Accountability: Rare in Organizations

The employee delivered newspapers full-time. He tried to organize the other adult employee carriers into a union. I managed the region the man worked in and spearheaded the effort to defeat the union. We won at great cost to the company.

After the vote, I continued to document the man’s chronically poor performance. I knew the company would not fire him absent extreme provocation. The lawyers feared he would claim retaliation—as if attacking our motives was evidence–and sue the company if they held him accountable with documented facts. I continued to document his performance issues because it was the right thing to do.

Can we do what is right and win cases too? I believe we can. Disciplined employees can challenge our facts and attack our motives but evidence and documentation speak for themselves. I was never sued or lost an arbitration because I did professional work correctly.

I was promoted and encouraged the employee’s direct supervisor to continue to document the man’s performance issues. I told him the company would not let him fire the man but if he got a massive amount of documentation, I would go with him and empty the box of memos and letters on the desk of the company general counsel.

About two years later, we did exactly that. We walked into the general counsel’s office with a cardboard box filled with written warnings. I turned the box over on his desk and dumped out a hundred or more written reprimands. We embarrassed him. The general counsel allowed us to fire the man, which was done with no repercussions.

I believe many of the best employees, at all levels, burn-out and leave organizations because they can’t use their values and power to effect right changes, including discipline. And the bad employees stay forever–a cancer on the organization.

Organizations are mostly mediocre; leaders and employees often middling or less. But some of us try to lead from our values and be excellent in what we do. We believe in holding people accountable for their performance via a fair process that gives employees a chance to change. Too often our efforts and good work get frustrated by higher-ups and attorneys terrified of being sued or complained about.

Whatever happened to standing up for ideals—win or lose? At least once in a while in especially egregious cases.

I left the newspaper and spent 13 years as a consultant. I tried to teach leaders how to lead transformation of their organizations. I focused on employee engagement, empowerment and involvement as key strategies. I also believed in a tough-love approach and taught managers how to hold people accountable. Many began–few followed through. They feared conflict and they feared they would not be supported by higher-management.

In a workshop I led on giving feedback, a manager asked what patterns I saw that cut across all organizations. That was easy: “the lack of accountability,” I said. I saw but one organization over those years that routinely held people accountable for their behavior and performance.

I retired from consulting after 13 years. I had tried every day with every client to influence leaders, managers and supervisors to use their power to bring about changes good for employees, executives, customers and the organization and changes that had huge positive impacts on the bottom-line. Accountability was one of many core issues I asked them to deal with.

Leaders professed to want “great organizations” but most lacked the right stuff needed to lead organizations from mediocrity to greatness—including accountability. They wanted quick-fixes—easy, quick, cheap and painless–and imagined magical changes in people. With rare exception, after realizing that real transformation required hard work, most stuck with mediocrity.

I still encourage people with power to do what they can to hold the mediocre, dishonest, immature and those who drain the life from others accountable. It’s the right thing to do. Just don’t expect any certain outcome for your efforts from timid decision-makers. What you do matters even if it doesn’t seem that way. Who knows, maybe someday you can dump your own box of documentation on the desk of an anxious lawyer or executives and embarrass them into action.