A long, long (LONG) time ago, I held my newly obtained psychology degree in hand, determined to change the world. Or at least ‘help people’. I had no idea WHAT I wanted to do, honestly, only that I didn’t want to work a corporate 9-5, that I wanted to make the world a better place, and that whatever I did, it would only be filling time until my REAL job (a paid and published author) came to fruition. To age myself, and to inspire comments about how fabulous I look for someone clearly nearing retirement age, when I graduated university, the internet was just becoming a ‘thing’, and I produced all of my term papers on a state-of-the-art, IBM word processor that was a glorified typewriter. All this to say, I had no working knowledge of spreadsheets, word processing software, or much else. But I had a psychology degree, so off I went, type-written resume in hand, to find an awesome, well-paying job.
I’ll fast forward the humiliation, horrible interviews, and slowly dawning realization that I would not, in fact, be choosing between several interesting, lucrative and philanthropic positions, but would actually be lucky to land a day shift in a fast food restaurant. So, degree in hand, I limped back to my ‘school job’, a shipping and receiving depot for a generic pharmaceutical warehouse. Clearly, I was meant for more than shipping off generic drugs to pharmacies across Canada (so I thought), and my attitude about this no doubt was apparent.
What was also apparent was that the manager of the warehouse was not up to the job. While I and another couple employees were transferred from the west coast head office, ‘Marvin’, as we shall call him, was hired because he was a friend of one of the sales reps. Marvin hired his friends and on one occasion, relative, to work in the warehouse. Marvin did not seem to appreciate our frequent ‘helpful’ input about how the head office did things. In fact, he seemed to become irritated by this. He also didn’t appear to have a strong regard for things like people actually working for the company in order to be paid. The final straw in my mind was when we received a pallet of drugs that were frozen that were clearly marked ‘do not freeze’, and Marvin’s response was ‘Eff it, what corporate doesn’t know won’t hurt them.’
So of course I did what I did at that time in my life – I launched a crusade. Filled with righteous indignation, I composed a letter to HR about all the violations Marvin was engaged in, near embezzlement, nepotism and practically attempted murder (due to the frozen drugs). Those of us who weren’t Marvin’s friends signed it and we waited confidently for Marvin’s dismissal.
Which didn’t happen.
Instead, HR called Marvin and told him what the letter said and who signed it, and that they would be coming in two weeks to interview everyone. The next day, I was called into the office and told my attitude was unacceptable and I was no longer needed. When HR came, they asked everyone about the allegations and concluded the issue with a warning to Marvin. Everyone else was fired within the next couple months for reasons allegedly unrelated to the actual complaint.
This actually ended up being an awesome thing for me because, facing unemployment again, I took a class to learn basic office skills, which led to an introduction which led to me doing PhD-level applied behavioral research assignments for a pioneer in Organizational Behavior Management. This would never have happened if I wouldn’t have launched a failed coup. But I learned some other things too:
- I learned that when you are NOT the one with the ‘power’ in a work relationship, just being right (or feeling that you’re right) is not enough when raising a complaint. How you conduct yourself, how you communicate, and your perceived motives will greatly influence how your complaint is received.
- I learned that sometimes owners and senior leaders would rather deal with an inadequate manager than no manager at all, which makes them very vulnerable long term, but gives them at least the illusion of things getting handled.
- I learned that sometimes you have to ask yourself if a battle is really worth fighting. If you just put your head down and do your job, can you overlook the petty things (managers hiring friends and being somewhat less than inspiring)? Are the things that seem like big deals really big deals and if not, can you ignore them for the sake of keeping your job?
- I also, sadly, learned that sometimes HR isn’t there to make sure the right thing gets done, just that the problem goes away. If you’re seen to be the problem, then guess what?
- I didn’t learn this immediately, but eventually I learned that if I don’t respect my manager, or if my company’s values differ significantly from my own, I need to start looking elsewhere because I can’t be successful AND happy there.
- When I did eventually take on an HR role, the lesson I took with me from this is to very objective when I heard complaints and certainly not create an opportunity for retaliation by disclosing to people the nature of the complaints, and identity of the complainants well before the investigation started! And I probably would have looked a little more closely at all the terminations of the complainers, but hey…that’s just me.
- I guess most of all I learned that even if it ends badly, sometimes it’s still worth it to do what you think is right.
This wasn’t the first time I spoke a truth that the powers that be didn’t want to hear (far, FAR from it). As I often joke, my life theme could probably be “I fought the law and the law won”, but I personally wouldn’t have it any other way. Are there some battles I shouldn’t have fought, or that I had a flat-out wrong perspective on? Unfortunately, yes. Are there any companies or leaders I left voluntarily or otherwise as a result of my telling unpopular truths that I wish I was still part of? Nope to the nope.
So I guess to summarize what I learned, it was don’t obsess over petty stuff, do your job, choose your battles wisely, and when you do encounter a battle truly worth fighting, fight for all you’re worth and if it ends badly, trust that there’s something better out there!
Are you in the midst of some battles of your own? I’d love to hear about it. My company exists to help you navigate them so you don’t have to go through what either Marvin or I went through!
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations, leaders and job seekers to identify workplace solutions that work. As a certified executive coach, organizational development expert and resume writer, Carrie consults with small to medium sized businesses on OD, human resources and recruiting solutions in addition to providing career coaching to managers and executives in transition. Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org