Glen Mazza's Weblog Sunday July 06, 2014

Human Resources: Managers soliciting donations from their subordinates

A project I was on consisted of about 40 people chopped up in various sizes among four managers under a single division head. As is normal, the managers were responsible for determining assignments, writing performance evaluations and determining raises of their reports. One of the employees, a relatively high-ranking engineer, was due to have a child for which the company provided him twelve weeks paid leave. To celebrate the happy news of the birth (he had started his leave), one of the managers, having about twelve of the employees under her (not including myself), sent an email out to the office saying that she was collecting funds for a gift card to give to the employee. And, from what I could see, several employees responded happily, over a few days ultimately around $450 was raised. As the totals were increasing, the manager sent out periodic emails giving the current donation results and repeating each time how happy and appreciative she was with those employees who had donated. And the employee, receiving the gift card a few days later, promptly sent an email out to the team thanking them for their generosity.

During the fundraising, from what one could see in the emails, the manager seemed to have a heavy emotional investment in people contributing, causing me concern that her impartiality with her direct reports based on their participation may end up getting affected. One large company I had worked at in the past explicitly banned manager solicitations presumably for this very reason. However I saw a simple solution: I sent an email to my manager, the department head and Human Resources, suggesting that it might be better for HR to collect the cash in order to hide individual donation information to management, ensuring that manager impartiality would not be harmed. Management thanked me for my input, even if not fully sharing my concern (or adopting my suggestion), and that was that.

Thinking afterwards, although having an HR official collecting the money instead would provide anonymity, it would have its own problems ultimately making it a non-solution. For one thing, with true anonymity, one would never know if the HR official would end up pocketing a portion of the donations, however unlikely. A much greater concern is potential unfair and untrue reputational damage to the one doing the collecting if some start feeling that the donation amount should have been higher than it actually was, and nasty whispers start up as a result. There are also inherent safety and security risks in publicly announcing at the company that so-and-so is keeping hundreds of dollars in his/her desk for the donations. As I would not personally want to be asked to collect donations from employees for these reasons, I would not want to ask another to do the same, i.e., such a request violates the Golden Rule. So we're back to managers collecting the cash from their subordinates.

I must say the request itself to contribute to a gift card rubbed me the wrong way. Besides many on the team needing to work extra for the employee going on leave, companies fund parental leaves via lower salaries and benefits on everyone company-wide (money does not grow on trees), meaning employees are already making a very generous contribution. I don't know the per-employee dollar amount for this particular employee but making a conservative estimate of one hundred dollars per week paid leave per employee, that would mean every remaining team member is already giving the employee $1200. For those hardly jumping up and down over this required contribution (everybody would love to have twelve weeks paid leave, but not everybody is in the situation to be able to partake of this benefit), this additional gift card request from management easily comes across as unappreciative and greedy.

Indeed, the ongoing "thanks for those who contributed" emails sent by the manager as the donations were coming in made no reference to this much larger contribution that everybody was already giving, or for the extra time needed to fill in for the missing employee. This apparent innumeracy on her part—that team members were either contributing a generous (say) $25 or nothing, which is psychologically much greater than the actual both-generous $1225 vs. $1200—added unwanted risks that any damage that the non-donators could end up receiving at performance evaluation time would be aggravated.

With a generous per-employee contribution of $1200 or so already on the books, the on-leave employee is already well taken care of as he begins to savor his twelve weeks off. The start of an employee’s leave is the time for management to be focusing on those remaining in the office, those who will be taking them to the dance for the next twelve weeks, who will be working harder and effectively at lower salary to support the one on leave. Instead of a disingenuous "for those who would like to contribute something" gift card solicitation, why not have an office pizza party or similar on the first day of the leave to express appreciation for the remaining team? Such a move sends a strong signal that management remains focused on account goals and on the remaining team that will be accomplishing them. For managers who feel the twelve weeks already being provided by the team to be wanting, there are better options: Confidentially pay the on-leave employee a bonus via company funds, or just provide an extra gift using personal funds instead of those of their subordinates.

As for the more general case of direct solicitations, most managers don't solicit from subordinates for the same reason non-managers don't: It's rather tacky going around with your hand out asking for cash. We are all aware of fine charities from TV and the Internet and direct mailings for each of us to make up our minds on what is most worthwhile to donate to, we don't need additional prompting in the office. But astute managers are also immediately aware of the concern unique to them that donation requests may end up harming their impartiality. The concern is not only that they may reward a donator or punish a non-donator, but that, in the efforts of trying to counteract this knowledge and remain neutral, may end up undervaluing a donator or overvaluing a non-donator. Further, they realize such requests can make subordinates feel uncomfortable, as if their boss is selling performance evaluations, as well as foolishly leave themselves vulnerable to accusations of same, accusations that are difficult to objectively disprove.

