Information Hoarding and Power Hoarding at Work

Information management problems? Maybe it’s just poor workflow or maybe you are dealing with information hoarding! A good friend emailed me recently about the concept of hoarding at work. I write and speak extensively about individuals who sabotage others’ performance and damage workplace culture. The act of withholding information is a common tactic used by toxic employees. This article will outline examples of information withholding and power withholding, both aimed at maintaining the offending employee’s informal power at work.

Merely poor workflow?

Some workplaces flow work and information seamlessly from one work group to another. This doesn’t happen by accident. Optimum efficiency requires the identification of the key information required by each work group as products or information flow from a point of origin to the point of delivery.

Few companies have the discipline to step back from operational concerns to make a sound analysis of this key work process. But the concept of efficient work process assumes that workers are either attuned to effective processes or, are neutral and just passing work through to the best of their ability. There’s another story.

Rule of 1/3rds

When thinking of workplace dynamics, it’s helpful to picture three groups along a continuum. More details follow:

  1. Those who support the company, sound processes and strong personal performance;
  2. Those who are neutral, undecided and who want to do reasonably well but are averse to confrontation and not particularly ambitious; and
  3. Employees, who are suspicious of management, don’t particularly like the company and in some cases work against company goals to their own personal ends.

This last type of “toxic” employee is not guided by a code of ethics or duty to support coworkers to do their best. They are often motivated by personal gain. Their coworkers are either favored allies or those by whom they feel threatened. Information withholding is a means to marginalize those out of favor. More information on this dynamic can be found at: “All about Toxic Employees in the Workplace.”

Information Hoarding

Somewhat more benign information control might include individuals who wish to control certain kinds of information with good intent. A forms manager may be a little obsessed about ensuring that no one else makes changes to forms without going through the “proper” channels. This might serve a useful purpose – forms are well-organized and only the most recent versions are available.

Information Hoarders are at the more destructive end of the information-control continuum. These individuals deliberately deprive folks of needed information. This tactic increases their power and diminishes the power of those who are missing timely or crucial information. Examples can include:

  • Withholding or delaying key information that other departments need to do well.
  • Leaving names off invitations or the notice of a change in location or time of important meetings (think about the scene in the movie, “Baby Boom” where the lead female character is surprised when she comes into work and finds an important meeting is underway at an earlier time).
  • Omitting a name from a printed list of department staff or printing an alternative name so that the proper resource never receives calls and requests.
  • Omitting names from email distribution of updates, marketing information or other data that helps individuals do their best.
  • Denying access to electronically stored data or interfering with information needed to access this data.
  • Purposely ignoring email or voice mail requests for information or help.

Power Hoarding

Similar to Information Hoarding, Power Hoarding involves inflating one’s value or diminishing the value of others. Examples are:

  • Sabotaging the performance results of other employees.
  • Giving assignments that are impossible to carry out successfully.
  • Withholding credit or taking credit for others’ performance or ideas.
  • Limiting access to people who are powerful in the company hierarchy.

There are ways for Leaders to mitigate these tactics. Among them, speaking directly to the offending employee when he or she is caught using these tactics. If it was an innocent mistake it won’t happen again. If it is part of a pattern, consequences can be increased. If you are a coworker, the social dynamics and informal power structure at play may make you a target if you speak up. Don’t power struggle directly with these clever employees. You won’t win. My blog includes several other articles with comprehensive strategies for dealing with toxic employees in the workplace.

(c) Copyright 2014 BCSPublishing, do not reprint without permission.


Ten Things Employees Want from Work

What do employees want most?

Employee satisfaction is something most companies say they want.  Few actually set a specific goal to measure or increase satisfaction.  The ironic thing is that the more satisfied your employee group is the better they will perform.  Good performance means goals are met, productivity is higher and employees are happier. All good things.

If you want your workplace to appeal to quality employees and perhaps be less hospitable to those with destructive tendencies, pay attention to this list. Studies over time have identified some variation of the following 10 employee satisfaction themes which appeal most to good performers.

1.  Interesting work content

This means interesting to employees, not what you think is interesting.  Companies must pay attention to job design and assemble jobs in a meaningful way. It’s obvious that  repetitive, boring tasks are less interesting though they might lead technically, to high productivity. Modern job design principles can strike a balance between employee needs and productivity. Finally, negotiating interesting projects and goals each year adds variety to the normal job duties. Recruitment plays an important role in job interest. Not everyone loves what they do. It’s certainly lucky when you fit the perfect candidate to every job. A good fit is when the skills and approach of the candidate matches the skills and approach required by the position.  The better the fit, the more likely the employee will find value and interest in the assignment.

