How Not to Boost Employee Morale

Any company, regardless of size, must maintain an engaging internal culture to keep its staff motivated to perform. You have most likely heard plenty of friends and family members thank their particular deity just for keeping them employed, but even in these economic end-times, intra-office tension can cause recurring HR nightmares. Tension causes distraction, which causes glacial productivity. Bad productivity leads high-achievers to seek more promising work. This steady turnaround often results in your workforce resembling more of a remedial vocational training class than a proud and profitable organization.

Before making the cathartic switch to a full-time life of freelance freedom, I briefly served as Managing Engineer for a very small, private IT outsourcing firm. The company provided off-site VoIP and PBX hosting, and on-site network and PC maintenance to about twenty local customers. Without exaggeration, the six-person org chart could be simplified thusly:

  • Sole Proprietor (SP): Self-professed hands-off investor with a track record of successful Voice/Telephony startups. In the office nearly every day, but never on-time, and often completely absent for meetings he himself scheduled. Prone to emotional outbursts during crises. Involved in several other business ventures managed from the same office and often “borrowed” IT employees for these other science projects.
  • Bookkeeper (BK): Primary responsibilities were Accounts Receivable/Payable for the IT company, but also in charge of marketing and customer service for all of SP’s businesses. Cheerful person, brought her giant Pet Boxer (PB) into the office most days.
  • Managing Engineer (ME): Responsible for managing all IT employees, processes, and customer relations. Hands-on, nails dirty, gettin’ it done. Ruggedly handsome, and an excellent writer.
  • Provisioning Manager (PM): Responsible for all regulatory and provider paperwork for new voice and data customers. SP planned to transition these tasks to ME, as PM was also SP’s unemployed wife. Not an extremely comfortable position for ME to be in.
  • Field Engineer (FE): Aside from ME, the only employee actually providing support and services for customers. Linguistically challenged and unusually sour with customer communication. Some technical education and certifications, but slow to react and downright ineffective during crises. Prone to spending countless hours playing with potential tools and toys rather than researching current customer problems.
  • Support Dispatcher (SD): Responsible for answering customer calls/emails and managing support tickets. Fresh-out-of-high-school country boy eager to please but short on technical knowledge and communication skills. Aside from ME, SD was the only employee who seemed to be interested in the continued success of the company. Incidentally, SP terminated SD shortly after hiring ME, leaving ME with the initial duty of hiring a replacement.

I knew when I was hired that the firm’s outlook was grim, but being a relentless optimist I also knew that there was no IT shop I couldn’t whip into shape. Of course, I was dead wrong about the latter.

Sometimes what you step in just can’t be polished. However, I’m not here to tell you how to save a stagnant business model with an unsatisfied customer base, high employee turnaround, and impatient investors. I’m not even going to tell you the details of how the cautionary, it-could-happen-to-you horror story above ended, except to say that I’ve found rewarding success since then.

To Sole Proprietor’s credit, he exhibited one trait that led me to believe there may be hope for this particular business venture: He was genuinely concerned with the morale of his employees. When he asked me during week one to schedule an after-hours cocktail hour, I commended the idea but suggested that we wait until some of the dust settled. After SD was terminated, I again suggested we postpone until a replacement was hired, since FE and ME were now the only employees available to directly interface with customers.

Once SDv2 was found, things started to really turn around. I found a candidate with just the right mix of tech skills and helpful personality. Our customers immediately began complimenting our rapid responses to problems, many of which were resolved by SDv2 himself. The mood in the office went from dreadful and thick to cheery and fun. I finally informed SP that I felt comfortable scheduling our first happy hour to celebrate. We started small and scheduled a night of pool and drinks at a nearby sportsbar. The idea was to do something fun and relaxing to both unwind and revel in the promise of good things to come.


Only SDv2 showed up. Even SP flaked out. He, of course, blamed it on PM. The next day it was announced abruptly that PM would no longer be working in the office, leaving ME to complete the transition of her tasks via phone, email, and the occasional meeting.

SP suggested that we make these after-hours gatherings mandatory for everyone (except PB), but that seemed counter-productive, and perhaps even a tiny bit illegal unless everyone was paid. He then suggested we hold a meeting during office hours to determine when everyone was available, but again I told him that was the kind of time-wasting negative reinforcement that made people dread hanging out with their co-workers.

At this point, SP threw up his hands and said, “Well, then, what are we going to do? How the hell do I make these people happy?”

My response: We don’t. While it’s important to have a satisfied and productive staff, attempting to control a human being’s emotions, especially those in your employ at a stressful private company, is a recipe for disaster.

So we kept scheduling those nights out, and eventually more of the staff started attending. We never had full attendance, but those who did come had a good time, and mornings in the office after each gathering were much more tolerable and efficient for everyone.

I wish this story had a happy ending for the company, but all the billiards and booze in the world can’t save an organization founded on shaky planning and micro-managed by a Type A investor with no working knowledge of the technology or services provided.

