Work Place Complaints

I learned early in my career that questioning management in the private sector can have negative consequences.  My first lesson came when I attended a national conference conducted by the organization I worked for and I stood up to ask a question at a plenary session.  My question was not hostile and was asked only after the speaker opened the floor for questions.  When I sat down, a more experienced employee sitting next to me asked if I was crazy.  He pointed out that you never raised real questions in this organization if you were interested in keeping your job.  Apparently, he was right because I felt the need to find a new job within a few weeks of the event.

I have always believed that any organization that discourages questions about perceived wrongdoing, inefficiencies, or any other related issue is dysfunctional and stagnant.  Employees have to believe that their legitimate complaints will be heard and treated appropriately or the organization will not be able to keep competent people.

I have written many times that I believe the City of Albany is a great place to work, and I have never witnessed retaliation against any employee for expressing their honest opinion about the City or how it operates.  I can think of a number of occasions where employees have brought complaints to me or to directors that allowed us to improve the organization by making some changes.  I also know that even in the best workplaces, there is potential for a manager or supervisor to retaliate against a subordinate.

The best insurance against retaliation for a workplace complaint is to make sure that the appropriate people know about it.  If there is a serious complaint against a manager or some city practice, informing the supervisor, department director, human resources director, city manager, and union representative (for represented positions) makes retaliation very difficult.  Documenting the complaint and backing it up with something more than an opinion are also important steps.  The advent of e-mail makes it very easy to inform and document.

I find it extremely frustrating when I hear anonymous complaints that offer no evidence to support a serious allegation.  While I will look into any accusation of wrongdoing against any city employee, there is very little I or anyone else can or should do if there is no identifiable witness or credible evidence to support the claim.

The most important lesson I learned from my first experience with retaliation was that I would never accept it if I encountered it again.  As an employee, I would choose not to work for a place where it was accepted and as a manager, I would not tolerate it.  The one example I encountered in another city resulted in sustaining an employee’s grievance and the termination of a supervisor.  Employees should always feel free to report problems when they see them without fear of retribution.

Dumb Mistakes

Several readers of this column have suggested I write a book, apparently in the misguided belief that I am capable of writing something more than 500 words in length that’s worth reading.  If I were to attempt a book, I think the subject that would provide me the most material would be the many dumb mistakes I’ve made in the past 59 years.

I don’t count childhood mistakes because I don’t believe people should be held accountable for most of the stupid things they do before age 30.  Even with 30 years of grace, I still have a 29-year collection of embarrassing errors in judgment that I recall at the oddest moments.  It’s one of life’s great mysteries why a person who can’t reliably remember the names of his own children can somehow recount in painstaking detail a trivial event that occurred three or more decades ago.

Getting the Car Stuck

I have managed to do this at least three times over the course of my life.  My first experience involved a rainy night, a high school date, a dirt road, a large rock, a bent tire rim, and a few other details that require no elaboration since the event occurred when I was about 17.  I was only a little older when I repeated the mistake by getting my pickup stuck in the sand while visiting a lava tube with a friend.  I dated a number of young women in high school, but for some reason the relationships were generally of short duration.

I’m happy to say my latest story in this genre did not involve any women and happened after I became a city manager.  I was taking my son on what began as a short fishing trip and cleverly managed to strand our small station wagon in the middle of a creek that looked like it could be easily forded.  I was rescued by our police chief, who found what I thought to be distasteful humor in the situation.  In fact, his attitude reminded me of my father’s when I had to turn to him to get the family car out of the mud on that rainy night date many years earlier.

Saying Stupid Things to Your Wife

I believe I am the master of saying things to my wife that I regret as soon as the words have left my mouth.  Given that we’ve been married for nearly 40 years, I would acknowledge that others have obviously done this more frequently and to greater effect with their wives than I have with mine.  The divorce rate aside, I have more stories than I can share in the space and time available here.

The situation I remember most clearly involved running into my high school prom date about 20 years after my marriage.  My wife was not with me; and the first question she asked when she learned of the encounter was, “What does she look like?”  The appropriate response would have been something to the effect that time had not been kind to this woman, but I have always liked to believe I am an honest person so I truthfully said, “She looked really good.”  My former date opened a restaurant in the town where I was working and, needless to say, I never found out whether she could cook.

 Moral

Making mistakes is part of the human condition and none of us will get through life without making our share.  Some of us take awhile to learn from our experiences; but if we’re lucky, the consequences are relatively minor and we’re given another chance.  I exercise more caution now when I take my vehicle off of paved surfaces, although I still routinely say stupid things to my wife.  At least I had the good sense to marry someone with a forgiving nature and a short memory.

Trust

I would like to believe that if I treat people with honor and respect they will return the favor.  I know from experience that I will sometimes be disappointed.  Usually, these discouraging circumstances are the result of a difference in perspective rather than an outright betrayal of trust.  Something that I see as very important someone else may view as a minor or trivial matter.

The people we trust the most are those who consistently show us over time that they will honor their word and reach out to bridge misunderstandings and differences in perspective.  Some years ago, a couple of my closest friends and I got in the habit of playing practical jokes on one another.  I think my worst offense was putting a snake in one of my friends’ fishing tackle box without bothering to consider how he might feel about the trick.  Fortunately for me, his sense of humor was marginally stronger than his fear of snakes; and the story is one we both laugh about more than 20 years later.  Unfortunately, the “jokes” did not stop at that point; and on one occasion, they crossed the line between funny and hurtful.  We remain close friends today because the person who was hurt spoke up in a humble but powerful way that included a clear message about his feelings and forgiveness for the injury he received. 

Many times we don’t get the chance to correct a misunderstanding, and we may never know when we offend someone or cause them to feel we have betrayed their trust.  A few years ago, I attended a gathering where a woman I did not know well was angrily accusing a good friend and fellow city manager of being untruthful.  I doubt my friend even knew this woman, but something he had said at a public meeting led her to believe he was untruthful.  Someone else stepped in and defended my friend’s reputation on that occasion, although I doubt that the accuser’s attitude was changed.

I’ve learned from these experiences and others like them that even when I feel I’ve been wronged, my first obligation is to learn why the other person acted as he or she did.  No offense was intended in most cases, and the conversation can lead to a better and stronger relationship.  I usually need to take a little time to get over my initial reaction and think about how I can approach the other person before I confront the situation.  Angrily accusing someone of something they hadn’t realized they’d done is usually not a winning strategy.

My job provides many opportunities to offend and be offended, which may explain why I’ve learned so many painful lessons about building trust.  I think the most important idea I need to constantly remind myself about is that lingering anger and resentment over a perceived slight costs me far more than it does the person I believe caused it.  Resolving the concern and getting past it is the best form of revenge.