living in the murky fortune-telling tent). This is especially difficult when the employees in question can see that there was someone at some time who violated common sense resulting in untold calamity… but still don’t understand why the rule has to apply to everyone generally making life unpleasant for all instead of just focusing on the perpetrator of idiocy as an individual.
This pretty much describes most difficult part of all of this is that writing blanket and universal policies that apply to everyone generally results in some of the most biased and unfair feeling systems on the planet. While it might be effective in resolution to address an incident with the individual who screwed up, the purpose of rules and policies is to avoid some other ignorant soul from ignoring history and blundering in to repeat it. It means that while person A is a responsible, hard-working, dedicated employee that consistently goes above and beyond, they cannot actually be given more leeway to self-govern or be allowed privilege outside the normal constraints, there had to be a policy preventing self-governing principle because person B is lazy or incautious or irresponsible and would generally get themselves killed or the company sued with the same leeway.
But wait! This is the 21st century and we recognize individuality and creativity and promote the general welfare and…
Ok, yeah, each and every person on this planet is an individual. They are unique. Unless you are an identical twin or a clone, your DNA doesn’t match another human being on the planet. (And there are even mutations and differences in those as well… not the clones of course because we wouldn’t possibly know anything about human cloning, right?) However, while talents and skills and uniqueness of individuals are appreciated on that individual and unique basis, in a large business and corporate structure, everyone is subjected to the same rules and regulations. Why can’t we be more individualized in our application on a massive scale? 1) Because it is massive. Large companies have thousands of employees. Imagine trying to individualize rules for each and every one those; and then, trying to enforce them. Can you say headache? And while we are discussing headaches, let’s talk about a legal one. 2) Discrimination. Let’s say it together. Dis-crim-i-NAY-Shun. Discrimination is one of the most winnable legal suits there is, if you have the documented evidence. In fact, most organizations, if threatened by the merest hint of a discrimination lawsuit will cave and try to appease the plaintiff to avoid the stigma or hell of an individual civil case or worse, class action. Due to corporate legal departments and standard written policies, though, it can tough to build a good case against a corporate entity for a discrimination suit. What isn’t difficult is to put a colleague, supervisor, manager, or director in some excessively hot HR-supported water by filing a complaint. So, the result is 3) the perceptively unfair application of rules and policies upon the staff under any given manager. Most good employers and managers struggle with this concept every day. They lose sleep over the give and take of being a compassionate, understanding, and well-liked employer vs. being accused of bias, pandering, discrimination, and favoritism.
Managers fight the slippery slope of good employee relations all the time. With few exceptions (and I may have met them), managers are humans. As humans, we cannot avoid the natural desire to be liked. I don’t care how strong a foundation of positive self-esteem, as long as you aren’t a complete sociopath, it is just programmed into humans to want to be liked. For most people the “I don’t care if people like me” statement is a defense mechanism. It is absolutely true that there are some people that improve my own self-esteem by not liking me, but for the majority of the world at large, I prefer to be at least tolerated. For a manager, this can be difficult, because employees want to be liked as well. They want to be liked, acknowledged, and rewarded for their work. They dislike being reprimanded, coached, or evaluated (especially if it does not coincide with their self-evaluation). No one likes negative feedback, and it colors the impression of the person providing said feedback… which is frequently the manager. So, you have a manager trying to adhere to the company policies and make sure that the people who report to them adhere likewise. This sometimes requires a little course corrective measure that can sting a little, and voila you have the “hated-boss-phenomenon” (yeah, I made it up, y’all should be used to this by now). Boss is a bitch… or jerk… or asshat… whatever terminology used, and the boss in question perceives employee as having a negative attitude, being resistant, and possibly a bad employee.
How does this relate to the title? Well, we’ve all gotten into this rut of believing that everything has to be personalized, individualized, and that everyone deserves special circumstances in all situations. That’s just not how it works. Everyone believes they deserve special treatment, all the while never realizing that each and every person around them holds the same belief.
But wait, I’m more special than THAT guy over there!
