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Workplace inferno: A manager’s 9 circles of hell

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in The Savvy Office Manager

Managing employees is not as easy as it looks. Although some suave and seasoned supervisors make it look not only easy, but fun and fulfilling.

But the truth is, there are few who do it well enough (1 in 10 according to Gallup) to where they are significantly boosting their organization’s overall performance.

So where does that leave most bosses? Some drop out, others are tossed out, most are adequate and muddle through, but all go through a certain amount of hell, whether it’s internal or external.

Here is a look at the heat that lies beneath the surface of that cool management job you just landed.

Without further ado, take Virgil’s hand and descend into the nine circles of management hell:

Circle 1: Establishing authority among hot shots.

Every workplace has them: Employees who have been there as long as the building’s rear staircase. They’re smart, wily and entrenched in the way “we do things here.” You’re the new broom, so be careful where and what you sweep. To survive this circle, you need to establish your authority early. Hold an all-staff meeting within a few days to lay out your management philosophy and your expectations. Listen to your staff’s concerns. Above all, you need 100% backing from upper management at this stage. Ask for it.


Circle 2: Gaining respect in a cynical, jaded workplace.

If you’re lucky, yours is the workplace where camaraderie, courtesy and collaboration make a refreshing cocktail of productivity. Most workplaces don’t reach that pinnacle. In reality, there are just enough naysayers and paycheck zombies to pull the staff into that zone where your authority is not only questioned, it’s ridiculed and tested. To survive this circle, be firm at the outset, but treat all workers fairly. By all means, discipline the slugs and reward the producers. Do this early. This sends the message that negativity won’t be tolerated and great work will be recognized. Respect will follow.


Circle 3: Choosing the wrong job candidate

You narrowed the job-seeker pool down to two. All things being virtually equal, you went with your gut. Congrats. You just made your first hire. But within a few months, you see the employee isn’t performing as advertised. You were duped. And now you’re wondering if your boss is wondering if he made a bad choice in hiring you. After all, the hiring reflects your judgment. To survive this circle, you need to realize that one bad hire isn’t going to derail you if you act swiftly. It’s up to you to correct this employee or terminate her—again, your judgment comes into play. Hoping she improves is not the third option.


Circle 4: Creating harmony among a staff of “lone wolves”

You didn’t cause it, but you inherited it: a workplace where each employee operates as a loner, rarely sharing ideas, offering assistance to co-workers or feeling like he or she is part of a team. This type of culture reduces efficiencies and damages what’s left of morale. To survive this circle, you need to break down some of the barriers. You need to ensure information flows freely among staff. You can also boost collaboration by requiring that certain projects be executed by teams, even if it’s just three or four employees.


Circle 5: Maintaining engagement in a dysfunctional workplace

The theory of employee engagement is simple: Pay them well, recognize their efforts, give them meaningful work and connect with them. That’s the theory. But in a workplace rife with dysfunction (shifting or ignored policies, high turnover, unchecked office politics, etc.) those four pillars of employee engagement don’t have a long-lasting effect, if an effect at all. To survive this circle, you need to address the dysfunction if they are repairable on your level. If the dysfunction is coming from above your head, you may not survive this circle.


Circle 6: Firing a well-meaning, well-liked, happy-go-lucky, but underperforming employee.

You know that first hire you made that wasn’t up to snuff? Well, everyone likes her. Now you have to fire her. So what necessarily follows is a morale hit. You come off like the bad boss, the uncaring boss, the clueless boss. She was everyone’s friend and you’re in the doghouse. To survive this circle, grow some thicker skin. You had good, documented reason why you had to let her go, didn’t you? You don’t owe anyone an apology.


Circle 7: Pleasing a fickle, icy C-Suite.

The CEO, CFO, COO, CIO. Those with the C-titles are usually results-oriented. You know what rolls downhill, and in the pyramid of management, you’re on the bottom. They bark the changes and you communicate them to staff and make sure they’re implemented. If you’re out of the C-loop, their decisions may seem cold and capricious, certainly unfriendly. To survive this circle, do the best you can with your staff. You have no control of those above you, just of your own destiny. If this circle gets too hot, it may be time to find another job.


Circle 8: Hearing that you are named in an employment lawsuit.

Remember that happy-go-lucky employee you fired? She just named you in a harassment lawsuit. What did you do? Ah, it was those off-color jokes you told that everyone laughed at. She remembered all jokes that supervisors tossed around because now it’s easier to get her lawsuit through. An employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination. That’s why you’re named in it. To survive this circle: no sex jokes, age-related jokes, religious jokes, racist jokes, etc. Employees have an uncanny memory for your coarse humor after they are fired.


Circle 9: Being replaced.

You really tried. But part of the bargain of accepting a managerial job is accepting the fate that comes with it when you couldn’t do it right. To survive this circle, learn from it. There are other jobs out there. You’re a little singed, but wiser.


Cal Butera is the editor of Business Management Daily’s Office Manager Today, Manager’s Legal Bulletin, Managing People at Work and Communication Briefings newsletters. He has been with Business Management Daily since 2007 and worked 22 years for midsize daily newspapers as sports writer, news reporter, layout and design editor, copy editor and city editor.

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