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10/2/2003
05:08 PM
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Secret CIO: A Picnic To Improve Company Morale

I wonder how many employees were let go to pay for this idea

I wish we had videotaped the executive committee meeting. It would have been the perfect reality TV show. Where else could you see a group of executives, having just played Vlad the Impaler to their staffs, morph into Inspector Clouseau, coming up with all sorts of strange ideas to improve employee morale? The concept is bizarre. The residual television rights alone would make a significant contribution to our dollar-deprived bottom line.

The company had just weathered another agonizing round of budget cuts and resultant layoffs when Stephanie Stone, our VP of human resources, bounces out of her seat to announce her assignment to make this year's annual employee picnic an event that "restores the company to an even keel of productivity and camaraderie," quoting Phil, our CEO, who smiles broadly at her. Stephanie is an ardent disciple of industrial psychology. She believes that given the right levers, the people on our payroll will happily walk into fire for those of us who just happen to drive expensive company cars and have enhanced benefit packages that would make them weep.

It isn't Stephanie's fault that she's the last person on the long agenda, but she does nothing to release us from the room and pays no attention to the glazed looks that meet her convoluted rhetorical questions and unsolicited observations. The propriety of such an event, after layoffs, is quickly dismissed as "not meeting the problem head-on." Outlandish suggestions from the exhausted group trickle forth. Finally, Ron Stagweg, executive VP of domestic operations, whose eternal optimism is one day going to get him lynched from the video projector above the mahogany conference table, suggests we form a senior-level picnic oversight committee.

I groan (not audibly, I hope) while Gornish, our CFO, sitting across from me, closes his eyes in silent protest. But the die is cast as Phil beams at Ron, and we disperse, with but one thought on our minds--to whom can we delegate this task. Upon returning to my office, I am gladdened to see Lisa, my executive assistant. Twenty minutes later, after abject pleading and solemn promises to put junk mail in the trash can instead of the "File" box, I am free.

The administrative staff does a wonderful job subbing for their bosses--I wish the senior officers consistently worked so well together. Our steering committee meetings go smoothly. Still, like Gornish, I am concerned about the emphasis on fun and frolic when we have figuratively just buried some good people who toiled long and hard for this company. I've been in management long enough to know that after a layoff you concentrate on the well-being of the survivors and not on mourning the departed. However, it troubles me to spend money on sponsored social mingling when the yearly merit pool is going to be a lot lower than most people realize. In my experience, the best morale booster is the appreciation and recognition, tangible or otherwise, that comes from successfully working together to achieve a tough goal.

The picnic went off smoothly. It was designed so that people would have fun and I think that they did. There were games for the children and softball, swimming, and tennis for all. The food was delicious and plentiful enough to make your arteries groan. Perhaps Stephanie and Phil were right. Still, I can't help but wonder how many employees had to be let go to fund this exercise in morale building.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net.

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