2.  Advancement opportunities

This is pretty straightforward. Promotions needn’t be a huge leap to the next level of management.  It can be advancing to the position of trainer –  perhaps someone who orients new department staff. There are many ways to carve out additional or more complicated duties for those who show capacity. But when opportunity presents itself, those with the qualifications should be considered for supervisory posts or movement to the next management level. The better you can outline what employees have to do to advance, the happier they will be.

3.  Fair compensation

Compensation fairness in the eyes of employees is primarily external competitiveness – what employees think or know other companies are paying. During tough economic times, however, a living wage at the lower levels is also needed for employees to feel their wages are fair. Appropriate salary levels are driven by balancing four factors: the market, what the company can afford to pay, job duties and internal equity.  Finally, reasonable employees want to see that the best performers get opportunities for additional pay and that folks doing the same work get relatively similar pay.  Just fair, not perfect.

4.  Opportunities for enriched assignments

Enriched assignments involve a seat on a company-wide committee, planning a company outing or working on a project that exposes employees to people and processes in other departments. Good performers enjoy making a broader contribution and being a part of a new venture or project.  They also enjoy meeting new people and learning about things outside their own department. While employees enjoy this, it also develops them and makes them more valuable employees.

5.  Strong leadership

This is where owners and senior leadership staff often fail.  Employees appreciate when management decisions are clear, decisive and based upon a set of principles like:company goals, ethics, fairness and respect. When one employee intimidates management into giving them something they don’t deserve, coworkers will take notice. I’ve listened to employees explain that even though something didn’t go their way they can respect a decision based upon a worthy goal of program sustainability or long-term company survival. In addition, they trust that management won’t get drawn into unfair decisions that serve the unreasonable requests of one particular employee.  They see that management has courage and clear thinking that will sustain the organization over time. When leaders adhere to principles and apply them consistently the best employees will be satisfied. Selfish or egocentric employees will fail attempts to skew decisions toward their personal needs.

6.  To be heard by management

High performers want to feel that their ideas and concerns are taken seriously. They have good ideas and observations.  They’ve performed well for the company so the company should take a minute to hear them out.  It’s okay if you can’t resolve a problem for business reasons.  They’ll understand that.  Employees want to know that you understand and value what they’ve said. This includes less stellar performers as well. No matter how annoying a particular employee may be, it really pays to listen respectfully to their concerns, investigate issues and change things when warranted. Every employee, including poor performers have thoughts and perspectives that can be valuable and deserve to feel heard. Human respect has no exceptions.

When you treat someone disrespectfully, even someone other employees find annoying, employees will notice. You are running the business and they expect you to have more patience.Two common mistakes vex both managers and employees. One is that management listens, makes a decision and then the complaining employee refuses to move on.  They then bug the heck out of everyone by staying stuck on the issue. One good hearing is enough and then they should be told respectfully and firmly that the matter is closed. Management needs to prevent these folks from harassing coworkers about their ongoing issue.  The other mistake is from the opposite angle – writing difficult employees off and failing to listen to anything they have to say.  They can go on and on about irrelevant information and then, there it is, a disclosure of significant wrong-doing or a brilliant idea for saving money.  As a consultant brought in to deal with difficult employees I am often amazed at how an employee has been completely marginalized within a company.   You’d be surprised how often these employees are treated disrespectfully but yet they are still at work.  It is more cruel to leave these employees on the job while all around them see them has having no credibility, than it is to respectfully help them find another assignment.

7.  High, consistent work standards

Studies have shown that quality employees prefer to work in an organization that lays out performance and conduct standards and consistently reinforces them – through performance evaluations, coaching, supervision and structure. Employees think it’s fair when those whose work approach is successful and helpful to others get promoted and those who repeatedly demonstrate poor work approach are encouraged to move on.  Leaders afraid to apply discipline end up creating significant damage to an otherwise productive workplace – as one employee’s approach disrupts others without consequence.  Some owners have no idea how destructive this is and how much respect for them is lost when they apply performance consequences equitably.

8.  An employer with integrity/character

Studies have repeatedly shown that employees working for companies with a code of integrity and a sense of social responsibility to the community, employees and vulnerable populations are more satisfied and higher performing. Emphasizing lawfulness, ethics and fairness is very appealing to the most talented employees.  When a company puts secular/profit goals ahead of ethics you’ll fill jobs but these candidates will be individuals comfortable with that sort of atmosphere. Think: News of the World.  The most capable and high character employees will move on.