The fact that a manager is soliciting cash, however, suggests that he spent little time evaluating these concerns but is rather someone who quickly moves from identifying a cause he wants to see funded to soliciting his reports to fund it. Among such impulsive managers there is a much higher risk of contribution knowledge harming their impartiality. Companies that allow managers to solicit cash from subordinates on the presumption that say 85% of managers aren't influenced by cash solicitations fail to take into account conditional risk, namely, that most of those 85% would never solicit cash to begin with, leaving those doing the requesting very heavily represented in that 15%.

Another concern regarding managers holding fundraisers is that few of them soliciting grasp the concept of undue gain avoidance as a driver of honorable employee behavior, causing an undeserved disdain for the employees choosing not to donate. Undue gain avoidance simply means that employees wanting to be responsible team members should avoid gains over their coworkers for activities not related to their job, such as dating managers, doing personal chores for them, or, as here, taking part in their donation solicitations.

For my gift card example, were I in her org, I know that I can give a generous amount to that manager and she'd be quite enthralled with me. However, as that would easily risk me getting a better performance evaluation over non-donating coworkers, an undue gain, it would not be appropriate. I’m to advance in the company by the work that I do, not by dumping money on the manager’s desk. In the case of a charity, if I indeed found the manager's requested cause to be of value, I would donate to the charity privately via their website without my manager's knowledge, allowing me to avoid the undue gain. Avoiding in-office praise for contributing to the manager’s preferred causes also contributes to a healthier work environment. Non-donating coworkers hearing that praise may end up worrying "Gosh, she's gonna be even angrier at me for not donating!" or "Man, people just get ahead around here by dumping green on the boss' desk!", poisonous concerns I don’t need to be aggravating.

For a company that properly blocked managers from soliciting cash from their reports, it would not be necessary for them to be aware of undue gain avoidance as a driver of employee behavior. However, with solicitations an option, a company is entrusting its most unthinking managers ("Hi! Would you like to donate to my hometown's United Way? It's perfectly optional but would make me very happy!") to grasp a concept that in all likelihood is going to blow past them, causing undeserved scorn of non-donating employees trying to serve their team in an honorable fashion.

But not donating is more than about avoiding undue gains. Within the context of a corporation, cash transfers from an employee to his manager are reputationally hazardous for the employee as well. To give another example, should a boss tell you that he would appreciate a contribution to his wife’s non-profit, to the extent that it is implied or assumed that you would be getting a larger, unearned raise for donating, that sounds suspiciously like embezzling money from the company. Managers walking around collecting cash from their subordinates are rather unusual, and it’s prudent to keep nonessential financial transactions with such people to a minimum. In case of there being questions over a fundraiser later, it is much better to be able to truthfully deny having made a contribution at all than to try to persuade others that your donation was made with no expectation of anything in return.

A common misconception regarding manager solicitations is that the merit of a cause is an argument for allowing the manager to solicit for it. That's frequently the first defense that managers resort to when questioned about soliciting cash from their reports, and they can often twist the matter into making an employee raising the concerns about the solicitation as being uncaring about the cause, intimidating employees from raising the concerns to begin with. The way the argument goes is as follows: "Yes, if this were some minor cause, like donating to the local PBS affiliate or public library, obviously no reason to allow managers to solicit cash for that purpose. But this is a wedding, a paternity leave, a children's hospital, a food bank, a heartbreaking situation I found on a crowdfunding website, obviously for such reasons solicitations should be allowed!" The counterargument is that it is precisely these emotional causes that sway managers the most, the problem one is trying to avoid by banning solicitations. In my case, I need only point to the continued giddy statements of appreciation from the manager soliciting for the gift card as a strong indicator of impartiality being affected, that participation in this super-important, gotta-make-an-exception-here cause will be unavoidably weighing in her mind when writing performance evaluations.

Just as an honest employee makes efforts to let his ranking within the company be primarily a function of the work that he does, good managers also make efforts to put blinders on themselves, limiting their evalutions of the employee to his work by not engaging in requests for personal favors or for donations to causes the manager has a strong emotional attachment to. When a manager expresses deep appreciation for the actions of certain subordinates, the reason for that happiness should be their work or else the manager is usually improperly distracting himself. Any big joyous smile you see on a manager's face as he/she is counting the $20 bills that a subset of reports provided is not the heartwarming scene that it appears at first glance but actually a concerning one, indicating an untrained manager with lost impartiality, that it may be indicated to have someone else start writing the performance reviews.

In summary, companies would do well to treat manager solicitations as the selling of performance evaluations and prohibit them, both explicitly in the company's HR handbook and verbally as part of new manager training. Managers should be consulting their own checkbooks rather than those of their subordinates for causes they hold dear, reports are not be viewed as ATM machines for satisfying the manager's philanthropic urges. But for companies that unfortunately allow for manager solicitations, employees can still show leadership to their team by politely declining solicitation requests, instead sending donations if desired via the charity's website without the manager's knowledge. Following a don’t-feed-the-pigeons policy also helps reduce solicitation frequency and the associated problems that they create.

Posted by Glen Mazza in Other at 07:00AM Jul 06, 2014 | Comments[0]

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