A « Sacred Cow » at Lunix Corporation : When Getting Rid of an Incompetent Employee Becomes Risky Business
Introductory Case Summary
A rapidly growing educational technology company hires a young and savvy professional, Frank Atwood, to head and restructure their Web Services department. Atwood’s enthusiasm is quickly dampened by long work hours and, worst of all, by an unqualified and unwilling employee, Charles Johnson, who is resistant to even be trained in current technology. To Atwood’s dismay, his boss, Megan Moore, hints to the need of firing Johnson, except she is not eager to be responsible for making the decision. The reason for this reticence is Johnson’s status as a long- time family friend of the President and CEO, and his family. When the situation becomes intolerable, Atwood realizes that he needs to “sacrifice the sacred cow”, but the question is: How can he do it in a way that benefits everyone involved?
History and Background of the Case
At 34 years of age, Frank Atwood has packed eleven years of experience working in the area of information technology. He has been both a witness and a participant in the many changes that companies have undergone with the advent of the Internet. Although young, he already has accomplished quite a bit educationally and professionally. Not only does he have advanced degrees in technology, but he also has a MBA with a concentration in finance. His experience in strategic technology caught the eye of Megan Moore, Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Lunix, who had worked with Atwood in another organization.
Moore had been recently appointed to her position. Lunix, a family-owned, educational entertainment company, hired her when they realized that their rapid growth required the services of a more seasoned person at the helm of their Marketing and Communication division. Moore had over 25 years of experience and was well-known among media types locally, which made her the perfect candidate. However, her expertise was focused on media relations and communication strategy, not on technology. Unlike at her previous job, Lunix had its Web Services department under the Marketing and Communication division she now headed, and she soon realized that if she were to truly succeed in her new position, she would need to hire someone with the right type of experience to head the Web Services department for her.
Although Moore and Atwood had worked for the same organization at one point, they had worked for different divisions. Nevertheless, they knew each other and had collaborated more than once on different types of projects. When Moore called on Atwood to consult for her at Lunix, Atwood delivered a complete strategic Web technology plan to re-design and centralize Lunix’s Web services. The plan was presented to a select group of Lunix officials, including Lunix’s new President and CEO, Ralph Kondrat.
Kondrat inherited the presidency from his father, who presided over Lunix for close to 30 years. With a more modern vision, he immediately saw the necessity of implementing Atwood’s plan, and when Moore suggested that they hire Atwood full-time, Kondrat enthusiastically agreed.
Moore’s Marketing and Communication division is divided into three clear departments, all of which report to her: Media Relations, headed by Sarah Silverman, is in charge of pitching stories about the company, its employees, and its products to the press; Web Services, headed by Atwood, is in charge of working with the entire company on the creation, implementation, and maintenance of Lunix’s Web site; and Publications, headed by Anna Allbury, is responsible for the graphic design and production of brochures, magazines, ads, etc., for the company. Silverman, Atwood, and Allbury are all directors of their respective departments. Overall, the division works very closely with the Office of the President and the Office of the Chief of Staff, as it is responsible for articulating the overall vision, image, and plans for the different publics of the organization as a whole. This makes its members privy to sensitive information otherwise handled at the executive levels only.
When Atwood joined Lunix, the Web Services department was solely staffed by Charles Johnson, the 60-some-year-old Webmaster, who happened to be an old family friend of the Kondrats, and had originally started his tenure at Lunix as head of their original communication services. As the organization grew, more specialized skills were needed, so other professionals were hired, and Johnson’s duties began to morph little by little until he was named Webmaster, a position that no one gave much attention to at the beginning, but that now had become strategic for the organization.
Moore was not at all happy with Johnson, since his Web skills were practically nonexistent. In fact, due to his lack of interest and expertise in the subject, he had decided to outsource Web duties to an external company, and he simply acted as a liaison between them and the organization. This resulted in a confusing and unprofessional Web presence, where divisions and departments submitted any type of content without overall cohesiveness or strategy. Whatever Johnson received, he passed on to the external company that posted it without checking it. When Moore became Vice President, she realized outsourcing was not only an unnecessary cost, but it prevented them from designing the strategically customized approach Lunix needed to become a major industry player. By hiring Atwood, she was able to bring Web duties in-house, and have someone with the necessary skills to give direction to Johnson.