9.  An employer known and respected for high quality products/services

Employees are happiest when they work for an employer known for producing high quality products or services. There is a sense of pride in knowing their coworkers and leaders value quality and take the time to make high quality a part of the culture. Companies who produce high quality goods and services spend time ensuring everyone understands what defines quality in their business; making sure employees produce high quality results; providing feedback and measurement demonstrating when quality standards are met. We all know the companies or organizations in our local communities that are seen as taking the time and energy to produce great things. These are typically where community members want to work and where they welcome the question – Where do you work?

10.  Freedom to make decisions that will help reach company goals

This is a very successful and important strategy.  When done well, employees become more satisfied overnight. Decision-making begins at the top (owner) and trickles down.  Every position, including clerical staff have a body of problems and issues they can decide when and how to resolve. Organizations with a decentralized decision-making style promote more meaningful decisions at lower levels. Companies with centralized control have a more difficult time defining meaningful decisions for those at the lower levels.  In any event, it pays to clarify and point out what decisions each position can make and which ones you wish for them to analyze and recommend to the next level up. Employees care more about knowing what issues you want them to exercise discretion over as much or more than they want to make big decisions.  Uncertainty is one of the greatest sources of employee stress.

No one company or organization does all ten things perfectly.  Pick out which of these areas you can easily fix and prioritize the others for improvement over time.

(c) 2012 BCSPublishing all rights reserved

Four Potential Causes of Employee Poor Performance


There are many reasons why employees can’t or won’t perform up to supervisory expectations or even up to their own potential. Often there are clues that suggest the ultimate source of poor performance but anecdotal evidence of today’s performance shortfall not sufficient to diagnose the underlying issue. A comprehensive look at the environment in which the employee works is in order.

Because the objective of initial performance counselings must be improvement, it’s important to assess the person, the supervisor and context in which the work takes place. If it is determined that real improvements are possible, this will help in crafting the performance improvement plan.

In those cases when termination is the end result of attempted performance improvement, knowing the causes can help you can tailor the discussions to create the smoothest, most professional and compassionate separation process. It will also support an affirmative defense if needed.

If the person is in the wrong position, demanding higher performance can unnecessarily frustrate and stress the employee. It would also be useless if there is something amiss with the supervisor or work atmosphere. It is best to conduct a comprehensive look at the overall picture. This article explores the four different dimensions that might combine to cause an employee’s poor performance.


1. It’s the employee
2. It’s the supervisor/poor employee preparation
3. It’s the job
4. It’s the workplace atmosphere
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. It’s the employee

There are several potential issues with an origin in the person themselves. Some may be technical and some may be relational (can’t get along with others). Of course if the person lacks technical skills there could also be issues with recruitment. In this case attention can turn to whether there is time and capacity for the person to learn the required skills. Depending upon the company investment to this point and the employee’s capacity to learn the new skills, additional training may work. Below is a listing of potential internal issues which would contribute to poor performance. The employee may:

  • Lack requisite technical skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack requisite people relations skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack work ethic (references checked?)
  • May be an acceptable performer but is unhappy and wants a different position (self-sabotage)
  • Have an undisclosed learning disability or medical condition affecting performance
  • Have problems with authority: rejects idea that someone will judge their work
  • Have mental health challenges: depression, personality disorder, PTSD, etc.

2. It’s the supervisor or poor employee preparation

Sometimes the person has the capacity to perform at a higher level but has not been given the initial tools and direction to create an opportunity for success. The result can be unspoken or disparate assumptions about what is considered good performance by the supervisor. Perhaps the supervisor has failed to meet regularly with the employee. Employees need the opportunity to ask questions privately and to admit they might need more information. Perhaps the supervisor is a poor communicator. Below is a listing of potential issues which may originate with how the employee is readied for the position or managed once in the job:

  • Employee does not understand the relative priorities of various tasks
  • Employee does not know company policies or procedures
  • Employee does not understand what supervisor likes, wants or dislikes

3. It’s the job

Sometimes the person is capable and knows what to do but the volume is just too high for one person to handle. Another issue is whether the employee has the information and tools to complete their work in an optimum fashion. Sometimes poor job design can be the culprit. There are natural groupings of tasks or assignments that allow a person with certain strengths to be successful. When unrelated or markedly different tasks are thrown together, it may be difficult to find the unique individual who is good at all of them. An example would be a position that requires high-level people relational skills AND high-level scientific skills. You can see the point. Below is a listing of potential job design issues that might contribute to poor performance.

  • Job volume is based on extremely high performer and person is new
  • Job contains too many unrelated accountabilities
  • Quality standards are impossible to meet
  • Long vacancies mean heavy workloads for those filling in (recruitment and job design)
  • The job qualifications used in recruitment don’t actually match what is required for the position

4. It’s the workplace atmosphere

Most of us have experienced a toxic workplace environment in which good employees are so distracted by stress and drama that they cannot properly attend to job performance. Studies show that toxic coworkers, bosses and an otherwise negative work culture are associated with productivity decreases. It’s not enough to have the right people and the right goals; someone has to ensure that the workplace is conducive to employees reaching their potential. Here are potential environmental issues that might be a source of sub-par performance.

