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Snake-handling not in job description!

Dear Office-Politics,

I am in a seemingly impossible situation. I was hired as the Animal Care Technician Supervisor for an animal control agency. It was a newly created position as a result of the consistent inability of the Animal Care Technicians to follow department policies and procedures and provide quality customer service without direct supervision. I have 9 direct subordinates.

At my orientation, I was made aware of the internal politics, power struggles and cliques. Apparently, my Lead Tech was the root of the problems. She, as a 15 year employee, had been able to “fly under the radar” while violating nearly every established policy or procedure including falsifying documents, abuse of sick leave, discrediting individuals or agencies, creating a hostile work environment, etc. She was able to cover her tracks until last year, when a departmental investigation revealed the above. I don’t know how this was allowed to happen.

She had applied for my position and filed a grievance with the union when she was not chosen. It was dismissed, stating that she did not meet the minimum qualifications. She has spent the last four months sabotaging my efforts to build a successful, harmonious, relatively stress free working environment. She began this effort by telling the Administrator (and the rest of the 30+ staff) that I was a drug addict. She had never met me. She was reprimanded by HR for that, but continues to try to discredit my efforts and abilities with false rumors. As a Lead, she is in a position of relative power and interacts directly with my staff on a daily basis. Under my direction, she is supposed to ensure implementation of and adherence to programs, schedules, assignments, etc. She does the opposite. She has striven to keep the subordinates confused, unhappy and overwhelmed. I have 20 years of Supervisory and Human Resource training and experience, but I have not dealt with such a deceitful, vindictive, relentless personality.

In an attempt to get her on board with me, understanding her disappointment and resentment over not being chosen, I began by giving her complete autonomy and respect, attempting to make her job easier. That went nowhere.

I then reigned her in a bit, using the “we” and “I need your support” tactic. That didn’t work. Now, I am systematically removing her responsibilities, thus her power, documenting and reprimanding violations. We are moving to terminate, but it will take several months. Of course, I remain friendly, positive and professional in my interactions with her.

My dilemma is how to get and keep the rest of my staff on board with me. They have been loyal to her for so long, knowing that she can make the workplace miserable for them if they aren’t. (Before I started, 2 employees transferred out, 1 resigned and refuse to return as long as she is there.) The employees that remained loyal to her were rewarded by being allowed to leave early, arrive late, run errands and take extended lunch breaks, with no adjustments to their timesheets. They would swap schedules to gain overtime compensation. These are powerful incentives, but I was hired to put a stop to these and many other serious violations. I was hired to create and maintain a cohesive professional work unit. I have to be the bad guy as far as policy violations, so it’s hard to gain the friendship of the staff (one is serving a 30 day suspension now).

The rest of the staff are pleased with the improvements. They are happy with me and my leadership. They are beginning to see that she may be the cause of the bulk of the dissension, but they are working under the constant stress of having to choose sides. I am so bogged down with damage control from this one employee that I can’t move forward with important improvements and programs. I sincerely hope your team can give me some suggestions as to how to get past this obstacle. I have a potentially great crew. Any hints you may have would be appreciated.

Thanks and regards,

Animal Control Supervisor

timothy johnson

Dear Animal Control Supervisor

Alas, you weren’t warned about the “snake handling” duties of your job. You’ve been placed in a difficult situation, and you’ve done a great job of identifying the key source of conflict: power. Your job is two-fold: you need to win over the powerless drones that were at the snake’s mercy, while keeping the snake as far away from them as possible while you do it.

I would suggest sitting down with the HR representative and the union steward and discussing the situation in very objective terms. Talk in terms of behavior and results. Show your documentation of her actions. Let them know that all three of you are on the same team, and that you all have a common problem. Then enlist their help in brainstorming for solutions to the problem: how do we effectively keep the snake away from the staff without violating HR or union rules?

One of the tricks of brainstorming is to remember that it’s OK to generate strange ideas if they will help channel you all into real possibilities. I’ve been using a brainstorming technique from toymakers and creativity gurus, Charlie and Maria Girsch, called “Get your butt fired.” The purpose is to come up with ideas that, if implemented, would get you all fired. The trick is that you don’t stop at those initial ideas, but you use them as a springboard to come up with more realistic ideas to which you can all agree. It could be a time-consuming process, but work to discover which policies are real and which ones are only sacred cows. Then see if you can possibly:
1. Assign her to a travel job to other animal control sites across the state or region
2. Change her shift so she’s only there when nobody else is
3. Move her workstation to another building with only paperwork, no phone, and no email

Remember, the purpose is not to punish her during the termination process as much as it is to remove her while you build the relationships with your team. The beauty is that the results of your meeting should be a strategy which blocks her from filing grievances with the union or from complaining to HR or from undermining your reputation with your team. You have, in effect, diffused her power sources from all angles. And you have proactively won over your stakeholders before taking action with her. She may dislike the new responsibilities and environment so much that you may motivate her to resign on her own.

As for handling your team, just remember to be fair and consistent. Attempt to find reasons to celebrate as you see the culture shifting toward the positive. It’s not always easy to improve a toxic culture, but it sounds like you are making positive strides in that direction.

I hope this helps. Thanks for writing to Office Politics.

Best of luck,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.

  1. 3 Answers to “Snake-handling not in job description!”

  2. Mr. Johnson,

    Your response to my dilemma was right on target and hysterical! It’s funny that working with animal control, snake handling is actually part of my job, but in the past, they have been reptiles. I had not thought to involve the union rep! My “snake” has burned her bridges with them. I met with HR today, to move to demote. This will allow me to move her to another area within her pay scale. With your advice to involve the union rep, I can likely be successful in yet another preemptive strike. This snake is poisonous. I intend to implement your suggestions immediately. As far as being “a time consuming process”, you have given me ideas to expedite the process. Thing is…you don’t need to fear snakes if you handle them correctly. Thank you for your time and expertise.

    By Letter Writer on Jun 15, 2007

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