Friday, July 23, 2010

Called In on the Carpet

Let's bring back the practice of "calling someone in on the carpet."

For those of you who are unfamiliar with that phrase of yore, it refers to the days when the carpet was in the boss's office and an employee was summoned in for a stern lecture. People would say, "Jack was called in on the carpet and told if he ever did that again he'd be fired."

And, in most cases, Jack never did it again.

My nostalgia for such times comes from seeing employers who resort to major discipline for behavior that, in the old days, would only cause someone to be called in on the carpet. Employers often engage in overkill; launching investigations and suspending and even firing people in a rather clinical manner. In the Blondie cartoon series, Mr. Dithers might scream at Dagwood Bumstead, but he wouldn't fire him. Nowadays, Dithers would be backed up by a cadre of HR types and lawyers. His every word would be scripted and Bumstead would be examined like a bug on a pin.

Now don't get me wrong. I fully realize that there are times when such formalism is needed. We don't want the carpet sessions to be slaps on the wrist for major offenses. There is, however, a need for some more informal remedies.

How have we arrived at this state? Two factors come to mind: Lawyers and the fear of confrontation.

Managers joke about needing to carry a lawyer around in their pocket. Unfortunately, the line isn't far from the truth. Not only is there the fear of potential litigation in itself, there is also the need to get a second opinion in order to protect your back from an upper management team that may be more than eager to withdraw support due to that same fear of litigation. That fear leads quite naturally to a fear of confrontation because handling a matter informally requires a certain amount of guts. In the heat of the moment, something improper might be said. A step might be missed. A rule might be misinterpreted. Confrontation is unpleasant. In the cartoon, Dagwood would slink back to his desk but he never called an employment attorney.

It may be argued that this new, bloodless approach to addressing problems recognizes the progress that has been made with regard to employee protections. I believe that is true. At the same time, it would help to explore a third way between the extreme of unlimited and abusive supervisory power and the bureaucratic escalation that turns minor matters into major ones.

That third way involves courageous and responsible management that is willing to address matters in a proportionate manner and call people in on the carpet.


Tim said...

I can relate! As a young man, in roughly 1980, I was "called on the carpet". And deservedly so. That was many jobs ago, but I have never forgotten it. And perhaps most memorable, I was in the office of the President of the (small) company. When finished, he said, "We will not talk of this again." And we didn't.

Eclecticity said...

Another book idea for you Michael: "The Third Way: Employment Law and Management Meet In The Middle."


Michael Wade said...


Thanks! I had a similar experience and it was an excellent education.


I'm glad you mentioned that. I've been giving serious thought to such a book.


John said...

Go for it, Michael. The need is way past due.

I only realized after retirement that I had spent nearly thirty years in an essentially obsolete business environment. Getting chewed out was a common occurrence but it was rarely repeated because it usually worked the first time and the next chewing out was for something else.

Abusive? Yes, I suppose so. And to this day I still don't like the boss I had for 27 years. (And I haven't laid eyes on him after eight years in retirement. If I ever see him again I still would not walk across a restaurant floor to speak.)

The greater point is this: Management's worst shortcoming is failing to be clear about expectations. That, together with mixed signals, is at the root of nearly all personnel issues. When subordinates fail to meet expectations there are only two big reasons. Either they don't know what they are or the expectations are beyond their achievement capacity (they really cannot do what is expected). Rarely I found some outside these two big categories, but they were few and far between.

The toughest part of training good subordinate supervisors or assistants was persuading them to say clearly to their subordinates what they expected. Good work groups expect and deserve good bosses who can tell them exactly what they need to do to get the job done.

Business and other organizational environments are in bad need of a management style somewhere between the abusive habits of the fifties and whatever passes for management today in most places. It's time for human resource departments to be advisory and leave performance issues in operations where they no longer seem to be.