  • The workplace atmosphere is overly negative: toxic employees and power struggles
  • A powerful informal leader calling the shots
  • Good people aren’t consistently praised/rewarded and so become disinterested
  • Negative conduct is not redirected so that coworkers are stressed by coworker abusive behavior


Performance issues can be a result of one of the four dimensions noted here but it can also be a result of a complex combination of more than one dimension. When there are several poor performers or a trusted and valued performer’s success begins to slide, it may be helpful to look at the supervisory team or the department as a whole. Often, companies are well-served to bring in an external consultant to bring an objective, seasoned diagnosis of all the barriers to departmental success. In any event, if you pay attention to potential causes the chance of a successful performance intervention is greatly increased.

© Copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

When Companies are Forced to Deal with Toxic Employees

Toxic employees, especially those with strategic skills, are very difficult to dislodge.  They accumulate informal power; discredit those who speak up; favor those they can manipulate; and generally distract employees with intimidation and abuse. Supervisors are often as intimidated as rank and file. There are, however, three scenarios which usually force the company to do something about these purveyors of incivility.  I have outlined them below:

Employee collective revolt

I’ve worked with two groups where coworkers eventually had their fill of the abusive tactics and came to realize they could stop the misery by working together.  In these two cases  employees met secretly and made their plan.  A group letter was delivered–in one case to a nonprofit board and the other, a partnership–and management decided to take action.  This is a risky plan.  If it succeeds, great.  If not, everyone will be in trouble either with management or the toxic employee.  If the group takes too long to get their “case” together workers may have second thoughts.  If the plot is discovered during the planning process, a messy derailment can result.  The characteristic that generally leads to management action is when company leaders were not aware of the negativity and abuse and learn about it for the first time from coworkers.  If they are aware and have chosen not to do something, the letter may be ignored.  Current economic challenges make the whole idea of employees forming some kind of unified group revolt fairly unlikely.  Workers are not willing to risk losing their jobs.

New leader comes in

The second scenario involves a change in supervisor.  Toxic employees develop their power using subtle manipulation over time. Eventually everyone learns who has the real power.  Employees who question or disagree are punished with marginalization and silent treatment–bystanders take notice.  When a brand new supervisor comes into this environment, particularly from a more healthy work environment the contrast can be startling.  The new supervisor sees and understands toxicity and has the energy to cultivate support for positive change. Ideal interventions start with developing a code of ethics/professionalism and building the performance intervention around abuse of others.  Toxic employees interfere with co-worker performance in a demonstrable way. The last stage is when the toxic employee inevitably retaliates against those co-workers he/she thinks may have spoken up. In reality however, this approach can only work when other factors are aligned: employees generally are in favor of a change, other supervisors support dealing with the toxic person, AND, the new supervisor stays one step ahead of the toxic employee.

Targeting the wrong person

The last scenario in which toxic employees is more likely to be counseled out or terminated is when he or she targets a member of a statutory protected class (i.e., older worker or member of a racial minority). Toxicity generally comes from a fairly self-centered approach to others.  Since toxic employees are not guided by professionalism or an internal code of ethics, their blunt pursuit of power while victimizing an otherwise vulnerable person is hard to defend.  This puts the company in a risky position if the abuse is allowed to continue once the targeted worker speaks up.  Generally there is a warning to stop the abusive behavior, the offending employee can’t stick with the professional approach and termination results.  A situation came up recently in which a middle-aged male toxic employee was giving his supervisor (new boss) a hard time when two young women came forward and alleged sexual harassment.  Problem solved.

I have helped many companies deal effectively with toxic employees. Sadly, many more negative workplaces go on for years, creating misery and stress for everyone. If you are in a leadership position dealing with a disruptive, toxic employee and would like a complimentary initial consultation: Contact Me.

Surviving a Toxic Workplace Without Losing Your Mind

Today’s workplace culture

Modern American employees are under extreme stress today due to a combination of several related factors:

  • Cost cutting measures;
  • Operating for months or years with over-lean staff;
  • Lack of supervisory training/poor quality supervision
  • Overall pressure to maintain production and quality with fewer and sometimes less-qualified staff

These factors combine to increase pressure and stress in the workplace.  Owners and partners are under their own stress trying to secure financing and to retain profit margins despite increases in the cost of materials and operating expenses. These accumulated pressures will eventually affect relationships among employees and between employees and management.

