Dismissals and doubt: The reality of culture change

The CEO announces an admirable plan to improve working conditions, but the results are less than ideal for company employees

Dismissals and doubt: The reality of culture change

It’s not easy changing a company culture for the better. From my experience, it demands buy-in and finesse, and as I saw at a company where the shift did not go well, it most certainly requires support from the C-suite for there to be any chance of success.

I worked in the IT department at a company that both had a high turnover rate and did not enjoy a good reputation as a place to work. People on the lower rungs didn’t have much decision-making capability, and the higher-ups didn’t seem interested in ideas other than their own. You kept your head down, did your job as best you could, and lived to see another paycheck.

Therefore, the CEO’s vision was welcome: He announced that he wanted to change the culture to create a company that people wanted to work for and stick with for a long time.

He didn’t outline how the change would occur, except he was bringing in an HR-type person to “develop the employees.” What that meant was anybody’s guess, but the vision sounded good and we hoped the rest would be answered in due time.

Hope turns to fear

Alas, we all know great ideas are sometimes marred by poor implementation -- and this was one of those times. I had originally thought this HR-type person would create programs to help develop the existing employees. I guess other employees thought the same, because we were excited about this staff addition. In my mind, I thought the new hire would be like a coach, kind of like the type who trains CEOs to become better leaders.

But our excitement and hope soon turned to confusion and fear. Shortly after this HR-type person joined, the CFO was fired.

The CFO was my boss, and it was a shock to me and the rest of the administrative team who reported to him. Even more surprising, the new CFO was starting only a few days later -- come to find out, the search had already been conducted behind closed doors.

It didn’t stop there. Shortly after the new CFO started, the operations manager was fired. But unlike with the CFO’s departure, which was announced by the CEO companywide, many people didn’t know the operations manager was terminated. He was let go without any communication to the company, and people were wondering why he wasn’t returning calls like he usually did. Eventually, everyone found out through the grapevine.

Thus, “developing employees” meant “cleaning house." While I understand the idea of shedding deadwood, there might have been a better way to do so. I didn’t think the CFO or the operations manager were bad at their jobs, though having worked with similar positions before, my impression is that they were not too engaged in their duties. Some of that might have been due to the culture itself -- which the CEO had been saying he’d change.

The fallout

Not surprising, none of us felt safe. One question sat on everyone’s minds: If even the CFO can easily be fired and replaced, what would it be like for the rest of us?

I guess from a performance perspective, that keeps people on their toes, but not in a good way. A few of us got assurance that the changes wouldn’t affect us and our jobs were safe. Even so, the trust had been broken and I updated my resume.

It would have been great if the plan or the changes were communicated to us ahead of time instead of after. Of course, you don’t need people leaving en masse for different jobs to know the culture shift hasn’t gone according to plan. The fear and uncertainty instilled into the existing employees indicates a failure of the project.