Everyone’s nightmare: the investment employee

In yesterday’s entry I threatened to write about a profile worker who can make your life miserable by stubbornly resisting change. A lot of business owners are aware of the downsides of these staffers so they seek to minimize the havoc, discord and mayhem the “investment employee” can create by limiting their role to rank and file rather than supervisory. Unfortunately, that strategy rarely has the desired effect. Here’s a fast definition:

Very often, this person is the first or nearly first person hired, the owner feels a sense of debt or gratitude toward that employee. They are invested in that person. When I go into a plant, one of the first things I do is find this person because they are usually the one dragging down (directly or indirectly) an entire operation and no other employees are empowered to correct it. Years later, this person is still mucking about creating a horrible situation and lousy morale that will never improve.

And here’s a previous example: (also edited)

This company was doing 50 million in sales and their big hold up was their one sample maker -the investment employee- who sewed on a home sewing machine. In her personal life, she was a battered woman. Professionally this meant she was governed by fear; she was terrified at the prospect of moving up to an industrial machine and resented being compelled to change anything that felt safe to her. Having such a lousy home life, her job meant everything to her, it was the only joy and security she felt.

Solving the IE problem required delicacy, I couldn’t be stupid and wave it off with a suggestion to replace her.  My suggestion was to get her out of her personal situation and transfer her to another function. Officially, they got her an apartment, lent her money for a car and a new start and paid for an attorney to represent her. Unofficially, the corporate body of the company and select spousal units went to visit the stitcher’s husband with baseball bats and shotguns prominently displayed in pick up truck gun racks. And no I’m not kidding, you can still do this in a small Texas town, especially if you bring an off duty Sheriff along with you when you make your social call. The stitcher was moved into a newly created position as supervisor of quality control where she was better suited, and they got two new industrial machines and two new sample makers they’d needed.

The investment employee becomes a company institution because they lead you to believe the place would fall apart without them -but how true it that? They’re feeding on your fears. Other workers acquiesce because they can be so spiteful, passive aggressive and make the workplace very inhospitable. Usually, you have no idea they’re doing such horrible things. The other workers won’t say anything to you because they think you already know and agree with it or you wouldn’t believe them if they told you. I worked in one place where the designer was with child and above all, wanted no discord, meaning, everybody just put up with it to keep the peace. They had the laziest, meanest and most incompetent pattern maker I’ve ever known. If her lips were moving, her hands weren’t -and she rarely shut up. But she was pleasant and upbeat to the boss so the designer had no idea how the pattern maker screamed at the stitchers when she wasn’t around, or how she bullied them and called them stupid. Fortunately I put an end to it. Unfortunately, I was a casualty of facilitating the transition (yet another reason no one will say anything).

Remember how I’ve said that some sewing assignments are political? Rotate sewing positions is a great way to prevent it from happening. In How to get people to change, I wrote:

A key sewing operator is someone who is considered to be more highly skilled. Often their “rank” on the floor is associated with a particular piece of equipment they operate exclusively. Operators like pocket welters can be little queens, lording over lesser operators.

You have to realize there’s a lot of informal lobbying going on to maintain their fiefdoms -don’t buy into it! These investment employees promote their value through fear; they tell everyone else how critical their skill and operation and how hard it is to do it to the extent that other operators are afraid of learning it. Owners buy into the self promotion strategy and rarely question it. This is going to sound really hateful and cold but I think you should nearly always fire these people unless you can get them into therapy because they’re not psychologically intact.

For example, at another plant, they were hip to the IE on staff. She was an old German lady who was put in the least obtrusive position possible -sweeping floors- but she still managed to gum up the works because she had the freedom to go from station to station to prattle, distracting people from their work. It struck me as a little passive aggressive game for her, resentful of her non-job instead of being happy to still have one because most of what she had to say was derogatory about the company. I’d be working on a difficult problem that required intense concentration and she’d break my focus by leaning over and saying in a conspiratorial whisper “it’s okay, we can talk, nobody is watching” and launch into a soliloquy about how the price of pecans has gone up and how it was going to put a crimp in her Christmas baking plans (this was July). Some days it was all I could do to keep from having an anger induced seizure or throwing something or screaming because I was so angry about losing my concentration. I put a big sign on my desk that said “Don’t interrupt me unless the building is on fire. I MEAN it!” *

Summary:
Being able to make the most headway in generating constructive change is knowing where to place your efforts and when to cut your losses. While I believe that sewing operators are unfairly stereotyped as being too resistant to change, there are people who cannot be salvaged.

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*Now imagine how mortified I was later that day when the company owner came back to talk to me -and he never went into the plant!- and he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw that sign, looked puzzled, shook his head and walked back out (I ran after him but he waved me off and apologized). After that it became a point of policy that no one was allowed to speak to me without going through my supervisor but that only reduced interruptions, it didn’t stop the German lady entirely. Her new strategy (remember, she was passive aggressive) was to throw a couple of pieces of candy on my draft while she walked by which was just as effective at breaking my concentration. She always passed out candy to everyone, her singular lobbying effort (a sign to watch for). I didn’t even like the candy, it was this yucky tasking German rose hip candy I never liked from when I lived there anyway.