The workplace includes toxic employees and bullies

One of the most successful articles I’ve written discussed toxic employees and the complicated issues associated with terminating them and shifting workplace dynamics. This online article was viewed roughly 3 times more often than any other article I’ve posted.  Articles on toxic employees, toxic bosses and workplace bullies are increasingly popular today as business owners understand the connection between positive work culture and company success.  Toxic employees control others through bullying.  In a 2010 Strategic, Toxic Employees and Negative Social Dynamics I listed tactics used by toxic employees and how companies need a planned approach to neutralize this behavior. I got to thinking about the employee victims of this kind of manipulation and abuse. I have also been approached by colleagues about how to keep their job when the atmosphere is quite negative.  Today I am writing to these employees who, because of health insurance, financial commitments and job market challenges, cannot easily leave such a workplace.

A 1999 study on workplace stress, Stress at Work reported that 40% of workers surveyed felt their job was “very or extremely stressful” (DHHS, 1999). Though I could not find a more recent survey of employee reports it’s likely that things have become even more stressful for today’s employee.   With high stress and a poor job market more employees must learn to work around these challenges and maintain acceptable job performance.   Avoiding the social and informal power minefields is a skill you can learn.  Those who have the strength and natural instinct for it can be successful without support.  But even with skills if the workplace bully makes you the target, you can find yourself overwhelmed and powerless.

Just use the grievance policy to register your complaint?

Many workplaces are decent and healthy; and some have grievance policies or other dispute resolution strategies that can get workplace disagreements back on track. When this is possible, use these processes. The following material addresses the less healthy and often abusive workplace.  Formal grievance procedures may or may not work.  It might not be safe to speak up in some workplaces due to potential retaliation by a toxic employee or manager. When coaching clients in this situations I urge caution because of the potential backlash.  Please consider any such action very carefully and seek advice from experts before taking steps that might draw negative attention at your office. HR staff can often be trusted to provide support. Trust your instincts as you are the best judge of what course will get the best result. Finally, you are free to consult a legal representative in confidence, when needed.

Abuse is sometimes in the eye of the beholder

A final word of caution on your interpretation of this material.  I’ve worked with employees who felt these behaviors were happening to them when in fact they were treated professionally. Some employees have a keen sensitivity to issues that don’t go their way. Sometimes, employee mental illness can interfere with the ability to interpret reality around them.

Employer responsibilities

A company owner’s first priority is to make the business successful.  From this evolves the need for additional staff—which benefits employees, economic stimulation—which benefits the community and personal success—which benefits the owner’s family/dependents.  Some drastic differences between companies derive from how the owners define “success.” If you define success in only monetary terms, one kind of workplace atmosphere results.  If you define success as a balance of monetary measures, client satisfaction and an employee-friendly, professional work environment, a different kind of workplace atmosphere is created.

Regardless of the owner’s philosophical viewpoint, as long as he/she does not break the law, they are within their rights to run the business as they see fit.  Employees are sometimes of the mind that employers have to be nice, have to take care of them, have to give them time off, etc.  But owners can place as much focus on the bottom line as they wish. That is our free-market economic system.  If this means they are difficult and unfriendly and experience employee turnover as a result, that’s the consequence. Sometimes the nature of the workplace is a result of active philosophical choices and sometimes owners are ignorant of the connection between the way they treat employees and level of turnover or social suffering that results. The amount of discord and employee bickering an employer tolerates through ignorance or neglect is related employee turnover. Those employees complain to everyone about what takes place at work. These matters are somewhat different in union environments.  The article applies primarily to the non-union workplace but the dynamics described here affect union employees and their supervisors.  I know because I have presented to both union employees and their supervisors.

Too bad to stay—Too hard to leave

All of the above combines to set the stage for workplace atmospheres which fall within wide extremes on a continuum. I imagine folks generally know when they are in a very bad or very good job.  The problem is more difficult when the negative parts come on gradually, over time.  These things are hard to see coming and most people wake up at some point to realize that things are not as they wish them to be.  It can also be difficult when you know you have to leave and are looking but the job search is going poorly.  Finally when some things are positive and some are not, what is the right decision?

  • You like the boss but the co-workers are gossipy
  • You like the co-workers but the boss is abusive
  • The money is great but the atmosphere is troubling
  • You like the workers but clients are abusive

Individuals have to decide what will work for them.  Much will depend upon the nature of the employee’s temperament, the specific negative aspects, external employment environment and the marketability of the employee’s skill.

