I Was Fired By Sticky Note
Why codes of conduct are our collective responsibility and essential to organisational culture
“Elizabeth, you have been terminated from this job….”
My stomach fell into my shoes as I detached the sticky note from my computer monitor and read that first line. I pulled out my chair, sat down with a thump, and forced myself to read on.
“You have been moved into the director’s position at […].”
This was such a bizarre way to get either a “you’ve been fired” or a “you’ve been promoted” message that I didn’t know how to feel. And who does either of those things by sticky note? Attached in such a publicly visible place??
I had come to learn many of the faults and foibles of the organisation I was working for, especially the limitations of its human resources department. But this took the biscuit.
Where my stomach had fallen the panic started to rise. I don’t know how to be a director! I’m not ready!! I wailed this, internally, to myself as I stood in the middle of my cubicle farm.
I had no room for the optimism and joy of a big promotion. I was too rattled by the message delivery method.
In the next moment I just got angry. Who thinks it’s ok to do something like this by sticky note??
That thought was the touch paper that turned my anger in to pure determination. I decided right then and there that I was going to pick up their sticky gauntlet and run with it. I would show them.
I also vowed at that moment that I would never be so wretched in my duties as a leader that I would do something as irresponsible as communicate a big decision like this by sticky note.
It would have been real easy in this situation to quickly point fingers and affix blame. Of course it was the fault of the lowly HR officer who wrote the post-it and stuck it on my monitor in plain view!
But I knew better.
Culture is determined from the top down. Behaviours, attitudes, and processes are all set by the leaders in an organisation. The way they do things and how they act become the norms and expectations for all staff.
The HR officer would have thought that of course my own boss had had a thorough and informative conversation with me about this move, and that I had agreed to it. Of course, she clearly didn’t do the due diligence behind that thought or she would have known otherwise. And to this day I can’t come up with a good rationale behind the sticky note method.
This is a small example of how big things go wrong in organisations and companies.
Something as silly as being fired or promoted (or both!) by sticky note is not about the incident in and of itself. It speaks volumes about the managers and leaders throughout the company, about poor systems and processes, and about a lack of collective ownership of the health of the culture in which everyone operates.
It only takes the poorly-executed task of one person to set a destructive tone, or ruin a reputation, or tar the company with a bad brush.
These sorts of things usually happen when the leadership isn’t paying due attention, and isn’t fully engaged with its teams. There are no explicit or implicit codes of conduct demonstrating what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. Standards are ill-defined or non-existent.
Leaders get slack or lose sight of what is truly important in creating an environment that fosters the kind of culture that people want to work in, and that creates the sort of company people want to buy from.
We all play a role in creating the culture in our workplace. No matter how big or small our particular part, there is no valid reason for excusing ourselves from being a contributor to a bigger cultural picture. This part is made up of the way we chose to conduct ourselves and treat each other.
Taking leadership for that collective responsibility at the corporate level (whether that’s in your 6-person startup or your company of thousands) is essential to generating the kind of place where people want to work- where you keep good staff and attract even better individuals as you grow.
Good companies know this, and put in the hard work to intentionally define a culture that everyone is committed to being a part of and building from the inside out.
I survived the whiplash my fire-n-promote sticky note gave me that day. I took on the new director role and ran with it. I vowed I would never make a team of mine suffer poor and negligent leadership if I could help it.
It took a lot of trial and error and hard work, but I went on to find a way to become the leader and manager I wished I had had that day. The first step was realising I couldn’t do it alone, and that establishing a culture of collective responsibility was essential to building a highly performing team in an organisation we were all proud to have a part.
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