When Kondrat gave Moore the approval to hire Atwood full-time, she felt she was finally making some progress towards the achievement of her goals. Besides, with Atwood hired as Lunix’s new Director of Web Strategy, Johnson no longer reported to her (he would now report to Atwood), and so she no longer had to deal with this unqualified “sacred cow”.
Within three months of Atwood joining the organization, Lunix’s Web re-design was well underway. Slowly and systematically, Atwood made real progress towards creating an informative, striking, and very customer-centric Web presence for the organization. However, the journey had not been without obstacles. Mostly, these obstacles could be summed up simply: Johnson’s lack of technical knowledge and interest, as well as his blatant disregard for direction, and Moore’s lack of support when Atwood disciplined Johnson. It became evident to Atwood that Moore’s lack of support any time he disciplined Johnson resulted from something else: she wanted Atwood to fire Johnson without having to involve herself at all in the decision. That’s why whenever Atwood met with Moore to discuss Johnson’s performance, she hinted as to the need for Atwood to fire him.
Despite Johnson’s affable demeanor, it had become quite difficult for Atwood to delegate, or even trust, that Johnson would complete any assignment he gave him. His lack of technical expertise was only made worse by his complete disinterest in learning or being trained in Web design, which forced Atwood to do the work of at least three people. Moreover, Johnson’s well- known status as a “sacred cow” within the organization, gave him access to the Kondrats at will, and no one seemed to be willing (or capable) of curtailing his visits, favors, and extra-curricular assignments for the “first” family (the Kondrats). Many times Atwood finds himself not knowing where to locate Johnson, only to learn later that he was doing something for the elder Kondrat instead of meeting a deadline on a job-related assignment. Although there is no doubt that Johnson has a vested interested in the wellbeing of Lunix, as well as an extensive knowledge about its organizational culture and stakeholders, he certainly acta as an obstacle instead of an asset within the Web Services department.
What can Atwood do?
Atwood’s situation became problematic. His first problem was how to deal with an unqualified and unmotivated employee. This led to his second problem, which was how to separate Johnson from his department when Johnson was considered a « sacred cow » within the organization. This issue was compounded by his third problem, which came from the lack of support Moore gave him, since she did not want to terminate Johnson herself. And of course, his final concern was how to address these three issues in a way that would benefit all parties involved.
Dealing with an unqualified and unmotivated employee was becoming increasingly difficult for Atwood. Just last week, Atwood had to re-do every single Web update that Johnson had worked on. Not only did that set Atwood back on completing his own assignment-heavy schedule, but it also meant that he had to apologize profusely to a couple of Vice Presidents for Johnson’s sketchy work . In both cases, the departments called to complain when they discovered that the information featured on their department’s Web site was garbled or featured old data that should have been discarded.
Furthermore, since Atwood had to do his own job plus the job of, at least, two other people, while still reviewing and re-doing most of Johnson’s work, this routine left him exhausted. There was so much work to do that without any real help from a qualified professional, he found himself not being able to leave the office any earlier than 8:00 pm or 9:00 pm every day, and his own personal life was suffering as a result. Besides, due to his tenure in the company, Johnson’s salary was preventing Atwood from hiring anyone else to help Web Services. Atwood knew that if he freed Johnson’s salary, he would be able to hire at least two qualified Web developers.
And this morning Johnson had missed another deadline, yet when confronted, he comfortably disclosed that it was because he had been coordinating the taking of aerial photographs of company grounds for a project in which he was helping the elder Kondrat. Atwood had not approved Johnson’s participation on this “special project”—he did not even know about it! — yet he felt at a loss of words for how to discipline Johnson. In any other case, this repeated behavior would have been enough to terminate the employee, but how could Atwood separate Johnson from Lunix when he was considered an untouchable « sacred cow » within the organization? After all, how do you tell your employee that they cannot do something for the former President and CEO and father of the current one?