Skills and perspectives needed to navigate today’s workplace

When faced with a negative workplace we have to ask: Do you want to be true to yourself, tell the truth and damn the consequences? Or, do you want to preserve your sanity, fly beneath the radar and leave with some degree of professionalism?  Some employees do fight back; some sue successfully for various negative affects of abuse in the workplace.  The vast majority, however, lose their job and the possibility of any reference for future job seeking.  What’s worse is that some may develop a reputation in the community as a trouble maker.  This doesn’t make him or her a trouble maker but the perceptions are powerful particularly in a small community.

I generally advise two potential courses

You’ll need to figure out how to navigate the least stressful for you while still allowing yourself some performance success, or, find a position elsewhere.  Not on my menu is: stay and complain.  The complaining strategy rarely works out for you, your co-workers or your boss. The way to remain sane in a crazy or chaotic atmosphere is to maintain a clear perspective; remain observant; and use skilled boundary setting to prevent being drawn into battles that you cannot win or situations that will make you a social target.  “flying beneath the radar” is a good way to picture it.

If you can, focus on this approach

In my coaching practice, the following strategies are possible when working with a private, competent support person who can reinforce this kind of detachment:

  • Set realistic expectations of others – supervisors and coworkers
  • Accurately read the landscape
  • Focus on what you can control (what you do and think and say)
  • Perform your job duties to the best of your ability within what you can control
  • Do the best you can within the parameters you are given
  • Avoid whining, complaining or gossip
  • Don’t tell others what they should do (supervisory responsibilities not-withstanding)
  • Mind disclosures to employees who are not trustworthy
  • Get objective, confidential emotional support outside the organization

When should you look for another position?

Workplace dynamics can run from mildly unhealthy to intolerable.  Every individual has his/her personal tolerance level.  Sensitive employees often see the issues coming early and may need to exit sooner than others who are more oblivious to the negative dynamics around them.  In addition, employees who are targeted by negative employees specifically, may have to exit earlier. It is really an individual decision. I find that when I’m having stress symptoms (tight chest or stomach aches) and have tried to resolve issues without success I generally begin searching for another assignment.

Given the above, there are a few things that no employee should have to endure:

  1. When your supervisor or coworker yells, throw things and verbally abuses staff;
  2. When your supervisor gets visibly angry if you talk about things that need to improve;
  3. If a supervisor uses confidential information against you or discloses this information to others who do not have a need-to-know;
  4. If supervisors or coworkers gossip and criticize staff in any public manner or to clients;
  5. Companies in which laws are being broken;
  6. When employees are singled out and punished after privately or professionally disclosing the behaviors described in 1-5.

Looking for another position

Finding a job while working full-time is a considerable challenge.  Employees are cautioned not to do this on company time nor with company computers, email or Internet connections.  Working on resumes, checking advertisements and other job pursuit activities should be done on home computers.  Begin contacting trusted friends in the community and network in a low-key manner.

Giving notice

I’ve heard from many victimized employees who are dying to give the employer a piece of their mind.  Perhaps the company has an exit interview process for terminating employees. Most of the time, exit interviews are conducted in a professional and good-faith manner.  However, in companies compromised by fear and intimidation this may not be an effective strategy.  I can feel my HR colleague’s irritation when I say because terminating employees are a potential source of valuable candid information.  You are not obligated to provide your observations. It’s your choice.  In addition, burning any bridge can come back on you at employment reference time.. If you feel you must give some feedback, do it in a non-personal and professional way.

Exaggerated feedback examples to make the point

  1. Personal: “My supervisor is a jerk.  I have never seen a more abusive, horrible person!”
  2. Non-personal: “I am surprised at the manner in which my supervisor conveys his dissatisfaction with our performance.  I don’t think yelling and intimidation are effective tactics and I should think this method won’t help the company meet its operational goals in the long run.”

Good luck.  Email me with your own survival stories- sbenoit at benoitconsulting dot com



1. Benoit, Suzanne V. (2010) Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem; you can too! to see an excerpt or to purchase go to: purchase book

2. DHHS and NIOSH Publication 99-101 (1999) Stress at Work, accessed March 2011 at:

Top Ten Things Employees Want from a Job

A few years ago I researched what employees really want.  It was preparation for a workplace branding article.  If you don’t have the time or resources to survey your own employees you can use general list to guide company employee relations activities.  If  you are considering a culture improvement project you will want to survey employees for their specific values and thoughts. 

Top Ten Things Employees Want

While not every employee working today wants the following things, the list describes what fairly engaged employees are looking for at work.  What poor-performing employees want would be a different list.  Owners should pay attention to what top performers want as this is the group for which you want your workplace to be the most hospitable.

