Max, a strong individual performer at MMI with a track record for his programming expertise but lacking interpersonal skills, is being perceived by his colleagues as a potential threat due to a series of events that seem to suggest that he may victimize his colleagues in a workplace homicide incident. His colleagues have shared their concerns to Lynne, their manager, who now needs to act immediately to resolve the situation. A holistic view on the situation is required as the decision involves environmental factors such as recessionary period driving job cuts, increasing workloads and stress levels amongst employees as well as organizational concerns such as impacted productivity, employee fears, workplace safety concerns, enforcing expected behavior at workplace and legal aspects such as potential law suits that need to be evaluated. The case shows several organizational behavior concepts such as perceptual biases like confirmatory bias, stereotyping, halo effect, group think etc.
in play. As a manager, both the individual and the team's interests need to be kept in mind. Actions taken to address the areas of development for the individual as well as efforts taken to rebuild the team and shift their focus on to core team values must be institutionalized as procedures/policies.
Background: Several facts led to the crisis at MMI and these can be classified under the below headers:
Individual-Specific Facts -
Max had owned a gun like many other employees at the firm and had displayed his certificate from a shooting range on his desk.
Max had recently been spotted by his team mate Nicole (see Appendix 1 for employee profiles) at a pharmacy store picking up some prescription drugs.
Max has been working long hours in office. He arrives much before most people and is still at his desk till the last person leaves.
Behavioral Facts -
Max was known to be a loner who did not eat lunches or socialize with his team mates. He was an introvert who preferred to keep to himself and never had small talks with people. He did not share his personal life or his weekend plans with anyone and remained secluded.
He was a misfit in the team who kept to himself. His shabby physical appearance, his habit of scavenging leftovers in the pantry repelled many people on the team.
In a historical project assignment, his job role had to be curtailed to pure programming and limiting all people interactions due to requests from stakeholders to replace him as they found it extremely difficult to work with his cold and defensive behavior.
Recently, Max displayed an outburst of anger on a call where he slammed the receiver and showed aggressive physical reactions. He had lost his cool on the call and reacted aggressively after which he stormed out of the building.
Contextual Facts -
Recent Workplace Homicide: A workplace homicide was reported in Seattle where a disgruntled employee walked into the office and shot at several of his colleagues. Due to the recency of the event, employees generally were concerned about them becoming victims to another such event.
Lay-offs: With the recession underway, a round of lay-offs had been completed and another round was expected based on the quarterly performance. General employee morale was down at the firm.
Problem Statements: The above mentioned facts give rise to a number of concerns in the team:
Safety Concerns - There was general fear among the team members that there was likelihood that Max could go berserk and victimize his colleagues in a workplace homicide incident especially now that they knew he was training in firearms. The fear for their safety at the workplace not only creates a negative environment but also affects productivity as shown by the employees' hesitance to work over the weekends even when there were deliverables due.
Discrimination against Max - It is clear that the team wasn't a big fan of Max and there were well within their rights to express their fears to their manager. However, given the fact that Max was one off their top performing programmers with technical expertise and the given environment of job cuts, the team mates campaigning against him cannot be taken lightly. As a manager, Lynne, needed to be sure that she wasn't being swayed by the group and any such attempts to target Max were handled appropriately to promote fair treatment of all employees.
Overall Workplace Environment - Given the negative environment due to recession, lay-offs, high stress levels, low employee morale and long working hours, the firm faces a severe crisis in terms of its employee satisfaction levels. Under these circumstances, employees are subjected to undue stress which may affect their personal well-being as well as their overall productivity at the firm. Although this threat is one such example, there could be other ways this negative environment could manifest itself as.
Pressure of potential repercussions - The firm faced two issues legally based on the options available and subsequent course of action. If the firm chose to terminate Max, they could face a lawsuit if he chose to allege discrimination against him and claim unfair firing practice. If the firm ignores to investigate or act on the issue and if there were a homicide incident at a later point as feared by the team, it could again face legal action from the team mates for negligence and failing to act.
As a people manager, decisions should be based on facts and not mere perceptions. Max's introvert behavior, his personal hobbies to train at a shooting range and his visit to the pharmacy store form no grounds for any action against him.
Perceptual Biases: It is clear from the statements made by his colleagues such as "The man will not even make eye contact. I'm telling you, he's a freak" and "He's got that 'bodies stashed in the basement' sort of look to him, doesn't he?" that the halo effect is on display and he is being stereotyped based on his physical appearance. This is followed up with confirmatory biases anchored by his visit it to the pharmacy which was assumed to have been for picking up antipsychotics, the explosive phone call and his shooting certification. The shooting range certificate and the visit to the pharmacy lead to a randomness bias which was intensified by the recency effect of the Seattle incident lead to several unfair and uncalled assumptions as Nicole drew parallels to the killer and Max by way of descriptions despite knowing the fact that he has never posed any threat to anyone in the organization.
Groupthink and Groupshift at Work: Even though Nicole's inputs on Max were rebutted by offering counter arguments by others on the team, the entire team still ended swaying towards Nicole's assessment of Max. The team finally makes an extreme assessment of the situation by tying different instances together and building up a momentum against Max. Workplace rumors are common phenomena in most organizations but management decisions cannot be made on the back of rumors. It is also important to be aware that as a firm, MMI may have not provided sufficient support structure to its managers to deal with these scenarios and this case offers an opportunity to build a repository of policies and procedures around the matter of work place safety concerns.
