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Shock and Awe in the Workplace

Shock and Awe in the Workplace

By Kevin Kennemer, MA, SPHR

I want to tell you a little story about shock and awe in the workplace. Technically, the term comes from the military doctrine of using overwhelming power to dominate the enemy, but sometimes in life those who shock are not the ones who awe.

The Shock

Walking out of the first floor lobby and into the parking garage, I couldn’t believe I had just been escorted to the elevator after undergoing a jobectomy: a termination meeting in a conference room with a member of management and an attorney in a sterile conference room.  My offense? Not creating the type of culture the company wanted.

This was interesting considering the culture is the CEOs job and I, as the chief human resource officer, had been urging him for months we needed to make some changes, especially in the leadership department.  I agree with a seasoned HR VP who once said, “Every human resource executive who believes in doing the right thing needs a go-to-hell fund.”

After months of agonizing days and nights dealing with the ruthless attacks from a psychotic, certifiable jerk boss, I was beginning to believe up was down and down was up. Jerks tend to wear down your sense of direction.  However, I was not going to give up and leave, which would have been the best thing for my health and family.  And I certainly was not going to give up my values, although the stakes were high.

My nerves and digestive tract were shot and the firing, in reality, came as a relief.  However, the truth was cleverly hidden inside the company with those at the controls.

What did I know about that place?  For months, I had observed terrible, uncivil and coercive behavior from a key executive.  Many of his direct reports began to mimic his behavior likely as a survival response and also to increase their chances of receiving a nice bonus check from a highly subjective incentive program.  Jerk bosses survive because people are afraid of them and unethical management looks the other way. They know bad bosses can get good people to do bad things.

On that day, I walked to my car, drove home, walked in the kitchen and told my family the news. We cried, we hugged, we laughed, we prayed and we survived.

The Awe

When you smell smoke you have to make a choice: take a stand and stop the spread of fire, or run before you get burned.

Those who think they have the power to shock don’t always have the power to awe. Those who think they can do anything they wish – regardless of laws, ethics or standards of decency – end up being awed by a power much higher than us.

Eight months after that dreadful firing day, the shining star on the corporate hill in Tulsa, Okla. filed for bankruptcy – out of nowhere. People were floored by the shocking news! The company that could do no wrong was sinking.  The CEO resigned in disgrace. The one who summarily dismissed my complaints about out-of-control executive behavior allowed the company to file bankruptcy and cost employees, vendors and investors hundreds of millions of dollars.  The total button has yet to be hit, but it’s huge.

I have always believed where there is smoke there is fire. Uncivilized treatment of subordinates smells like smoke to me. When you smell smoke you have to make a choice: take a stand and stop the spread of fire, or run before you get burned.

Some people believe in karma. I believe in a higher power who is watching over those who endeavor to do good.

Kevin Kennemer is founder of The People Group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kevin is driven by his passion for company owners and their need to earn a profit, employees' desire for a positive and fulfilling work experience, and the community that benefits when both groups do well.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Moore 7 years ago

    I found your website and business after being graced yesterday with the discovery of the book “Finding the Soul of Big Business.” That book was written by The Bama Companies CEO Paula Marshall and, I discovered, endorsed on Amazon.com by The People Group executive Kevin Kennemer.

    Sadly, yet another befouled, prominent corporate culture was reportedly publicly identified on Tuesday (Oct. 5; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/business/media/06tribune.html?scp=2&sq=tribune&st=cse).

    Separately, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people harmed by an earlier corporate scandal driven by executive hubris, the one involving Enron. Like Enron, my company was an energy trader. While my company operated legitimately, when Enron failed, all energy traders suffered, and my company had to cut about 1,000 positions, leaving about 1,000 people jobless. I didn’t lose my job, but one of my employees (who happened to reside in Tulsa) and several friends did. So, their loss was my loss as a friend who cared for them, and, financially, I lost value in my company’s stock and a modest sum of stock options.

    The People Group and the many other companies and people who share your values are doing outstanding, noble work! Nobility is rarely mentioned in business, but I ask: Why not? Do all of us — as owners, managers, employees, customers, suppliers, communities — believe we should accept less from the organizations that “serve” us? Unfortunately, many of us accept less, in part because we simply haven’t questioned the status quo and learned of alternatives. Then, of course, knowing of alternatives doesn’t mean those alternatives will prevail, especially if you’re an employee in an organization that doesn’t truly respect people.

    The People Group is questioning the status quo and is putting points up for a powerfully positive alternative!

    Realistically, though, I must caution that you and those who share your — our — values face a daunting, withering headwind. On surface, a bet against your effecting a substantive shift in our nation’s workplace culture seems a no-brainer. I say that in light of the seemingly overwhelming inertia of a national workplace culture that almost invariably places the interests and well-being of people below such higher priorities as inequitable executive and trader bonuses, position, power, ego, harmful internal individual and organizational competition and jealousies and, yes, even operational efficiency and profits.

    While it appears we’re tilting at windmills in aiming at a tangible workplace culture transformation nationally, I believe in my heart that it’s possible. It will, however, take a whole lot of ingenuity, perseverance and, vitally important, collaboration among people-respecting leaders, coaches and catalysts to make it happen.

    Let’s go!

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  1. […] People Officer Kevin Kennemer shares his personal story of leaving a terrible workplace and a bad boss: I want to tell you a little story about shock and […]

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