When managers lie

Sometimes, promises seem made to be broken -- just ask Mitzi Pearce. In 1997, the American expatriate was working at a bank in Hong Kong. A supervisor begged her to temporarily relocate to the bank's London headquarters.

"My manager said ... it would be a great career move," says Pearce, who now works at Metris Companies Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona. Some move. The manager failed to make financial arrangements, so Pearce was left negotiating a contract on her arrival, losing any relocation reimbursement. "It had actually cost me [my own money] to get there," she says.

An IT reorganization then eliminated her old job, and on the last day of 1998, Pearce was suddenly out of work.

An unusual experience? Not quite. Approximately 10 years earlier, Pearce worked at a large U.S. bank that had relocated her to Hong Kong for a two-year assignment. The company promised her a job after the project was completed. Yet, when she returned to the U.S., the company was facing layoffs and Pearce had to find another employer.

Whether because of organizational ineptitude, the changing fortunes of companies or even outright deception, thousands of IT workers each year find themselves in Pearce's shoes, fighting for the raises, stock options, training and other benefits and compensation they were promised.

Can't Get No Satisfaction

Gaining satisfaction may be a matter of IT staffers waiting longer than they would like to see the promised land. Too often, these promises are all style and no substance. There are steps that IT workers can take, but ultimately, the best recourse is to work for people who are honorable -- and organized.

"Technology workers are always getting screwed over by management," says Richard Bordelon, a recruiter at The Richmond Group USA in Richmond, Va. In many cases, he says, a CEO expects technology to solve all his problems, putting IT managers under great pressure. "I think [IT managers are] overworked, pissed off, underpaid, frazzled, stressed-out people who will say or do anything to get the job done," Bordelon adds. "I think they overextend themselves."

As a result, many IT managers make promises to recruits and existing employees that won't be fulfilled. Most likely, it's because the managers haven't thought through the ramifications of those promises.

"Start-ups have pressing concerns right off the bat," says Jerome Coleman, a partner at law firm Nixon Peabody LLP in New York. "The first concern is money. The second concern is employees: getting the right people in the right positions. Kind of as an afterthought, start-ups start thinking about employment relationships."

In extreme cases, though, the approach to hiring is dishonest. Bordelon recalls a Visual Basic team leader placed in a company that orally committed to a bonus based on performance in a project during his first six months. "They get to the end of the six months, and my client changed the goal posts on [the employee]," says Bordelon. "It was duplicitous on the part of my client. I don't work for them anymore." To his knowledge, he says, only two of his clients have deliberately tried to mislead IT recruits.

But conniving is unnecessary for corporate promise-breaking, especially among start-ups, when a tight labor market drives companies to be innovative in attracting recruits.

"It used to be that everyone got the same vacation, the same percentage of raise," says Lance Boxer, CEO of XOsoft Inc. in Somerset, New Jersey. Recruits now ask for special consideration in working conditions, vacation plans and compensation, says Boxer, who previously was a CIO at MCI.

Occasionally, managers go beyond their authority to change benefits or employment conditions. "I would say that most promises are broken at the local level," says Boxer. One of the most important steps an employee can take, especially when considering a job offer, is to ask managers if they have the power to grant what they offer. The best way IT employees can ensure they get what was promised is to ask for the commitment in writing up front.

Get It in Writing

Persuading someone to set pen to paper may be difficult, so consider creating a project plan and including the reward language. After being approved, the employee now has documentation of any promises made. Both parties have agreed on the conditions. And this should prevent a break in communications that can transform into a breach of promise.

When a promise made seems unlikely to appear, speaking to an IT manager is an important step. If nothing is resolved, the employee should raise the issue with someone else, such as a human resources director.

There's a good chance that someone might listen, says Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet.com Inc. in San Francisco. "Nine out of 10 employers I've talked to said they'd rather have the employee talk to them," he says. "It's always easier to try to work something out with your current situation than look for a new job."

If satisfaction is still not forthcoming, then the options are legal action -- which frequently would cost more than an employee is likely to recover -- or leaving the company.

Ultimately, the best solution is some trust. Paul Wyatt, chief technology officer and vice president at WorldRes.com Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., recalls working for a company on the condition of having an organization brought under his control. But he learned after starting in the position that that wouldn't happen.

"That's a sticky situation. You may not have made the same decision had you not been promised something," says Wyatt. What's important is deciding whether people were honest at the time. "If, after discussion, you feel like the person who made the commitment to you made it in all good faith, at least you feel like they didn't make it maliciously," he says.

In fact, it was trust that helped Pearce manage her two disasters without bitterness. "Most of the companies I have worked for have acted with great integrity," she says.

This story, "When managers lie" was originally published by Computerworld.

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