And, I ended up regretting that sign I made; it created resentment because my supervisor wasn’t allowed to talk to me without her boss’ permission. Honestly, she (let’s call her Mary) could be just as bad as the German lady. Mary and I are still friends though (it matters that she was competent) and joke about the time the plant did catch fire and she came to me, wringing her hands, practically in tears telling me I had to leave the building. There was a fire alarm but it was the same one used for breaks and I ignored them, taking my break when I came to a better stopping point (you can imagine I missed a lot of breaks and lunch hours) although about the time that Mary came over, I looked up wondering why it had gone on so long and why the plant was suddenly deserted.

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7 comments

  1. Rocio says:

    Kathleen,

    A lot of great points covered here!… not much to add, other than remembering that I too had such an employee and had to let him go once I found out what he was up to…

    I suppose one positive side of the economic downturn is that companies tend to take a closer look at the people who may not be contributing as much as they should?

  2. Jasmin says:

    Great points – Actually I’d suggest any worker who
    a/ has difficulty really listening to others and hearing what they are saying
    b/is insecure and/or fearful (sometimes due to a lack of competence, sometimes due to external/personality issues)
    is a negative drag on the whole workforce. The deeply sad thing is, these are the very things that tend to make it very very difficult for any change to occur. I’ve found it drives me nutso, and if it isn’t being addressed, the best thing (as an employee) is to walk away, otherwise you end up getting twisted up over it and aren’t the person you want to be.
    If competent people are leaving, for apparently good reasons, try giving them a chance to tell you about their feelings – most people don’t really leave for money, or location, they leave (or stay) for people in my experience.
    Note – the IE can also be the person who participates in the owners social life/church/etc and it would just be waaaay to uncomfortable to move them on due to the risk of adverse social impact – this can be depressing for the other employees who don’t have that protection!

  3. Marie-Christine says:

    First employees are often bullies in my experience. Part of the reason they like being first is that they’re antisocial (sociopaths, really), and if they’re the first and only one they don’t have to really work -with- anyone. When the company grows in spite of them, they first work harder and harder to try and stave off the inevitable hires. Then they tend to choose inexperienced people, with the excuse that they’re cheap, and instead of training them they terrorize them. Till someone manages to get rid of them, but many heads will probably roll in the attempt.

    “The other workers won’t say anything to you because they think you already know and agree with it or you wouldn’t believe them if they told you. ” Totally right. Bullies are usually good liars, and very charming when they mean to be. Let me recommend the excellent http://bullyonline.org/workbully/bully.htm if you suspect you may have a problem..

    I second Jasmin’s point – if competent people are leaving, start looking for the real problem.

  4. Sandi K says:

    Kathleen,

    What a great post. People do often stay or leave because of the people they work with, and likewise, people you work with often have more to do with how you feel than people might realize. I’ve been involved in my company’s safety and wellness committee for some time now, and negative attitudes (often from IE’s who’ve been with the company so long they don’t realize how good they’ve got it to have a great paying stable job with benefits) can cause stress levels that are just plain unhealthy. Rather than insuring a lot of people whose high blood pressure is costing us more in health care, I’d rather do things to improve morale and reduce workplace stress – even if it means moving people around more or as a last resort, firing them.

  5. Barb Taylorr says:

    I was once a pattern-maker at a small company that had a prime example of the “first employee”. This head stitcher was supposedly the only one who could tread any of the sergers or specialty machines. She claimed they were so old you couldn’t get threading guides for them anymore. She was highly valued by the owner for her “skill” and stitching speed. During my time there I found several things of interest: 1) ALL the bobbins were hidden in her personel drawers threaded with every color imaginable, multible bobbins of oft used colors. All the other machines never had more than one or two, so the other stitchers constantly had to unwind to make a bobbin in the color they needed. When we ordered new ones they also kept “dissappearing”. No one could get the first stitcher to lend them a bobbin. 2) All the manuals and guides for threading machines were also hidden with her personel items (under some boxes of tampons no less!). 3) The most obvious was that she had 3 tables around her machine and a rolling bin to sort and pile work as she went, while all the other stitchers had one table that was far too small for the items being sewn and shared one bin among the 4 of them.
    Nothing was ever done when I made suggestions to improve the ‘speed” of the other stitchers. Consequently they (and I) quickly moved on so the company was never able to keep any other employees long enough to gain experience with their products. A few years ago the first employee retired. Now that she is gone that company is finally thriving. The only surprise is that they were able to survive all those years while she was working for them.

  6. Sarah B says:

    Geez Kathleen, you seem to be able to read my mind and intuit my professional needs very adeptly! I’m dealing with just such a “fixture” at my workplace now. Our company’s first employee (sewing room supervisor) is untouchable and tyrannical. Bullying, manipulation, and sabotage are huge problems we face. Luckily, we have finally gathered the empirical data to prove that said supervisor is not as effective as she has made herself out to be. I’m forwarding this article to a few other key people. Sometimes hearing from the “outside” has a great impact on one’s ability to put things in perspective. Anyway, thanks for this little gem!

  7. Eric H says:

    Marie-Christine, that bully website is great.

    Please stop referring to the Investment Employee as the “first employee”. The problem isn’t firstness, it’s the investmentness.

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