I left the company five months ago, and SDv2 is the only employee who hasn’t been replaced. All others (including ME) have been replaced multiple times over.

Again, I’m an optimist, and if I could impart one useful nugget of management wisdom upon the frustrated managers of the IT world it would be to always keep your sensory devices peeled for the silver lining in your seemingly abysmal environment. If you look meticulously and can’t find that lining, either it just isn’t there, or you’re in the wrong field. Sometimes the only way to find it is to share a glass with your employees on a regular basis and encourage honesty among all.

If your glass is constantly half-empty, I encourage you to at least start seeing it merely twice as large as it needs to be. If you can’t, then your skills might be better put to use in a position where you are not in charge of fostering the morale of people traditionally handicapped in the area of social interaction.

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I learned to type before I learned to write. This bassackward development led to a life of confusing the dessert for the dinner, but left me with the handwriting of an arthritic pediatrician and the income of an IT Director. As a SysOp of a local dial-up Bulletin Board System at 10 years old, and director of a worldwide development environment for a promising semiconductor start-up at 23, I've spent much of my life with influence and responsibility over elders I've had no sensible right to boss around.


  1. Dick Carlson on the 22nd September

    I’m surprised he didn’t want to set up some kind of “paycheck deduction” for those who didn’t show up for the fun time.

    Damn employees. Can’t live with ’em, can’t force ’em to be happy and productive.

  2. Patrick on the 22nd September

    Wow, that sounds almost exactly like a position I was in a few months ago. Our office was a creative group with about the same number of employees and a micro managing SP without the technical knowledge to manage. It hasn’t been that long since I left, but I can see the turnover and the employee discontent.

    One thing I did notice and think I did well was try to relate to all of the employees on a business level. Although this didn’t make their work more enjoyable I believe they felt there was a person in a management position that saw their value. This helped our production and in the short-medium term made the atmosphere happier.

    One thing I did poorly was try to continually change SPs perspective on work environment, productivity, and priorities. I think these situations are hard when you rally a team around the goal of productivity and success only to have management waste resources (in the eyes of the employees). It is hard as the middle management to balance the two perspectives, “I need more productivity” vs “he’s wasting the profit I make for him”.

    Overall a good article. As much as it is sad to see this situation, I feel some comfort knowing there are others like me.

  3. Jarryd on the 23rd September

    A very similar situation with my workplace. We have the Directors, Team Leaders and then the respective staff under the Team Leaders…and it’s all pretty much micro-management to the max.

    The Directors don’t really know what’s going on with the staff or how work is actually going. The Team Leaders micro-manage the designers/developers and get them to do tasks that the Team Leader could have done (and should be doing).

    Team Leaders then report to the Directors on how work is going usually lying or saying “we are going over time” or whining about a particular staff member.

    We have “Work In Progress” meetings which is where we are supposed to discuss how many hours have been spent on a job and the progress on it…but all that happens is the Directors talk to the Team Leader(s) and discuss finances and potential jobs.

    We waste so much time when we could be so much better. No matter how hard I or other staff members have tried, there is too much office politics going on. Basically Team Leaders kiss the Directors ass and get whatever they want while the actual staff doing all the work constantly are getting moved around or fired. There is a huge turn-over rate with the staff, even the best and most productive staff have been fired for no apparent reason. Oh and that reminds me; the firing process usually goes:

    Staff member has meeting with one Director and is instructed not to talk about his/her firing.
    – week lapse –
    All the other staff members: “Hey, where’s John? Haven’t seen him in the office for a while”
    Team Leader: “Oh, he was fired last week”

    No communication, nice. /endrant

    Like Patrick says, a good article and not so much comfort, but worrying that finding a workplace is like finding a needle in a haystack. I guess freelancing is always an option :).

  4. Web 2.0 on the 24th September

    I think that its one of the important s part of the manager’s work but I never saw one that cares about it in my work experiences, thanks for sharing.

  5. Trichome on the 25th September

    Thanks for this timely and witty article. We are experiencing a very similar situation now, and it’s dragged on for years. Office politics/gossip, lackey favoritism, doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done, “I’m in charge”, and a complete lack of structure, organization, and communication, but a halfhearted willingness to establish those essentials, are characteristic of ALL our coordinators and upper management.
    The sad part is, there is a lot of talent in this room… it’s just completely suppressed, not cultivated. I stuck around because I saw potential… but now I’m realizing it’s not MY company to create, perfect, or destroy. Just in time to retain an ounce of sanity.
    I’ll be striking out on my own very soon. I just cut my personal expenses by half, and have a few million-dollar ideas, plus a new, very fulfilling volunteer position. In six months, it’ll be a whole new world.

  6. Sudie Lantigua on the 26th July

    It can be a very important subject and overlooked by so many writers, even professionals. I appreciate your help making people more aware about this subject.

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