Employees are looking for the following, general characteristics in a workplace:

1. Interesting work content

Employees should know their own job responsibilities but you can also add annual goals that will change a bit each year.  Consider adding an “annual goals” accountability to all job descriptions.

2. Advancement opportunities

Advancement doesn’t have to be jumping up to the next level of management.  It can be a “lead” position responsible for helping to orient new staff or might have one or two new trainees reporting to them.  It could also mean learning a new area through cross-training. Finally, It’s important to pay attention to guiding current employees who have the skills and capacity for the next level of management so that they are ready when opportunities arise. 

3. Fair compensation

This means fair, not lavish and not a pittance. Employees in large companies are likely to understand how the company sets their employee compensation standard (market average, above average, etc.).  But for small and medium-size companies employees just want to know that they are paid a fair wage.  If employees are working without a salary increase for two years but senior management gets raises or are wasting company money, employees will quickly take notice.

4. Opportunities for enriched assignments

This can seem difficult in lean staffing times but cross-training and company-wide improvement projects can offer employees opportunities to learn new things, meet new co-workers and overall feel like they are growing.  Good employees want the company to succeed and will pitch in when needed.  Just make sure you are watching the duration of additional assignments and that individual workloads don’t stay too high for too long.

5. Strong leadership

If you are a leader who worries whether unpopular decisions make the company less appealing to strong performing employees, the answer is no.  Employees understand that if you try to please individual employees the quality of poor decisions is limited only by the stupid things their co-workers ask for.  Smart employees understand that their wants and wishes must be limited in favor of long-term company survival. Employees actually like it better when your articulate a set of quality and decision-making principles and then stick to them.  The best thing to counter an unpopular decision is to explain the process and factors that went into the decision and how it supports sustained company success.

6. Opportunities to be heard by management

Employees want occasional access to upper management and attention to their concerns.  This doesn’t mean the owner has to go to lunch with employees every day.  It means that when an employee offers a great suggestion the owner should stop by, make eye contact and say how much their contribution was both important and appreciated. There are 1000 different ideas of how to do this.  If you want ideas – Google “employee recognition and reward.”

7. High, consistent work standards

The better the employee (attitude and performance) the more they appreciate high performance standards.  Every employee should have a copy of his/her current job description that lists the jobs accountability and end results expected for that position. In addition, supervisors should discuss progress throughout the year not just at annual performance reviews.

8. An employer with integrity/character

When a negative story is made public or if a company’s practices are generally thought of poorly in the community, employees take notice.  In general, employees want to work for an employer who places emphasis on honesty and integrity.  But it’s not enough to have written values or standards, the company has to use these values in all activities; encouraging employees who personify the values and counseling those who do not.

9. An employer known for quality service/products

Here we are talking about quality again.  This time, the issue is product and service quality and customer/client satisfaction. Good employees take great pride in working for a company that pays attention to the quality of what they offer or produce. Engaged customers fit nicely with engaged employees. Have front-line employees participate in setting quality standards and make sure they understand exactly how quality is defined. Quality doesn’t have to be perfect but you should be measuring it and working to get the trend going in the right direction — up!

10. Freedom to make decisions affecting their work unit

Employees like to have a small piece of the company’s activities as their own, where they can make decisions and affect positive results.  This doesn’t mean you have to push company decision-making to the lowest point possible but it does mean to be mindful of this in job design.  If you articulate company goals and provide information about how company values should guide decision-making then let employees make decisions and take sensible risks.  When they foul up, don’t shame and blame but explain where their process went wrong and send them out to try again, encouraged by your great supervisory intervention!

Swimming Naked: Disgruntled Employee Nightmares

Warren Buffet once said: “It’s only when the tide goes out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.” Once your business gets public attention, every wrong thing you’ve done will be scrutinized. If company human resource documentation is poor and inconsistent it’s possible that no one know until a disgruntled employee sues. Over the last 25 years I have seen the following scenario play out in a variety of unfortunate ways.

 Does this sound familiar?

You have a disagreeable hourly employee, Jane is 51. She’s technically competent but intimidates and verbally abuses both fellow employees and her supervisor, Tom. Tom does the best he can but when he attempts to confront Jane she cleverly manipulates him, exploiting his timid nature and lack of confidence. Over the last five years Jane’s performance evaluations have focused on her technical skills and have been fairly positive. About a year ago, Jane just began working more than 40 hours per week-even though company policy requires overtime be approved by the supervisor in advance. When confronted, she manipulates Tom into letting her to “volunteer” for a few hours each week without pay. Meanwhile, hardly a month goes by without a department employee in Tom’s office crying as a result of something Jane has said or done.

