In The Workplace

I’m an ordinary office worker in a small family enterprise with about 400 workers. Most of the time, we are fearful of the management process in approving our vacation leave. Even for a one-day leave, it takes time for our bosses to approve the workers’ application because it requires five signatures in hard-copy format, including that of the CEO who is the last signatory. Because of this corporate red tape, many workers spend so much time waiting and exasperated for a simple administrative matter like it. What’s the industry standard? What’s your take on this? — Never-Ending.

Alain Enthoven (born 1930) is an American economist. He was one of “Whiz Kids” of Robert McNamara, the American defense secretary who served in the 1960s. Strong in physique and intellect, Enthoven as an economist also specialized in strategy and strategic weapons. At one time, he visited the US Air Force in Germany.

He was met by an assortment of generals with decades of accumulated experience and yards of ribbons on their uniforms. Enthoven, who was youthful and fresh-faced, listened with growing impatience as the number one general outlined plans for briefing the visitor. Finally, Enthoven interrupted the presenter: “General,” he said. “I don’t think you understand the reason why I’m here. I didn’t come for a briefing. I came to tell you what we have decided at the White House.”

Many of the systems and procedures in our organizations are just like that. Top management creates certain policies that are detached from the context and reality in the battlefield. They practice a command-and-control style, such that even today, the modern workplace still uses military terms like “chain of command” and “unity of command” to manage workers.

Today, many companies find that command-and-control structures of the military in past years do not work with today’s workforce. You didn’t tell me your age, but I suspect (because of your challenging the status quo mind set) you’re part of the millennial generation, which is known to be demanding, sometimes for good reason, at least in the case you mentioned. Why not? Millennials are adept and skilful in using social media and the Internet which makes them think that the hard copy of the leave application form itself is not necessary.

And much more so if the form itself needs five signatures.

When I received your question, I hurriedly conducted an informal (although unscientific) survey on the Facebook page of the “Philippines HR Group” to check the current practices of organizations. Out of 30 respondents, 10 employees say their leave application is approved by one signatory, while 20 claim their application must be approved by “2-3 signatories.”

This is quite revealing for me. Still, there are companies out there that are practicing a command-and-control style rather than the modern style of one-to-one — one boss is responsible for his or her workers.

Even with today’s “bossless upside-down structure” and no hierarchical structures as found in many Internet and Web-related businesses, where customer satisfaction is top priority, employees, instead of being bogged down by waiting, can approve their own leave at any given time. This can be done via flexitime and telecommuting, among other non-traditional approaches.

Of course, such practices are not applicable in many businesses. Just the same, it doesn’t mean that management should always make it difficult for the workers to do their job and discourage them to enjoy their vacation leave.

Regardless of one’s business, we can make it easy and simple for workers to be responsible. As long as everyone is given reasonable standards and targets, management need not worry about burdening workers with an onerous approval process for leave.

Too many cooks spoil the broth. We have been hearing this time and again. And it means that the more people are involved in an activity or process, the greater chance that they will ruin the results, if not hurt the feelings of people who are adversely affected. Besides, if line supervisors and managers out there are doing their jobs, then it’s best for them to be empowered with the simple, administrative task of approving leave applications. After all, if the workers are on leave, who will perform their task, without the company overtaxing other workers with overtime assignments?

Your top management, with the help of the human resource department,  must decentralize simple tasks so that other managers are not burdened with so much paperwork. Some organizations take this approach to a higher level to create an innovative and independent structure.

If the boss and his workers can’t be trusted with the management of their work schedule, then what else can be done?

On the other hand, if your organization wants to explore a one-on-one approvals policy, then I must prescribe the following guidelines so that it can be more effective and efficient:

One, the workers’ assignment is standard, stable and routine. There should be no room for the workers to make an independent judgment if the rules are clear and succinct. In case of certain exceptions or abnormalities, then that’s the only time they should consult with their bosses.

Two, the workers in the same unit perform a similar task. This allows another worker to take over in case or a scheduled leave or an emergency, in case of illness or any eventuality. The only challenge here is to minimize overtime work as much as possible.

Three, the workers are highly trained and do not need close supervision. Training is very important. And therefore, management must be able to come out with the best training strategy for everyone that ensures continuity of work operations.

Of course, every line supervisor and manager faced with the dilemma of too much work and too little time makes the one-on-on policy tenable. After all, why spend so much time analyzing the reasonableness of the workers’ leave application?