The fine art of kicking a dead horse

I’ve had this conversation with two different people, and I’m finding it hard to believe the business world really operates this way. Please enlighten.

I expressed surprise that a publishing house would re-consider a book nixed by a single high-powered individual right after that individual left the publisher. My Patient Husband said, “Doesn’t surprise me at all.”

I’m surprised because it seems they’re admitting they hired someone for a powerful position who made bad decisions. My Patient Husband said, “We do that all the time. We blame the last person who left, and as soon as the door hits him on the way out, we pounce like a band of rabid hyenas on all the decisions he made that we didn’t like, and we undo them all.”

Later I related this to my mother, who said, “Oh, absolutely. Even if the decision was made twenty years ago, and the person only worked here for three. Charlie left? Well, that program isn’t working because of a decision Charlie made. Those changes Charlie made to process? No one does them anymore.”

I said, Aren’t these businesses interested in covering themselves? Afraid they’ll look bad?

My Patient Husband said, “Who’s to see? They don’t care. It makes it easier for the organization to fictionally believe itself perfect, if the person making the mistakes is the one who just left.”

But if everyone KNOWS this open secret, is it effective?

He laughed. “Heck, my old department is already joking around about what stuff they’ll blame me for when I’m finished transferring to the new department.”

It just seems so…unprofessional. Overall I figured that at an organizational level, corporations were interested in appearing to be in lockstep. An executive is incompetent or otherwise blocking the group’s vision, so he’s maneuvered into early retirement or finding other employment. The executives don’t then turn around and say, “Eltrude was a putz,” but rather say, “Yes, that’s company procedure” and wait a suitable amount of time before “reorganizing” or “implementing new policy” or whatever euphemisms will smooth it over. You know, the way you’d read in the paper. “We’ve decided to take the company in a new direction.” Not, “Boy, we are so glad he’s out of here!”

On the inside, things function a lot differently! (I’d better never write a novel about corporate intrigue. It’d be funny, but not the way I want it to be.)

This idea that “Eltrude left on Monday, so on Tuesday we’ll implement all the improvements he blocked with his old-guard ways” is, to me, very strange. And yet I’m being told everywhere I ask that this is exactly how the business world works, that it preserves the integrity of the corporation, and that it’s understood and accepted.

Oh, that and and get all your references in a row before you leave. Seeing as you’ll have made all these mistakes by tomorrow.


  1. ivyreisner

    It keeps the current people safe and happy. Think about it this way. You have a group of people to manage and one employee who just quit. Something was done totally wrong. Do you point to the one person who left of one of the ones still there?

    If you blame Eltrude, everyone can say, “Yep, Eltrude made a bad call. Let’s fix it.”

    If you blame Lorna than two things happen. One, Lorna starts CYA activity, finding ways to pass the blame and looking for other employment options. That’s not how you can best use Lorna. Two, people get nervous that they’ll be the next target for your finger, so they all start CYA maneuvers, either by taking ownership of nothing (which is bad when you need information fast) or engaging in office politics. Again, this runs counter to what you want.

    So the sensible person says, “Eltrude did everything that was ever done wrong and you, my loyal and remaining employees, are the embodiment of perfection who will set things to right. I have nothing but confidence in your ability; now go prove my faith well-placed.”

    Everyone knows it’s hogwash, but it doesn’t target anyone who actually cares. Don’t worry about the references. A manager can easily say, “Eltrude messed up everything” to the other employees and “Eltrude was the best thing that happened to this department, and we lost him to our great detriment” to the person checking his references.

  2. Diinzumo

    See, you harbor the idealism I had toward the “professional” world for years. Just because a business is referred to as “professional” as opposed to “hobby” or “pastime,” this does not mean its management and workers will behave like professionals.

    My favorite slogan: In a perfect world, “Dilbert” wouldn’t be funny.

  3. CricketB

    Yep, see that here, too.

    Random related thoughts:

    We see that all the time in Canadian politics. Party A puts in a law which turns out to be a bad thing. Party B gets into power and repeals it. Party A gets back in and says nothing. The first few months of a new party’s term consists of undoing half of what the previous one did, and relabeling the rest.

    Just this week I read it’s illegal to give a bad reference about a former employee, maybe even where I live. (Gotta love doing legal research on the internet. Wrong jurisdiction. Interesting trails that have nothing to do with what you intended to learn. I think it was with protecting personal information.)

    Dad’s boss once did, “I can’t say anything, but here are the numbers of his former business partner and two customers.”