I’m the human resource (HR) manager of a factory. Yesterday, a janitor gave me an unsigned open letter he found in a toilet cubicle. It was a poison-pen letter aimed at a department manager notorious for his dictatorial management style. The letter complained about his unreasonable manner of dealing with subordinates. What should I do with it? — Rainbow Connection.
What’s your company policy on these matters? Obviously, you don’t have any because you took the time to seek my advice. Double check the wording of your code of conduct or similar regulations if it can be classed as “disrespecting management authority” or some similar violation.
The problem is, who may be charged in the case of anonymous letters? How far are you willing to go to uncover the author? Have there been similar incidents in the past? What did management do then? This situation calls for serious thought.
First, thank the janitor for his discovery and instruct him to keep it secret. You don’t want the manager to be the subject of rumors spread by a few disgruntled workers even if they have good reason. If there are valid issues between these workers and their manager, then bringing the case out into the open is not advisable.
It may be too late to keep a lid on things, but just the same, do everything you can to prevent any greater damage, not only to the manager but to the whole organization as well.
COURSE OF ACTION
You can’t stop a disgruntled worker or workers from issuing complaints covertly. But a poison-pen letter is always out of line. It’s a level worse than talking about a colleague behind his back.
The letter could be a symptom of bad management, though it is difficult to speculate. Therefore, as an HR manager, you must probe deeper for any underlying issues raised by the letter. The complaint could be exaggerated or baseless. Manage the situation by doing the following:
One, inform the chief executive officer (CEO) or any senior official. Preferably someone who is both in charge of your work and of the manager involved. This is cause for concern and should not be handled at your level, even if you think it’s a minor matter. Tell the CEO or your boss about your initial findings and recommendations.
Clearance from a higher-up will give you the confidence to do your job and ignore some people’s attempts to dismiss an unsigned letter as a non-issue.
Two, review the manager’s work circumstances. If the CEO agrees to proceed with your proposal, round out your information with verifiable records on employee absenteeism, tardiness and turnover rate, including requests for transfers to other departments or branches, among other things.
It’s better to dig down to the past three years to detect any trends and understand context. You might also find revealing information in exit interviews. If the department’s metrics are out of line compared to other departments, consider it a strike against the manager.
Last, confer with the manager. The idea is not to indict, but to share information and allow the manager to give his side. Nothing more than that. However, do note that depending on the manager’s personality, such information-sharing may be misinterpreted, and could even backfire on you if you are perceived as giving importance to a trivial issue.
How might this happen? If your company has a formal whistleblower program where complaints may be filed with no danger of retaliation, you might be seen as giving too much importance to anonymous letters.
Prevention is better than cure. These situations often crop up in the absence or incomplete application of communication programs that are supposed to be managed by the HR department. These programs include the following:
One, corporate-wide employee morale survey. The result may take some time and may not be ready by the time you have to act on the manager’s case. Just the same, consider the survey a regular annual opportunity to be alerted to the need to proactively deal with any issues that may arise.
Two, engagement dialogue between manager and workers. Why wait for exit interviews when managers can talk to people casually. The questions can be as simple as how are you doing? What are the challenges in your job that we can mutually resolve? How can I help you achieve your career goals in this organization?
Three, a quality circle (QC) or any team problem-solving activity. A group activity like this is often branded as ineffective by managers with dictatorial tendencies. But a QC often serves as an alternate grapevine. It is where workers can vent against certain policies or management personalities. If you don’t know this yet, then you could be losing out.