Deign Another Day

That guy in your office who deletes your e-mails without reading them? Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert strongly urges that you fire that guy – and his boss – for utterly failing as company leaders.

Tell me if this reminds you of anyone you know.

Three months ago, my wife mentioned in passing that she’d been introduced to a senior manager at a large multinational during her after-hours volunteer work. ‘I asked if his company was hiring, and he said “yes;” they were adding a dozen new people to his team,’ she said.

That was encouraging. It’s always good to be on the lookout for new contacts and new opportunities. I asked what the fellow did for a living.

‘He works in information security, just like you.’ She said.

Even more encouraging! This fellow does what I do, and was looking for new talent. Might be someone worth reaching out to. Couldn’t hurt to try, anyway. She had his contact information, so I wrote the fellow a polite letter of introduction. I sent it … and never heard back.

Two months ago, my wife mentioned that she’d run into the senior manager again and another community service event. He’d asked her why I hadn’t contacted him. I found that a bit weird, since he’d had my introductory e-mail for nearly a month. Still, accidents happen. I phoned the man’s office … and got his voicemail. Then I e-mailed him a second time … and never heard back.

Imagine the scene looked like this. It didn’t, but my stock photo search for ‘grumpy cowboy + wryly exasperated spouse’ didn’t yield any results. 

Last month, my wife asked if I’d heard anything back from the mysterious senior manager fellow. I said rather grumpily that I hadn’t. She mulled on it, then promised to have a word with the fellow the next time they crossed paths. I sent him a follow-up e-mail anyway, just to be courteous. Silence.

Last night, my wife got home from a week on the road supporting the local Boy Scouts. She mentioned that she’d met the fellow again at the event, and had learned what had happened.

‘He was out of the office for two weeks of paid time off,’ she said. ‘When he came back to the office, he had over a thousand new e-mail messages waiting in his inbox. Rather than try and read them, he deleted them all. “If they really need something from me, they’ll contact me again,” he said.’

‘The £&@$ I will,’ I said. ‘Based on that reprehensible behaviour, I’ll never work with or for this £&@$. Ever. He’s proven that he cannot be trusted.’

That may sound harsh, but let me assure you: it’s not. In fact, it’s more charitable than the bloke deserves. A member of management is both empowered and required to faithfully and professionally conduct the company’s business. Leaders are expected to make timely and appropriate decisions on behalf of their corner of the organisation. By deleting all of his unread company correspondence, this fellow declared publically that that he holds his superiors, his subordinates, his suppliers, his customers, and (in fact) everyone else in his company in contempt.

It’s an outward manifestation of infantile behaviour; the belief that all other living beings only exist to serve them and their whims.

If I was his boss, I’d fire him. If I was his boss’s boss, I’d fire both him and his boss – the latter for having failed to take corrective action on a blatantly insubordinate team member. That’s not draconian – that’s cauterization. The longer this senior manager is allowed to undermine the company’s integrity, the more likely it becomes that his actions are going to cause irreparable harm to the brand.

Think about it: that man’s inbox is probably full of a lot of unnecessary content. Things like meeting invitations for events that he missed, advertisements, spam, administrivia, conversation threads for topics that he’s not needed in, etc. It’s perfectly normal to delete that sort of chaff. In fact, it’s required by many companies; it’s considered a blight on the company’s information architecture to let meaningless detritus clog up the e-mail server. Best practices call for sweeping the metaphorical leaves off the equally-metaphorical porch on a regular basis.

On the other hand, hiding amongst all of that distracting debris were undoubtedly items that this senior manager was required by his employer to take action on: decisions that needed to be made, forms that needed to be signed, actions that needed to be completed, warnings that needed to be heeded … and he deleted them all, sight-unseen. Think about the message he was sending to everyone that crossed his path:

The inquiry from the company CEO about an urgent issue? £&@$ the CEO!

The urgent inquiry from HR about a potential new-hire? £&@$ the new hire!

The warning from compliance about taking immediate corrective action to satisfy an upset regulator? £&@$ the regulators!

My letter of introduction that he’d promised my wife he’d respond to? £&@$ me and £&@$ her too!

I have a thoughtful counter-proposal for that sort of behaviour: £&@$ you right the £&@$ out the front door, bub.

Our lawyers have asked me to remind you that it’s improper to kick a thoroughly-awful employee down a flight of stairs. I assume their reasoning has something to do with safety regulations, because it certainly seems like the right thing to do.

