Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Finger-Pointing in the Workplace

Sometimes, in the workplace, somebody who has messed something up will blame somebody else. Surprising, huh? Actually, what's surprising is how relatively rare that has been in my experience. But the few times it has happened to me remain stong and vivid and horrifying in my memory. And yet each time prepared me better for the next.

The first time this happened to me was, of course, at Wang -- very early in my time there. What happened was that the supply of a "data sheet" -- a sort of technical advertising brochure -- had run low, which triggered a review of the data sheet to check whether any updates were necessary before reprinting. The data sheet came to me for review, I talked to the appropriate technical staff, and signed off on a straight reprint. Then one day later, by sheer coincidence, the product name became a trademark. In those days things were actually typeset, and there was an entire printing and publications department (separate from the documentation department). I called the publications guy assigned to the product to see if there were time to add the trademark information, and he assured me there was. He updated the brochure and sent me the proofs, which I signed off on.

When the data sheets came in and I was sent my "author's copy", the trademark information was missing. I went over to the publications area to try to find out why -- since we'd just printed 20000 or so copies of something that we might have to discard. It turns out -- as I found out later -- it was an administration error on the production guy's part -- he hadn't filled out the proper form after making his changes, so the initial "reprint as is" form I had signed off on remained the basis for the reprint. But what happened when I went to the production area was that the manager, seeing immediately what had happened (and that it was one of his people who had made the error), turned to me and said, fiercely, "Didn't you know you were supposed to remove your older signoff form and replace it? You've just cost this company a lot of money!" Of course I didn't know this -- I didn't even have access to the signoff forms -- and I had asked his own employees (unfortunately not in writing in those pre-email days) what procedure I needed to follow and had followed it to the letter. But I was very new to my job and felt terrible over what I'd done. I sheepishly returned to the product manager who had told me about the trademark issue, and she assured me it really didn't matter for this run so no harm done. And then I went to my own management and said we needed to clarify procedures so that no other writer would make this mistake -- which yielded a big huge WTF response, since it is entirely in the realm of production to maintain the production forms. No, I had done nothing wrong. The production manager was worried that his department would be charged for this mistake which was unquestionably his department's, and his response was to claim that it was my fault and try to cow me into believing this.

But, as I've written before, the ethos at Wang at that time was to protect your turf, even if that meant unjustly and deliberately blaming other people for your own group's mistakes. And, also as I've written before, my own manager was completely ineffectual and told me just to forget about it. My unnecessary distress was immaterial to him, since it would only be making trouble to do anything about it. It was my first job; I just swallowed the crap. Blaming me for somebody else's mistake was SOP at Wang, and I knew no better.

This was a trivial episode, all told, but I don't think the ethical issues are trivial at all.

The next time this happened: A manager (at a post-Wang company) who later left under quite a cloud called me in outrage one afternoon because I had written a group response to email he sent out about a project, asking some questions about the status of various aspects of the project (things I needed to know to do my work). Every email address on that group list was internal to the company, but evidently this manager did not want people "in the field" to know how behind the project was (not that I knew this -- I had merely asked some questions) and how I had no right to send that information out -- and how I jeopardized the entire project with my email. By that point in my career I had learned that when somebody is angry at you -- technically at your work, but manifesting as anger at you -- the useful response is to take out a notebook and write down the problems and try to draw out what they are and write a follow-up memo proposing a plan for how to address the problem. When I started asking things like "What is it that I can do to help correct this?" there was no response. "No no, you don't need to do anything. No, I'm not asking you to do anything." Then why was he calling and yelling at me? He didn't want me to do anything, he just wanted to be outraged. Which, to me, was a big clue that this was simply a blame-displacement activity on his part.

Fortunately in this case I had a paper trail. I had copied my own management and some other people involved with the project on my email. If I had actually done anything untoward, dozens of people would have seen it (and actually I had gotten two email messages from people thanking me for clarifying some of the open issues). But still, I was extremely disturbed to think that I inadvertantly caused so much damage, so I arranged to speak with somebody else pretty high up in the management chain to get her input on how I might help fix this. She just laughed, and gave me some background info on this particular manager and assured me that I had done nothing damaging at all. Basically this manager was already on very shaky ground with this project and he was casting about for scapegoats; I just happened to put my name out there in a context that called attention to some things he didn't want attention called to. Also, this was not the first time he had exhibited a project management by harassment style, which the company was none too keen on.

Tentative conclusion: If you supposedly have the authority to create a major problem in a corporation but you lack the authority to address the problem, you probably were not the cause of the problem.

The last time this happened was almost funny. Somebody had taken something I had written as part of a final review draft of a product and, sort of passing it off as his own, sent it off as a memo that went to customers. There's nothing really wrong with taking my work like this -- any company text belongs to the company -- but you do have an obligation to check things over when you do this, at least minimally. In this case, there was some garbled text in what he had copied. This got discovered when a friend of mine in the field -- who did not work for the company -- found this and wrote me saying I might want to know about it. I had found and corrected the garbled text myself long since -- it had been caught in review, and besides I always (always) do a page by page simple scan of everything before final production, as the very last thing. What I had not done was update the review copy of the document on the review server, since there were no more reviews.

In any case, the person who had sent out the garbled memo tried to blame me, at least at first. Well, he was caught red-handed. If he had told me that he was passing off my review copies as his own work (instead of simply asking me for the final manual), I would have been sure to update the review drafts as part of final production so that at least his information was what went out with the product. But he had to protect himself, and try to fix blame elsewhere. When he found himself saying, in outrage, "What do you mean you don't update the review drafts?" that part of him that has some integrity kicked in and he realized the strangeness of what he was saying; he stopped himself and went silent. I interrupted and said that I would add to my final production checklist to be sure that review copies for previous software releases on the review server were always the final version of the documents so this wouldn't happen again. Which enabled him to save face by saying, "Yes, that's a good idea". But by that point in my career I was having none of this finger-pointing crap and I think I managed to convey that with a look.

Boy, I wish you could start your career with the wisdom you gain by the end. Or at least the ability to get people to own up to their own mistakes with a withering glance.
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