He knew he had to find a way to separate Johnson from his department, but since Moore was not supporting him, and did not want to terminate him herself, Atwood needed to find a solution on his own. This solution not only needed to satisfy his own needs, but also needed to fulfill the organization’s needs. He had to separate Johnson from his department without jeopardizing his own standing within the organization. After all, Atwood was still pretty new at his job and did not want to antagonize anyone, especially since his job required him to collaborate constantly with the entire company.
Besides, he also realized that although Johnson was not an asset to his department, he certainly could be an asset to the organization in another capacity. He seemed to have a vested and demonstrated interest in Lunix. For example, he was credited to be the promoter of at least two of the most cherished company traditions: the Employees-in-Need Relief Fund, which lent emergency money to employees on short notice; and Founders’ Sunday, a family event that took place the Sunday before Thanksgiving, where employees and their families came together to celebrate and recognize one another. The highlight of the event was that every employee would be gifted a turkey for the holiday as a parting favor. It was evident that Johnson was regarded as a organizational « fixture » of sorts.
There was also no doubt that Johnson had excellent interpersonal skills and knew the organizational culture inside-out. Because he knew so many of the stakeholders, he was often the de facto choice to be the Master of Ceremonies (MC) in company events and parties, and his voice-over work in products and television or radio commercials was highly praised any time he collaborated with the Technical Media Development. In fact, his first-hand knowledge of broadcast media could probably make him very useful to the company in the right environment.
As a manager and leader, the decision Atwood faced was not only personnel-related, but it also had the potential to be as transformational for the organization as it was delicate for both him and Johnson. As Lunix engaged in the first steps of its strategic planning process, any change would need to create a win-win situation for all involved, including Web Services, Marketing and Communication, and the organization as a whole.
If not done correctly, Atwood’s efforts to find a solution would probably fail, and he either would end up being stuck with Johnson, have him fired, or worse, get himself fired. Atwood knew that he had to find a way to maximize the return that Lunix had invested in Johnson during his 30-year tenure. At the same time, he also had to reduce any potential resistance from the organization or its key players, and even from Johnson himself. Atwood began to explore possible solutions to this dilemma, and quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to consider the following when evaluating his options and alternatives:
Johnson’s strengths in order to determine where he would fit best, if anywhere, within the organization.Overall organizational needs and interests based on legitimate reasons;Overall organizational structure;Organizational politics and Johnson’s status as a “sacred cow”;Sources and reasons for possible resistance among key players;Organizational ally willing to perform as change agent in helping Atwood bring about the change;Overall approval from Moore and, more importantly, from Kondrat.
Once Atwood thoroughly analyzed and weighted each aspect, he hoped to find a solution to separate Johnson from Web Services, while still benefitting the organization and Johnson.
Feeling a lot more confident, Atwood proceeded to review Johnson’s current job duties as well as Lunix’s organizational structure. He was hoping that by doing this, he would be able to better identify his alternatives and possible options, so he immediately got to work. This is the information that he reviewed.
Johnson’s Current Job Duties
These are Johnson’s Current Job Duties, as per the job description that Moore gave to Atwood after he joined the organization. As mentioned earlier, Johnson devotes more time to his “additional” duties, and to plastering the office with photos of his grandchildren, than on meeting his main duties.
Job duties:-Oversee and train Web content developers to ensure consistency-Work with departmental Web content providers to ensure that content is updated frequently-Create Web content when no department representative exists-Present Web plans to senior management-Maintain hyperlinks-Chair the Web developers team-Respond to questions, requests, complaints from users-Other duties as assigned
Additional duties:-Write and produce radio/TV spots and any Public Service Announcement (PSA) for the company-Write, edit, and narrate company productions and telephone network on-hold messages-Perform voice overs and lipsync for varied animated products
Lunix’s organizational structure is very hierarchical, with a very formal structure. It is also quite paternalistic, like some family companies can be. The organizational chart that Atwood was given looks as follows:
Atwood’s Organizational Analysis
This is Atwood’s overall assessment of each area in the organization. It includes the most evident duties for each area, as well as obvious issues or challenges each needs to overcome or address.
