Management manifesto: Upgrades for me, pink slips for thee

How many ways can management stick it to employees? One company knocks them around with performance reviews and layoffs, then follows up with an extra slap in the face

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Nobody likes being told their job performance isn't meeting expectations, but we should all have a chance to explain our side or work to improve. The managers at one firm I worked at believed differently -- and their lack of empathy toward employees went much further.

I once worked in a senior-level IT position for a large nonprofit R&D firm. As with many employers, the financial health of the firm had its ups and downs. We lived with a certain level of job insecurity, but more troublesome was the lack of communication from the top managers. 

Our company had a formal review process, but few managers were willing to provide honest feedback when it came to subpar performance -- that would be too confrontational. They would rather let you believe you were doing OK, even if your work was not satisfactory. After a while, you learned your true job performance was a guessing game based entirely on management's perception.

The true verdict on your work came when economic downturns forced managers to make choices about who stayed and who was let go. They did so based on job performance, and employees who thought they were doing fine year after year learned of their "unsatisfactory performance" only when they were being fired.

Any feedback or attempt to change the process was silenced: Criticism was not allowed. It was difficult to respect our management as a result of all this, but one situation in particular brought to light the lack of regard for employees.

The economy was in another downturn, and management started handing out pink slips. We tiptoed through the day wondering who was next and saying quiet good-byes to those who'd been let go. By the end, about 100 people were laid off.

The mood was somber, yet relieved, as those of us still with jobs started leaving for the day. Most employees didn't depart at quitting time, but shortly thereafter, and we were shocked by the sight that greeted us outside the building's front door at quitting hour.

Delivery trucks were parked in front of the building, not at the back at a loading dock. Delivery workers were hauling in fancy, new conference room furniture: Brazilian hardwood construction and top-line chairs from Herman Miller.

Nobody said anything. In a way, we weren't surprised -- angry, yes, but not surprised. We exchanged telling looks with as we headed home.

We found out through the grapevine that the wife of one of the top execs was an interior designer and had gotten the job for refurbishing the offices and conference room. At the same time, there was no way that the top managers hadn't seen economic problems on the horizon. Evidently, new office furniture and a job for one of their own was more important than employees' well-being.

We had learned to not challenge such actions or to even talk to the managers about it. But over the next few weeks a lot of resumes were sent out, accompanied by more good-byes -- this time on employees' terms.