With over 1000 employees at a 24/7 production facility, the Safety Director position was an important one. So when he retired suddenly for health reasons, a big gaping hole was left in our organization and no one was prepared to fill it.
Our only saving grace seemed to be his assistant, Georgia. She had worked side-by-side with the Safety Director for almost 10 years. She maintained his calendar and customized his reports and produced his memos. She was his right hand! Surely, we could grow her into some more of his appendages … right?
Within a week of his departure, it was obvious that Georgia was less of a right-hand and more like a pinky toe! She was nice but generally useless in the day-to-day. Anytime, you asked a question, she had no idea of the answer and she didn’t know where to get it … Other than to call the former Safety Director, which any of us could have done but were trying not to.
And the truth was the Safety Director’s early retirement was a blessing in disguise. If he hadn’t left, we probably would have ended up cutting staff from another department at some point before the end of the year. We had no plans to replace the position. Instead, we were going to absorb the duties across several people/departments.
The only thing we didn’t know is what was going to happen with Georgia.
Which is exactly what I told her when she came to my office to ask about her job and future with the company. It was not the answer Georgia wanted to hear. She was about 2 years from retirement herself with health issues of her own. Losing her job was unfathomable! I tried to comfort and calm her and I told her that were planning to make some final plans as soon as I returned from vacation the following.
So I took my vacation and came back to find Georgia had been promoted to “Safety Coordinator” and now reported … to me!!!
Apparently, while I was out, Georgia took the opportunity to plead her case to some other decision-makers, who decided this move was best. It was supposed to give us more time to fully analyze the position and decide the best way to divide the work — without leaving Georgia in unnecessary limbo after all her years of service.
I didn’t understand why we had to promote her in order to accomplish that goal but there was nothing I could do about it now. I had to manage Georgia.
And that was going to be a tough task to handle. The expectations and duties for Georgia following her “promotion” were never clearly outlined. We were both told the promotion was in title only and that she was to continue the same job she’d been doing. The problem is that she hadn’t been doing much besides passing out paper, making copies and setting up chairs for meetings. I didn’t need that! I needed someone to handle safety! She couldn’t do that.
On top of that, Georgia was taking her new title very seriously. She was demanding things from “subordinate staff” (her words, not mine). She was “delegating tasks” to other people in the department. And she was quick to remind anyone who challenged her that she was the Safety Coordinator so they had to listen to her. People were quickly becoming fed up with her and her promotion and her attitude. It was starting to impact support for the safety program at a time when we needed it most.
When I went to talk to Georgia about it, I found her at her desk reading a book. She said she had nothing to do so she was killing time. I made it a point to visit her desk at least once a day for the next few days. Each time, she was reading or surfing the internet. Once, I found her writing her grocery list. She had either delegated all of her work away or shown herself to be so clueless that someone was doing the work for her–but was walking around like she ruled the world.
The Emperor had no job!
Everyone was walking on egg shells and bending over backward for this person who had no real power because she lacked the knowledge and skill for the role she was filling. At this point, we all knew it and everyone was afraid to speak up. Our lack of planning and research had caused the problem in the first place. And we still weren’t prepared to handle the safety function. We let our fear of what we thought Georgia knew and what we knew we definitely didn’t know force us into a poor management position.
I am honestly not sure what happened to Georgia. I found another job and left before she did. What I know for sure is the staff at the company continued to be frustrated with her know-it-all attitude and know-nothing work product while management neglected to address her obvious underperformance. At least I learned a few things …
- Limbo is OK. Sure it sucks for a little while because of the uncertainty. However, it is better for both the person and the organization to wait a couple weeks or even months to decide on a direction than to jump into a situation without fully understanding it. This is exactly what we did with Georgia. She was thrust into this job before we fully understood what we needed and how she fit.
- Cross-training is critical. People quit. They get retire. They get hit by the proverbial bus. No one in your organization should be the only one who knows how to perform a particular task. We should have been better prepared for the Safety Director’s departure with cross-training.
- Send clear messages. Title-only “promotions”. Cost of living “raises”. Annual “bonuses”. These things send mixed messages and tend to reward mediocrity. If that isn’t your intention, take steps to ensure your promotion, compensation and reward systems are both designed and used in a way that avoids this. By promoting Georgia, we sent a message to her and the rest of the organization that she was capable and had authority to handle a function when we all knew that wasn’t true.
Managing and making major decisions from a position of fear or sympathy rarely yields positive results. Take the time to figure out what your needs, wants and goals before setting any plans in motion. Otherwise, you will end up with a naked emperor in your midst.