As IT pros, it’s ironic that interfacing with and managing complex electronic systems is often the easiest part of our jobs. Usually, the biggest problem is navigating the messy politics of the corporate world and the individual personalities of our co-workers. Take, for example, the IT department at a large enterprise where I once worked.
For quite a few years, the company did fine but didn’t expand. In addition, there wasn’t much turnover, so personnel stayed consistent.
When the company started to grow, it was good news -- the managers made clear that everyone’s jobs were stable. But it was a tough pill to swallow for some employees, as new workers arrived from other parts of the country and even the world. An ugly, insensitive side to the company culture could no longer be ignored.
It wasn’t uncommon over the years to hear the occasional insensitive comment about someone’s race, ethnicity, and so on. But since they were usually aimed at people who did not work at the company, managers and HR didn’t intervene. However, it became a real problem as the company's demographics changed. The term “culture clash” doesn’t even begin to describe the drama that unfolded.
A very public showdown
Old IT Pro was an IT manager who had been with the company for more than 30 years and, to his great pride, was the chief architect of the company’s network infrastructure. He was accustomed to the nondirect communication that was the norm at the company.
Then came New IT Pro, a high-energy, opinionated disaster recovery expert from another region of the United States who was used to a very direct way of communicating. She was brought on board to evaluate the overall readiness of the company’s infrastructure for a disaster recovery scenario.
New IT Pro did a thorough evaluation, then prepared a detailed presentation for management. In it, she exhausted every synonym of the word “inadequate” in describing the unacceptable, shoddy, amateur, substandard, deficient state of the company infrastructure. (She was right, albeit not tactful.)
Old IT Pro did not take it well. The longer she went on, the more visibly upset he became until finally he slammed his notebook on the table and yelled, “Is there anything else you want to [bleep] on!?” Then he slammed his chair against the wall and stormed out of the conference room.
Everyone else was shocked, but New IT Pro continued the presentation, seemingly unfazed by this tantrum. Afterward, she calmly walked down the hall into Old IT Pro’s corner office, slammed the door, and asked in a high-volume, expletive-laden exchange what the [bleep] his [bleeping] problem was. Their shouting match went on for a long time.
Eventually, one of the senior managers had to go in and break it up. Both were reprimanded for their conduct. But from that day forward, they showed the utmost respect to one another and did a great job in cleaning up the infrastructure issues.
All together now: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
The outcome wasn't so positive when another messy situation erupted at the help desk. Old Analyst was known to be somewhat obnoxious in stating opinions and was one of the employees known for making racist or xenophobic comments.
Enter New Analyst, a young man of Middle Eastern descent who joined the help desk right out of college. His English was flawless, though with a slight accent since he learned it while living in England. He’d earned his degree in computer science from a world-renowned university and was working on his MBA.
Old Analyst was assigned to train New Analyst, and the problems began almost immediately. Old Analyst insisted on speaking to him in a slow, loud voice as if he had the IQ of a pumpkin -- even lamenting to his face how awful it must be for him to work in a job where he had to speak good English all day.
New Analyst stood up for himself and even corrected some of Old Analyst’s poor grammar, but that only made things worse. After that, Old Analyst spoke even slower and louder, even occasionally asking, “Can you understand me OK?”
The friction between the two was a continual issue, mostly since Old Analyst injected politics and religion into many conversations, complete with passive-aggressive digs at New Analyst’s religion and ethnicity. In spite of the antagonism, New Analyst proved to be incredibly competent with the job.
New Analyst eventually made a complaint to HR. Old Analyst was mildly reprimanded and asked to attend a “cultural sensitivity” seminar that didn’t seem to do much good.
However, some time later New Analyst worked his way up to the help desk manager, and Old Analyst’s career had stalled out at the entry level.
HR and the company leaders made minor attempts to address some of the misunderstandings and cultural gaps. But some very good talent walked out the door, fed up with the insensitivity. Hopefully one day the company will find a way to deal with these issues.
Even the most intricate infrastructure still functions according to logical rules and the laws of physics, but human nature is infinitely more nuanced and unpredictable. When considering what makes a strong IT department, never overlook the human element: A bad culture can be as destructive as a bad infrastructure.