Opinion and Viewpoint and Workplace Issues

FRAZIER: Sacred cows? They may not be worth it

November 5, 2011

Jan Breiner FrazierEvery organization has them. The employees who are deemed sacred cows by the work force and, like the banks deemed “too big to fail,” are considered by those in leadership “too [fill in the blank] to go.”

These sacred cows appear to be able to work according to their own rules with few consequences. They get favored-nation status, which generally includes some type of reward or recognition that may or may not be warranted. They promote themselves without giving much credit to others. And they most generally flaunt this status.

The reasons are varied: personal relationships with key executives, strong technical talent (but behavioral disasters), strong relationships with key clients, lineage to another superstar who is critical to the organization (by marriage or by birth), or other reasons no one can ever really figure out. But everyone knows who they are and everyone talks about them in whispers. Unfortunately, these sacred cows are a fact of organizational politics—and highly destructive.

Every employee commitment survey we administer includes some item related to “fairness,” often in the context of, “My manager applies rules and consequences fairly and consistently in the department.” Nine times out of 10, this will be one of the lowest-rated items for organizations that first enter into the realm of formally getting employee feedback. And these sacred cows are generally at the root of it.

The perception of unfairness causes many employees to question their own value and how their contributions are really being appreciated by the leadership. Employees begin to wonder why they work so hard and give so much if the rewards are not fairly distributed. Employees wonder just what it takes to get ahead in the organization. And those companies that are trying to instill healthy corporate cultures—where recognition and rewards are based on performance, team behaviors and modeling the values of the company—negate any progress by protecting the sacred cows.

For those in leadership, what to do? The first step is to recognize there is a problem. When questioned, key executives can get pretty defensive and come up with all the reasons this individual is really valuable, is a key player, is too hard to replace, is critical to the account, is misunderstood, etc. You have your reasons.

But weigh the perceived value of one or two problem individuals against the cost of a harmful negative influence on your culture and the rest of your employees. Then rein in the mavericks and be sure to apply the same standards to them as to the entire work force. And make sure they understand you are serious.

Strong customer relationships? The relationship needs to be with the company and its ownership, not one individual. Strong technical talent? Think Ron Artest and how well that worked out for the Indiana Pacers. Spouses, siblings, in-laws and other relatives? They need to understand that they will be held to a higher standard simply because of the potential perception of favoritism.

Still not convinced? Well, consider this. At the beginning of this year, the Society for Human Resource Management predicted that four in 10 employees would make a move when the economy loosened up. The Wall Street Journal predicted that 60 percent of employees would look to change jobs after the recession, a result of poor morale due to cost-cutting measures. So as job opportunities open up, your stronger employees may go to a company where they are better appreciated. And the irony is that you could lose those sacred cows, anyway.

An interesting exercise would be to ask your management team if there are any sacred cows in your organization and what they believe the impact is. Then listen. You’ll know what to do.•

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Frazier is managing member of Planning Plus, a professional and organization development firm in Indianapolis.

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