Putting productivity before humanity

Manager tells employees to ignore woman in need of help.

The case of a Montreal supervisor fired for his failure to help a young woman found beaten in a parking lot near his call centre office highlights the need for corporations to take a closer look at workplace culture.

The supervisor said he thought the 17-year-old girl was merely “out of it” because he didn’t see blood. He didn’t call 911 and forbade his employees to call. The teenager was unconscious, naked from the waist down and lying on the ground near Sitel Canada’s office for nearly three hours before one employee called police from his cell phone.

The case outraged Montrealers and sent a chill down the collective spine of HR managers.

“I’ve never heard of anything quite as bizarre as this case. This is quite exceptional,” said Dan Ondrack, professor of human resources at the University of Toronto.

The supervisor, who has not been named by the company, was fired because he “failed to demonstrate responsible leadership and otherwise render appropriate, speedy assistance to the young woman found injured,” according to a report from the company.

“All Sitel employees have been personally stunned. As a responsible corporate citizen and employer, we were required to conduct an impartial, thorough investigation, follow due process and obtain all the facts before any action could be taken,” Sitel Canada president Craig Meilleur told reporters. The company refused to comment further on the investigation or the circumstances surrounding the supervisor’s and employees’ behaviours.

The case raises questions about corporate values and culture.

On a general level, the issue of work culture goes back to the inherent traits of capitalist enterprises and the ceaseless drive to make profit that sometimes compromises human needs, said Barbara Moses, organizational consultant and best selling author.

“There’s a conflict here between productivity pressures and human values. It puts the company needs before human needs. But your obligations of citizenship should transcend your obligation you have to your employer,” said Moses.

What is unclear in the Sitel case is whether this particular employee was simply a “loose cannon” or if the culture of the workplace was to blame for his failure to help the young woman.

While most focused on the supervisor’s actions and laid blame on him, that’s far too simplistic an answer, said John Bryan, organizational development and design consultant based in Toronto.

“It’s highly unlikely that all that happened here is that one individual is to blame.”

Employees under this supervisor listened to his direction not to intervene, which is far more appalling, said Bryan. It suggests there were larger, organizational factors at play.

“I doubt it’s the supervisor alone. Because most of the people he gave that direction to listened, that says that there’s more going on here than one bad supervisor or one bad act from a supervisor.”

Whatever the case may be, employers and HR managers should be looking at ways to prevent similar events from happening in their own workplaces.

Reassessing your organization’s values and culture is imperative. Looking at how management functions, what kind of training is available for management positions, under what guidance do they work, and what are the supports available to them is crucial.

Bryan suggests sitting down with managers to discuss their roles so it’s clear what they are accountable for. If the pressures on management are creating a tainted culture, then upper management needs to rethink their processes.

“It’s not uncommon for low-level management to have (accountabilities) laid on them pretty hard from their managers and it’s not unusual for people who are handed authority for the first time to misuse it. These people need to know what is expected of them ,” said Bryan. In the Sitel case, Bryan said the person who was in charge of this supervisor needs to take some responsibility.

Reviews are also important and can catch a supervisor who may be meeting targets but not necessarily keeping the values of the company in mind. But such problems can also go up the levels of management and therefore likely not be addressed.

“Tyrant behaviour can be going unnoticed because sometimes managers are only concerned about performance targets. That’s a lazy appraisal process. The real problem is if it goes up the line,” said HR professor Ondrack.

Employees should also know when they can refuse direction from a supervisor and what their avenues for recourse are if they choose to do that. Employees need to know that showing initiative is valued and that they won’t be punished for stepping outside of the supervisor’s directions when its warranted. And it clearly was in the Sitel case, said Bryan.

“Let’s get clear about what an employee can do to reject, refuse, appeal a supervisor’s directive,” said Bryan.

Most importantly, employers should build a culture where employees are allowed to exercise the responsibilities as citizens without fear.

“(In the Sitel case) the supervisor instructed people to forego their responsibilities as citizens. No employment system is given the authority by government to remove responsibilities of citizenship. Because I hold employment doesn’t exempt me from being a citizen.”

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