Are you? Really? Are you? And that is where the manager starts really wrestling with their ideals. The truth is that every single person believes, truly believes that their case is special. In many situations, they believe that their case is more special than their colleagues, the guy down the hall that’s been waiting for two weeks for a 5 minute one-to-one with their boss, the boss themselves, and certainly more than some faceless corporate entity. They resent having the generalized rules applied to them, because their situation is obviously unique. Many times, the individual in question can’t imagine that there are a multitude of other people that are considering the same circumstances unfair because everyone has to follow the same rules. So, back to persons A and B. The manager evaluates and finds value in person A (as an employee) who always has a positive attitude and makes excellent performance marks. Person B, on the other hand frequently does the bare minimum and it is obvious to everyone. However, person B may still be valued in a different sense by being a very is generally a pleasant person, having a good sense of humor, and being extraordinarily likable in social situations. They just aren’t terribly diligent about work. So, person A asks to be able to attend a seminar that is out of town and requires travel so that they would be absent from normal work duties for a couple of days. They would like to be able to attend during work hours and do not have sufficient leave time available to take the time off. As a manager, you look and say, “Hmmm, yeah, A has been such an excellent performer, and while this seminar doesn’t have a direct impact on their current job, I can totally see how they might move up in this company and it would help them towards that goal…” Sounds reasonable, right? Nope. Why? Well, because when A happens to mention this at the water cooler where B and C are chatting, B says “Hey, she turned my request down for that seminar! I asked first. Boss must like you better than she does me.” Oh holy @#$%! And that is where discrimination complaints originate, blossom and grow. Whispers boil in darkened corners of special treatment, biased application of the rules, privilege because they like them better… you get the idea. Rumors can be started of even more unethical behavior. So, from a management perspective, if you are not willing to allow the same privilege to all of those in your management impact, then you probably shouldn’t allow any of them. Seems harsh, I know, but it is ultimately not only the safest path ethically, it is also the most fair, despite perception to the contrary for those who are subject to the decision.
Most of the time, the situations are nowhere near as clear cut as a high performer vs. low performer and special privilege. In that case, chances are that there are documented instances and sufficient evidence to support why person A deserves the privilege or reward as an objective measure rather than a purely subjective or perceived “She likes so-and-so better than she likes me… that’s discriminatory.” However, it is generally more often merely a matter of perception, language misconstrued, or normal application of policy for one staff member while another one was let slide because “well, they were going through a hard time.” Sometimes it is something as arbitrary as some employees feeling that others get all the boss’ attention and time. It might sound silly, but the employee who wants to be noticed seeing that the boss spends more time on the phone with, IM’ing with, going to lunch with one of their colleagues will take that unbalanced attention to be a privilege or bias that could construe discrimination. “He wouldn’t take time to meet with me to talk about that situation last week, but he spent two hours with his little pet.” Yep, that’s the sort of thing that gets said, with or without foundation. That is where the rubber hits the road. It is nearly impossible to be completely unbiased and fair at all times, but we have to make the best attempt at doing so. And that is why the policies are written with what can appear to be a redundant attention to minutia and universally applied in ways that that seem impossible and ridiculous at times. It isn’t that leadership doesn’t recognize uniqueness and individuality in diverse and varied situations, it is that the uniqueness and individuality of every person in their charge needs to be acknowledged, recognized, and attended in as equal a measure as is possible. To do so, it means that there is a movement towards heteronormativity that is frustrating (and I positively hate because it can seem unfair in its own right), but necessary to avoid discrimination by perceiving a subjective application of rules, regulations, policies, or laws.
Everyone is different. Each person is unique due to biology, environmental impact, and experience. Every person has the right to be recognized for their individuality as a human being within some sphere of their life. However, it also means that to do so, each person must recognize the individuality and the rights of others, and it doesn’t mean the rules should not apply to you. However, you shouldn’t need special consideration or dismissal of the rules to feel your own uniqueness. So, I hereby recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of all of you who read this, and I hope that somewhere in your life, you actually have that uniqueness acknowledged and recognized as special. In the meantime, I will continue to be unique myself… just like the rest of you.