Pass the lemon

This piece in my Occasional Ravings category is brief exploration into my past life as a manager in various settings.

‘Pass the lemon’ is a phrase I coined to describe a phenomenon that plagues managers worldwide, especially in government service and in large corporations. It refers to the practice of dishonestly moving underperformers and malcontents along and making them someone else’s problem. Some should never have been employed in the first place, some have significant untreated mental issues and some are downright dangerous. And, just occasionally, a serial misfit will blossom on your watch.

Type 1 – The ‘Gotcha’

This type knows everything about how to avoid doing any actual work (and ironically will often consume a lot of energy in the process) but knows company policy and industrial law to the letter. Any attempt to extract any meaningful work from them or to discipline or fire them will unleash a tsunami of lawyer’s letters and union representatives (almost certainly your Gotcha will be the shop steward for your site) and internal hearings about whether you are bullying them. Hence the Gotcha. The Gotcha’s boss believes they have no alternative but to pass them on, with a warm recommendation, to the next unsuspecting managerial victim and so the cycle continues until somebody stops the merry-go-round. I encouraged my Gotcha to apply for a full-time union organiser position, which he got, visiting pain on the union for their stupidity in defending the indefensible in his case.

Type 2 – The UMP (Untreated Mental Patient)

The UMP is very adept at presenting at interview as a very competent and well-balanced asset to your team. Besides they have a strong reference from their previous manager. All goes well for a while and then the symptoms manifest. They reveal they have a medical condition (real or imaginary) that they didn’t disclose on their intake form, which will require regular time off work for further tests, which somehow are always inconclusive. Sometimes they will acquire an allergy to some ubiquitous part of office environments (such as the air conditioning, any and all perfumes or carpets) and demand action that they know that you cannot take. Sometimes they will make serial accusations of thefts from their desk or allegations of bullying or sexual harassment that never really stack up but consume inordinate amounts of time and team disruption to investigate. Similar to the Gotcha, a desperate manager will encourage them to be more ambitious and even point out opportunities for their unique talent to be rewarded elsewhere and then start preparing their glowing endorsement for the next managerial sucker in the line.

Fortunately I spotted my only two UMPs within the probation period. One I bade farewell without an explanation that would have made for fertile evidence in her later unsuccessful attempt to sue me for wrongful dismissal. The other simply walked out when we confronted her with evidence that she had faked her case notes in a child protection case and had never even met the family.

Type 3 – The CUR (Criminal Under the Radar)

The CUR doesn’t take long to work out how to game the system and to cover their tracks. This can range from the relatively innocuous fiddling of expenses to selling confidential information. Like the Gotcha, they devote a lot of energy to their schemes and exposing what they have managed to get away with on your watch is a two-edged sword that is likely to cause more damage to your reputation for managerial competence than to them. Again, providing opportunities for them to graduate to bigger pickings elsewhere will usually do the trick for lemon passers.

The worst CUR I had was selling the new addresses of domestic violence victims to their husbands and boyfriends down at the local pub. Senior management squibbed on bringing in the police or firing him. Their brilliant solution was to give him 12 months leave without pay in the hope that he’d go away and find another job. No such luck and, like a bad penny, he turned up again in a year wanting his old job back. The new CEO was actually born with a spine and heard about this miscreant wanting to come back into the fold. She called for the HR file (this was before computers were ubiquitous), which had somehow miraculously disappeared, courtesy of his mate in the mailroom. Sadly for this CUR, someone anticipated this turn of events and sent copies of the all the relevant documents to the CEO in an unmarked brown envelope. I cannot imagine who might have done such a thing.

Type 4 – BT (Bomb Thrower)

A BT spends their time sowing seeds of discontent and encouraging conflict between fellow workers, meanwhile displaying a butter-wouldn’t-melt sunny disposition and fierce loyalty to the manager. By the time you realise you’ve been gamed you may have already lost some of your best team members. There’s a special place in hell for BT’s and the people that pass these lemons on. I once fired two culprits, under the guise of a restructure, in order to save the best team I ever had.

Type 5 – The VBD (Very Bad Dog)

The name derives from the saying about giving a dog a bad name. The VBD comes with a very poor reputation. It’s usually a compulsory transfer and you have no choice but to accept them and cope the best you can. (This is an institutional form of pass the lemon.) Sometimes you just have to suffer in silence but sometimes you discover a small miracle.

One such young woman was landed on my office doorstep with a bad name for being a serial troublemaker amongst other staff and it wasn’t long before she was in full flight. But then the team was struck with rampant flu epidemic and some days it was just me and the VBD holding the fort against unbridled chaos. Lo and behold, she not only stepped up but her manner changed dramatically to all smiles and she began turning up early and staying late to ensure the public were not inconvenienced. It was clear that here was someone who was frustrated that her intelligence and skills were not being recognised and was forever being assigned the most menial tasks in the offices where she worked. She did move on shortly afterwards but this time with a genuine glowing reference from me.

12 thoughts on “Pass the lemon

  1. I love this post, Doug. You have summarised succinctly and beautifully the joys of the modern office where all power is to the employees and not is with the employer. It is like reverse exploitation and management need a union to protect them against the workers nowadays.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Robbie, but this was never meant to be a union bashing piece. I have been a member of many unions, good and bad. However where either management or unions adopt an attitude that their position must be protected at all costs, bad things happen. Even worse is when management simply wants a quiet life. For example, I was once ordered by a CEO to direct a staff member to apologise for an act he totally denied committing in order to get a regulator off our back. I refused and effectively that’s where my career advancement ended with that organisation. I’ve even had to sit and watch a public service head blatantly buy off a shock jock in order to get us off the front page. Whistle blowing and calling out hypocrisy can be an expensive business, in more ways than one, and meanwhile staff morale and productivity plummets.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t have an issue with unions, Doug, they have their place in protecting workers, and that’s a fact. In some places though, it seem that the employers have no way of dealing with disruptive or unproductive staff which is why you get this moving people about. If people aren’t suitable for a particular job, employers should be able to move them out of the company. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to work in Australia. I can only speak from my own personal experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So many varieties of humanity. I can look at a long career and, thanks to many coworkers and bosses alike being well deserving to be at the bottom- make of that what you will- I can say a lot of what I’ve done has just been made damn hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

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