Photo credit: Momo Productions

Employees who challenge policies are your change agents. Listen to them.

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on April 5, 2021.

Corporate policies need to be periodically reviewed, and those that no longer make sense need to be changed or exceptions should be made when appropriate. This was recently demonstrated when an executive was fired because she violated a policy after an exception was not granted.

Niki Christoff, senior vice president of strategy and government relations at Salesforce, was invited to join a public company board in recognition of her experience and expertise. It was an opportunity to be exposed to issues beyond that of her position, and it was certainly a benefit to Salesforce. 

Christoff’s request to join the board was denied because company policy permitted only direct reports of the founder and CEO Marc Benioff to join the boards of for-profit companies. Benioff refused to grant an exception to the policy. Christoff joined the board anyway, and she was fired from Salesforce.

The New York Times covered this story with the headline, “A Hidden Hurdle in Efforts to Diversify Boardrooms,” which spoke to the relatively thin pool of women in senior leadership positions in corporate America from which to draw talent. 

Photo credit: Momo Productions

I have a different slant on the experience of Christoff, which reflects a much broader issue in all organizations – if a policy doesn’t make sense, it needs to be challenged and changed, or exceptions granted when it benefits the company. Not doing so drives talented change agents from companies – the very people needed to drive the company forward. 

In July 2020, I wrote an article about a counterproductive policy at my company that I eventually had the opportunity to change. On the first anniversary of my job as a process engineer, I was told that I was being awarded a salary increase of 5% due to my performance, compared with a 4% company-wide average increase based on the marketplace. During our conversation, my boss made the mistake of telling me that the other engineer in our small group was being awarded an increase of 3%.

I thought my co-worker was a solid performer and questioned why his salary increase was less than the company-wide average. My boss said that was the way the system worked – the average percentage salary increase for our small department needed to be no more than the average increase for the company.

I told my boss that policy made no sense. He responded, “Well, that’s just the way it is” – a response that should never be given.

The compensation system didn’t fulfill what I thought should be its intended objective – pay employees commensurate with their performance. It was a source of constant management and employee complaints and frustration. I told my boss that when I rose to a level within the company where I could change the compensation system, I would. He laughed.

Years later, I was appointed to the position of president of my company’s Industrial Chemicals Group. I now had the influence to change the compensation system, which over the years had undergone minor changes, but was still not effective.

The new performance and compensation system that was developed had input from employee focus groups, which created their buy-in. Employees had ownership in the system, since a group of them helped develop it.

A lesson for all CEOs – listen to your change agents. When a policy is challenged, never respond with, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

 

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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