2 Thanksgivings highlight golden rule for CEOs

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Fair Exchange

For seven years in a row, I worked on Thanksgiving. Not by choice, but because odd circumstances arose and there I was, again working on the holiday. These are two of my most memorable Thanksgivings.

Thanksgiving in Nevada

Many years ago I spent Thanksgiving at a conference table in an office building outside of Reno. The CEO, Doug, was heading up Nevada's newly privatized workers' compensation insurance company. With more heart than thought, Doug had promised that no one would see their take-home pay reduced by even one penny if they made the switch from being an employee of the state to an employee of the new insurance company. He wanted all 1,100 employees to join him at the new company.

And so I spent Thanksgiving week working with Doug as we calculated the new gross pay needed for each individual to maintain their take-home pay. We worked through all the job changes, pay and benefit changes and created detailed hard-copy explanations for each employee.

Doug was able to keep his promise.

My Thanksgiving dinner was a sandwich from the local gas station, but that week remains one of my favorite holiday memories. It is rare that anyone will work so hard to keep a promise to employees.

Doug knew that he could hire qualified employees for less than he would be paying the former state employees. And he knew that changing the culture and getting everyone to focus on performance and profit for the first time was going to be difficult. But he was committed to these people and he was going to keep them employed and their take home pay whole.

Doug told me that he knew the employees were feeling very stressed and he wanted to do whatever he could to minimize their stress. I have worked through many re-organizations but I have never seen a CEO so tangibly demonstrate that he cared about the employees and how his decisions would impact them and their families.

Working with Doug was an exceptional experience.

Thanksgiving in Montana

Employee pay had been frozen for more than two years and the 2,500 employees of a newly merged hospital system in Montana were frustrated and angry. The CEO had finally asked for help, and after a few months of work we were ready to present him with the final details of a new compensation program for his approval.

I was scheduled to meet with him on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. He delayed and canceled, and it was late Wednesday when I was finally able to sit down with him.

He looked at the bottom line cost, asked a few questions and I had his approval. But I no longer had a flight home. My Thanksgiving dinner at a local truck stop was memorable for one reason; the bouncy balls of stuffing. They looked like stuffing and bounced like rubber, they were fascinating!

On Friday I was using a hospital waiting room to work in while I waited for my afternoon flight home. Employees saw me and would stop in to say hello and ask why I was still there.

After hearing that the CEO had put our meeting off till Wednesday evening, the employees would tell me of his many broken promises, insults and the many ways he made their lives and work difficult. Freezing their pay for two years was just one of many actions that had convinced the employees that the CEO really didn't care if they were happy or miserable.

They were so suspicious of everything he did that they rejected the Christmas tree he provided for the lobby. It was moved to a dark corner of the hospital.

And the employees would tell me how they were getting back at the CEO for his neglect. They wouldn't do anything that would affect patient care, but they would do anything they could to make the CEO's job or life more difficult. His car was buried under piles of snow in the winter; tens of thousands of tongue depressors and gauze pads shot holes in the budget; schedules were manipulated and overtime costs were running high; and rumor had it that one of the employees had released the brake from a bulldozer sitting on a hill above the CEO's new house that was under construction. It rolled right through and took down quite a bit of the framing and roughed-in plumbing.

Epilogue: The Montana hospital CEO was fired about a year after our project was complete. In Nevada, Doug succeeded and is still working as the CEO of Employer's Insurance Company of Nevada. He is trusted and respected by his employees and the business is doing well.

First rule of management: Treat your employees as you would like to be treated.

Virginia Detweiler is a human resources consultant and has taught business and management at Walla Walla Community College and Walla Walla University. Questions for her columns are welcome and can be submitted to her email address at awwcomplady@gmail.com. Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She also can be reached at 509-529-1910.

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