Glen Mazza's Weblog

https://glenmazza.net/blog/date/20140706 Sunday July 06, 2014

Human Resources: Managers soliciting donations from their subordinates

A project I was on consisted of about 40 people distributed among four or five managers under a single division head. As is normal, the managers were responsible for determining assignments, writing performance evaluations and determining raises of their subordinates. One of the employees, a relatively high-ranking engineer, was due to have a child for which the company sent him off on twelve weeks paid leave. To celebrate the happy news of the birth soon thereafter, one of the managers (not mine) 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 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 those who donated for their generosity.

During the fundraising, from what one could see in the emails, the manager seemed to have a sizable 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 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 perhaps not fully sharing my concern, and that was the end of the discussion.

Thinking about it 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, if the money raised is not as much as expected there could be some nasty whispers about the HR representative possibly pocketing the donations, leaving undeserved reputational damage to the one doing the collecting. There are also safety and security risks in publicly announcing at the company that so-and-so is keeping hundreds of dollars at his/her desk for the donations. As I would not personally want to be asked to collect donations from employees for these reasons, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to ask another to do the same. So, unless there are non-managerial coworkers of the on-leave employee wishing to collect funds among themselves, the most appropriate solution seems to just not have a solicitation at all.

The request to contribute to a gift card irritated me for another reason. 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 fifty dollars per week paid leave per employee, that would mean every remaining team member is already giving the employee $600. For those hardly jumping up and down over this required contribution (everyone would love to have twelve weeks paid leave, but not all are in a situation to be able to do so), this additional gift 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 cheapskate nothing, as opposed to the actual both-generous $625 vs. $600—added unwanted risks that the damage that non-donators might end up receiving at performance evaluation time would be aggravated.

With a generous per-employee contribution of $600 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 dishonest "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? For managers who feel the twelve weeks paid leave already being provided by the team to be wanting, there are better options: Pay the on-leave employee a bonus using company funds (which, like the twelve weeks' leave, largely ends up coming out of employees' salaries anyway), 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, additional prompting in the office is unnecessary. But astute managers also realize 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 also, in the efforts of trying to counteract this knowledge and remain neutral, may end up undervaluing a donator's work or overvaluing a non-donator's. 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.

On the other hand, a manager who does solicit cash indicates that he spends little time evaluating such 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 we can presume a much higher risk of contribution knowledge harming their impartiality. 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. 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 honoring a manager's contribution requests.

For my gift card example, were I in her org, I know that if I contributed generously to the gift card she'd be quite enthralled with me. However, as that would easily risk me getting a better performance evaluation over non-donating coworkers, an unearned gain, it would not be appropriate. Employees are to advance in a company by the work that they do, not by making strategic donations. 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 any work-related benefit. 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 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.

But not donating is more than about avoiding unearned gains. Within the context of a corporation, cash transfers from an employee to his manager are hazardous to both sides. Should a boss tell you, for example, 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 would be improperly taking money from the company. Managers walking around requesting cash from their subordinates are rather suspect, 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 easier to be able to truthfully deny having made a contribution at all than to try to persuade others that your cash transfer 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 subordinates 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. "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 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.

Some managers may also feel that a solicitation becomes acceptable if the manager is soliciting from everyone, as here, and not just subordinates. I beg to differ, bars, for example, do not exempt themselves from the legal troubles involved with selling alcohol to the underage just because they are also selling to those of legal age. Further, some may argue that a manager's known integrity and character would make it acceptable to allow him or her to solicit from subordinates. That's also dubious. One's integrity derives from avoiding questionable behavior, it is not some inherent trait that allows one to engage in it. A manager who claims to be of such character that he or she can shake down subordinates is like a dentist claiming to be so clean that he doesn't need to wash his hands and put on gloves prior to sticking his fingers in your mouth.

In summary, companies would do well to treat manager solicitations as constituting a selling of performance evaluations and prohibit them. Managers should be consulting their own checkbooks rather than those of their reports for causes they wish to see funded, subordinates are not to be viewed as ATM machines for satisfying a manager's gift-giving impulses. Managers should also be respecting their responsibility to write fair and impartial performance evaluations by avoiding donation requests. But for companies that unfortunately allow for such 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 they create.

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

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