Lack of Motivation: In the context of Herzberg's 2-factor theory, extrinsic or hygiene factors were not favorable for Max as he had poor interpersonal relationships with his peers. Max was working more like a machine than a human at MMI with no real motivation to engage with his colleagues, his supervisor or any of his stakeholders. This could have caused substantial job dissatisfaction but this is not clear as he has been portrayed as an introvert who did not socialize with his team mates. Motivation could also be affected by personal issues, medical condition etc. which has not been identified so far.
Team minus Max: The team was a cohesive unit; they worked hard, helped each other out and socialized well with each other. This was true for everybody on the team except Max. He was excluded from most social gatherings like lunch, coffee etc. and there is no evidence of the team making any effort to help him blend with the team. Max had been left out of the team due to his reserved nature with no attempts to be inclusive.
Culture vs. Personality Conflict: Max's introvert personality is conflicting with the overall team's culture of being social and this is leading to barriers being created between him and his teammates. This situation is a good example of the importance of people having to adapt to a team/organizational culture or get left behind. Max, by staying true to his personality and not imbibing or adapting to the team's culture of socializing, outgoing etc., is risking being left out in the group.
Policies and Procedures: As a firm, MMI should aim to look at this as a general organization problem concerning workplace safety and employee welfare issue. Treating this as a one-off issue may address the issue in this particular unit but creating a framework of policies and procedures will help the firm achieve reusable references which are characteristic of good firms as well as avoids discretionary judgments which could have bad results.
Root Cause Analysis: Lynne needs to get to the bottom of the factors that are driving Max's behaviors. Although all team members cannot be equally social and expected to be liked by all, evident facts like late hours that Max has been in office and the outburst on the phone have to be investigated. Once identified, these concerns need to be addressed through workload re-allocation, providing some time-off, work-life balance initiatives etc. In addition to this, social events have to be promoted to create an amicable environment. Max needs to be motivated to join the team for lunch and this can be initiated by Lynne who can gather the team for lunch once a week. The team needs to shed their apprehensions about Max and similarly Max needs to be coached and mentored on his interpersonal skills.
Employee Assistance Program: The firm should consider launching an employee assistance program that offers confidential anonymous counseling service to those who are facing any sort of crisis personally or professionally. The firm should encourage the employees to use these services to seek professional help when required. Given the firm's performance and financial condition, this may add to the costs however this will prove a beneficial initiative in the long run and could help boost employee sentiments.
Training Programs: The firm needs to consider delivering training on diversity and inclusion at the workplace. Inclusive behavior needs to be set as expectations and necessary training needs to be provided to equip people. This will ensure that people are more conscious while engaging with their colleagues and strengthen the teams which could lead to increased productivity. Motivational coaching can be provided to create positive vibes at the workplace given the context of job cuts.
Action Plan: Below is the step-by-step plan of action to resolve the situation at MMI:
Follow-up meeting - Lynne Needs to have a follow-up meeting with Max where the reason for his outburst on the call must be re-visited and legitimate reason unearthed through an empathetic conversation. The conversation should be targeted to understand his current emotional and physical state of well being which includes stress levels, personal/family issues or any other medical help that is required. In this meeting, the need for him to build on his interpersonal skills must be emphasized. Lynne should not hesitate to use her legitimate power of authority as his manager to get Max to talk about these aspects as he has dodged these questions in the past. Use of coercive power must be used with discretion as it could tip him over and alienate him further. A detailed action plan to coach and mentor him should be discussed in the organizational context. Specific targets and actionable items as a part of a development plan must be assigned to him to improve his interpersonal skills and his relationship with his colleagues. These then need to be recorded and periodically assessed/tracked to see if there is progress as well as create a legal record for future reference. A bi-weekly follow-up meeting could be setup to de-brief.
Informal Chat with the Programmers - Lynne needs to repose faith in the team that their concerns have been heard and escalated as required. They need to be made comfortable that the matter was being looked at by the management team. At the same time, she needs to make a pitch to the team to give Max another chance and try to help him blend-in with the team. The focus of the team needs to be re-aligned to 'leaving no man behind' and shifting their focus away for the lay-offs and eliminate any self-serving biases that may be prevalent. Team need to be coached on being conscious about diversity.
Precautionary Measures: Despite the constructive efforts to handle the situation, the management should highlight the perceived threat to the firm's security team and brief them about the inputs they have. Security protocols can be used to ensure the situation is monitored on an on-going basis. A confidential background check can be conducted to gain some confidence in the matter.
From the facts of the case, it is evident that several perceptual biases and recency effect of the Seattle incident is causing the team to move away from core team values by alienating one individual. The manager needs to focus at both ends of the spectrum by working with the individual on his interpersonal skills and enabling his inclusion in the team as an integral member and at the other end reminding the entire team about potential biases that they may have subjected the individual to and reinforcing policies around fair treatment of individuals. Given the firm's condition, the focus should be on working together, helping out each other and working as a team to meet the firm's quarterly targets. The fear of lay-offs needs to be alleviated by giving the power back to the team and highlighting to them that by working together, they can achieve their goals thereby eliminating the need for any further lay-offs. A sense of positivity needs to be bred in the team through motivational coaching, goal-setting and offering rewards such as promotions for achieving targets.