The situation changes

Unexpectedly, supervisor Tom gives his notice and leaves the company. New supervisor, Sally is hired and is immediately taken aback by Jane’s behavior. Jane’s peers sense the tide has turned against her so they begin disclosing Jane’s numerous offenses to Sally.  First, Sally meets with Jane and puts a stop to the extra weekly “volunteer” hours. Then she begins confronting Jane about negative employee relations with her coworkers as they occur. Jane is resentful and frustrated that her old tactics don’t work with Sally like they did with Tom. Her behavior escalates. Eventually Jane confronts her peers whom she assumes complained about her. These coworkers are unprepared and afraid of her verbal abuse.  Lacking the courage to confront her or support Sally so they back down. Seeing this accurately as retaliation, Sally documents Jane’s performance, her repeated performance counselings and about a month later, fires Jane. The office rejoices and even more horrifying stories surface when it’s clear Jane is gone for good. Sally used a good process and Jane is gone.

Legal action

About a week later a letter arrives from Jane’s attorney alleging wrongful discharge of a competent, long-service employee and failure to pay overtime earned every week for a year. Further, it is Jane’s position that Sally’s performance counselings in the last three months were conducted by an “abusive supervisor” who was not familiar with company routines and practices and who “targeted Jane unfairly.” The letter includes a settlement offer of $30,000 plus the overtime owed of $3,000 or Jane will file an age discrimination charge with the Maine Human Rights Commission and a Wage and Hour complaint with the Department of Labor. The letter also requests a copy of the personnel file.

Here’s the problem

There are several employer problems here. The employee is clearly owed overtime; supervisor Sally’s conduct while proper, represented a drastic shift from historical practice without any warning to staff of what was changing and why. This kind of culture shift tends to create disgruntlement. Though ineffectual, supervisor Tom was an agent of the company all those years. When Tom failed to confront Jane, he essentially sanctioned a company atmosphere where Jane’s behavior seemed acceptable. Further, it creates the impression that the new supervisor, Sally was mean or “too hard” on Jane. Jane’s peers, unprepared for her confrontation, seem to bolster the idea that Sally was in the wrong. Jane’s personnel file contains:

  • Five years of positive evaluations;
  • No documentation of the numerous, objectionable behaviors throughout the years;
  • No documentation about Tom’s confrontation regarding the extra hours;
  • Good documentation of the last 3 months of Sally’s performance counselings.

You’re busted!

The moment Jane’s personnel file is requested you can’t really go back and add newly created “historical” material. You may add a report dated in the present that contains  historical information but it  self-serving and will be viewed with suspicion, particularly if created after the file was requested.

There isn’t much of a viable defense here because your assertion that this employee has been disrupting the workplace for years is not backed up with documentation. This disagreeable person who disrupted the office and abused fellow staff can make a persuasive argument that Sally “had it in for” her and make it look like the company victimized her. Jane is likely to get some settlement and if that isn’t bad enough, her allegations may encourage other employees to scrutinize their over time – causing additional fallout.

Ten preventive strategies

These ten steps will protect your company from this outcome and create a healthier, more productive work atmosphere for your employees.

  1. Acknowledge when you are shifting the work policies and workplace culture, why the shift is happening and set specific behavioral standards with examples.
  2. Whenever employee behavior standards are discussed with staff, document the date and content of the meeting and who attended.
  3. Monitor supervisor competencies, evaluating them objectively and gathering periodic confidential input from their supervisees.
  4. Evaluate employee technical results; work approaches and the effect of their behavior on the productivity of fellow employees.
  5. Promptly intervene during and after disruptive employee incidents. Be sure to include clear warnings that consequences for anti-social behavior may include termination.
  6. Respond to employee complaints about a coworker. When more than one employee complains it’s a sign that action may be warranted.
  7. Document all performance counselings, patterns of behavior and employee complaints.
  8. Never allow an hourly employee to “volunteer” their time.
  9. Make sure company HR policies are complete, sound and followed consistently by every supervisor in every division.
  10. Audit employee files periodically, keep them up to date, chronologically ordered and make sure the story they tell reflects the actual situation with each employee.

Documentation can save the day

I have worked on over 30 serious terminations where employee performance clearly warranted dismissal. The worst seven cases involved poor performance, bad attitude or ethical violations and resulted in threats of legal action. Four of these resulted in legal settlements of between $10,000 and $40,000:

  •  Two were settled for back overtime payments owed because of uninformed supervision and insufficient documentation;
  • Two were settled purely due to poor management practices and insufficient documentation.

The three employees who sued but did not get settlements were unsuccessful because of consistent management practice and excellent, chronological performance documentation.

Avoid successful employee lawsuits and keep your “house” in order. A good personnel file is a very strong, affirmative defense.