This sort of staggering arrogance – and that’s what it is, make no mistake about it – is a public declaration. It tells everyone affected by the action that the speaker believes that he or she is not required to follow the same rules of professional conduct as everyone else in the company. They’re stating that they are more important than anyone else, and that there are immune to consequences for performance failures. They’re also stating that they cannot be relied upon.

See, it’s a leader’s responsibility to be responsive to the community he or she serves. That means responding the first time that you’re contacted. Not the third or the eighth or never. You don’t wait for a minimum number of contact attempts. You don’t force people to hunt you down in order to make you do your bloody job.

If upper management allows that declaration to stand without correcting it, then upper management has tacitly endorsed the speaker’s status as untouchable. Failure to take corrective action what is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of mutiny will inspire others of a similar egomaniacal bent to declare that they, too, are exempt from all company rules and regulations. The insubordination will spread like rot behind the wallpaper, until the affected division comes completely apart. At the same time, those employees who faithfully obeyed the company’s rules will become either lethargic from hopelessness, or else murderously angry over the apparent injustice. Morale will tank. Conflicts will spring up on all sides of the rebel division.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that upper management isn’t aware that this sort of pernicious disruption is happening a few echelons below their normal threshold of notice. That’s because people like this – the ones who figure out how to do it covertly – make it a point to ensure that their superiors’ messages never once touch their inbox. They set up rules in their e-mail application [1] to automatically shunt all messages from select user accounts into a special file – the one file that they check and respond to without fail. That way, their mass-deletions of official message traffic don’t get noticed by the senior leaders who might take umbrage with the practice.

Biff replied to my budget projection with a Grumpy Cat GIF. That’s so Biff! I should give him his weight in equity options.’

So, once again: does this reminds you of anyone you know? If not, consider yourself fortunate.

I worked for a fellow once who was notorious for this sort of conduct. He’d regularly have over two thousand unread messages in his inbox, dating back months. He’d randomly read some based on no criteria whatsoever and would ignore the rest. If I wanted him to take any sort of action (like to sign a form, make a decision, or answer a question) I’d have to walk over to his desk and stand over him until I got what I needed. That workaround satisfied my needs … but we were a global company with team members in several other nations. This manager would simply allow work to fail because he couldn’t be bothered to read his bloody e-mail even though company policy required him to.

What made it particularly sickening is that this fellow knew better. I’m confident of that, because he’d worked for me once. When I learned about his bad habits, I implemented and enforced company policy: every employee working for me was required to assess every new message that they received within one duty shift of its arrival. If action was required, they had to comply. If no action was required, the message had to be either archived or deleted. No matter what, there would be no orphaned messages left unread for more than one workday … on pain of severe disciplinary action. I’d taught him why it was necessary and demanded that he set the right example for his subordinates. Clearly the lesson didn’t stick.

That’s why I can’t and won’t work with this smarmy senior manager that my wife tried to introduce me to. Leadership only works when the leaders maintain trust. Their superiors, peers, and subordinates alike must all trust that the leader can be trusted to communicate professionally with them in a timely manner. A leader who can’t be trusted to operate his or her office with integrity cannot be tolerated. They represent a very real danger to the business at large, because (by their actions) they’re guaranteed to betray the people under their authority through inaction.

Significantly increasing the likelihood that innocent employees will get reprimanded or sacked for work that they actually completed, but that didn’t get past the lazy boss’s inbox.

There was a time when e-mail was considered a secondary (or even a tertiary) communications channel. Back when it was new, typed memos and phone calls were how work got done. Those days are far behind us; electronic communications are now the primary means of communication for businesses specifically because of the metadata associated with them. Unlike a written memo, an e-mail message can tell you when it was sent, when it was received, when it was read, when and to whom it was forwarded, all on an organisation-wide scale. Regulators, auditors, and attorneys all reply on e-mail systems to prove who in the company said what and who knew what when. It’s not optional anymore; e-mail records are crucial tools for establishing and proving guilt and innocence.

In his own way, this senior manager did send me a very clear message through his actions: he made it painfully clear that he’s a danger to his company, is toxic to the morale of everyone around him, and is grimly determined to sabotage his own career. I’d send him a note of thanks for the clarification, but I know he wouldn’t read it.


[1] Which is almost always going to be Microsoft Outlook.

Title Allusion: Ian Fleming, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, Die Another Day (2002 Film)

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: letter box – benjaminec; rose – LuckyBusiness; baby – poplasen; booted out – AndreyPopov; laughing at pc – alphaspirit; crying – OcusFocus


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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