Confessions of a benefits manager: The blame game

Candid finds herself under pressure from above as an inter-office email sets a series of unsettling accusations in motion

Like so many bad days, it started with an email. I didn’t send it, and it wasn’t even addressed directly to me, but nevertheless, it got me into deep do-do. It was copied to Big Bad Boss and his boss Evil Elroy, not to mention various other Higher Beings, but still I didn’t realise it would reflect on me so badly.

One of our HR managers has written to complain about the car policy in the Netherlands. It is a fair point: because of some strange company car phobia held in the US, no one in Holland gets a car, even though every market study we have ever done says we should hand them out like Smarties. I have raised this regularly, but I have been given a loud and intransigent ‘no’ to even the most basic car programme. I may as well suggest we offer crack cocaine as a Ford Focus, such is the reaction from our colonial friends.

Mind you, until now there hasn’t been much fuss, but suddenly we have three junior management vacancies and all candidates have refused to join unless they get a BMW like they have at their current company. It is understandable that local HR should highlight the issue.

I am just about to reply, when the phone rings. It is Evil Elroy. Gulp. I assume he wants to know why the policy is so far from market and I start to tell him the history. The line goes silent. I have a feeling something is wrong. The hairs on the back of my neck rise. Evil Elroy tells me it is my role to be the voice of head office and push back on local demands. Also, we should not copy the business in on internal HR matters. The way he carries on, it’s as if I had written the email myself. Eh?

A few minutes later, Big Bad Boss calls me into his office. Why am I not telling local HR to conform to corporate rules? Well I have. I have been quite clear about the policy, even though I know it is inadequate. I didn’t suggest they send emails round about it. He glares at me suspiciously. I go back to my desk wondering what I have done.

Later, I get a request from another country HR. I decide I had better be the voice of head office and so I give her the firm corporate ‘no’. An hour later, I am back in Big Bad Boss’s office explaining why I didn’t tell him about the request because they have now raised it with Evil Elroy and he is cross that he wasn’t told about it before. It is like living in the Salem witch trials: if I don’t say something, I am in the wrong; if I do, I am just as bad.

Evil Elroy is just what I say he is. He has risen in the company from a junior HR manager of some tiny satellite office to his current position of HR Overlord purely by knifing the competition in the back. His background is strewn with the broken careers of people who stood in his way. Now, he maintains his position by pointing out the failings of those around him. His US team are nervous wrecks, checking their emails at midnight
and working weekends in the vain hope of avoiding the lash of his disapproval. Now, it seems, his critical gaze is focused on me. Yikes.

It isn’t long before Elroy calls again. Once he takes against someone, he scrutinises everything they do. And if someone is looking to find something wrong, they will. And he has. Somewhere buried in the detail of a 10-part email three weeks ago, I had written something that could vaguely be construed as anti-HQ. It wasn’t really negative, but is if read through blame-coloured glasses.

Big Bad Boss knows what Evil Elroy is like and he could stand in my defence, but does he do that? Of course not. He just calls me in and gives me a telling-off. I am getting worried about the impact of Evil Elroy; not just on me, but on the whole HR team. Everyone is watching their own back. Trust is eroded as people are forced to dob someone in to protect their own job. It has become a kind of communist regime of fear.

Then the employee survey slips into my inbox. This propaganda device is sent every quarter, taking the emotional pulse of our staff so the CEO can tell them how much happier they are next time around. It is supposed to be anonymous. It goes to the Highest Being. It is oh so tempting.

I deliberate. I don’t want to name names, but I do want to raise the issue. I ask if there is something HR leadership can do to change the culture. Can we start to focus attention to encourage some of the good work people do, rather than looking for mistakes? I watch the next CEO all-staff video meeting with interest in case he reads out my question. He does. I wait excitedly for his response. He must welcome such feedback.

How wrong could I be? He says sometimes it is necessary to find the source of a problem in order to solve it; that is the nature of continuous improvement. So there.

Still, my question was harmless enough, I think. That is, until later, when I happen to speak to the secretary who compiles the survey. What did I think of the CEO meeting, she asks. Evil Elroy thought it went very well, she adds, watching my response. I used to be paranoid – but now I know his spies are everywhere.

Next time…Candid joins a business group for women.