Office of the President: Ralph Kondrat, President and CEODuties:Craft the overall vision for the companyCommunicate the overall direction of the company to his Vice PresidentsIssues: Craft and communicate his strategic vision (which is quite different from that of his father). To do this, he and the Chief of Staff hold strategic planning meetings with the Division of Marketing and Communication to decide how to distribute the messages Garner respect from varied stakeholdersMake his youth work for him instead of against him
Office of the Chief of Staff: Christopher Cass, Chief of StaffDuties:Serve as a representative for the President Aid the President in guiding the company Serve as Board liaisonServe as community liaisonIssues: Help people understand what his job (this is a new position) truly entails. To do this, he and the President hold strategic planning meetings with the Division of Marketing and Communication to decide how to distribute the messagesAvoid being perceived as the “ombudsperson” for the organization, which is a problem that has been brought up at the strategic planning meetings with the Division of Marketing and CommunicationAvoid showing or giving preferential consideration to any one member of the organization
Division of Customer Service: Abraham Alden, Vice PresidentDuties:Set policies and direction for proper customer service protocol Address customer service training needs for all company employees Address customer service grievances and complaintsSurvey and measure customers on customer service satisfaction
Issues: Help employees understand the value of customer service among departments
Division of HR Administration: Bert Benson, Vice PresidentDuties:Set recruitment, selection, retention, promotion, and termination standards for the companySupport and provide company-wide training for employees and managers Support divisions in their personnel-related needsProvide organizational culture guidelinesIssues: Provide office space for new hiresProvide competitive salaries and appropriate promotions to employeesWork with the Office of the President to subtly shift the old organizational culture to the new version set by KondratTrain all supervisors to use them as a resource in any personnel issue before decisions are made, not informing them after the factRequest supervisors to review and submit updated job descriptions with proper job analysis
Division of Marketing and Communication: Megan Moore, Vice PresidentDuties:Set communication marketing strategy for the company in support of the strategic plan Oversee Web Services for LunixMonitor and implement the overall image of the company among constituents, including that of the President and Chief of StaffProduce and distribute magazine, brochure, package, and all graphic design needs for the companyAddress all media and promotional needs Communicate the President’s visionIssues: Establish an effective Web presence that matches the new President and CEO’s commitment to advancement and technologyConsiderably increase the company’s media presence Produce cutting-edge materialsConstantly scout the organization and its talent for media-worthy stories Protect the overall visual image of the company
Division of Technical Media Development: Daniel Donaldson, Vice PresidentDuties:Develop and design educational media products Produce demos and sample productsProduce final prototypes to be sent to Production and Distribution for manufacturing Research educational and technical trendsIssues: Meet the technical requirements of any product in attractive, effective, and professional waysHire media professionals capable of delivering top-notch performance in design, animation, and media talentAnticipate customer needs and desiresCreate a way to coordinate talented, young, artsy-types that may not understand the bigger organizational picture
Division of Legal Affairs: Ellen Egan, Vice President
Duties:Oversee the legal compliance of the companyAddress any legal issues with regards to patents, copyright, grievances, and government Support HR in its legal functionIssues: Avoid being seen as an enforcerAvoid being involved in every minor decisionInform employees of duties and rules in a non-threatening way
Division of Finance: Frances Ford, Vice PresidentDuties:Oversee the financial matters for the company Manage company investmentsApprove and allocate budgets throughout the companyIssues: Creatively allocate budgets with resourcefulness in mind Train budget managers to use their budgets judiciouslyFind a balance between financial disclosure and non-disclosure with respect to the financial realities of the company
Division of Information Technology: Gerald Gomez, Chief Technology OfficerDuties:Oversee administrative technology systems Oversee company’s network systemsProvide all employees with software and hardware necessary to fulfill their jobs Provide support for software and hardware used at the companyPurchase necessary licenses for software packagesIssues: Maintain updated data by proactively working with employeesDevelop and/or improve the relationship with the Division of Technical Media Development, as well as with the Web Services Department so as to provide them with cutting-edge software and hardware, as well as technical supportIncrease the amount of training that employees receive
Division of Production and Distribution: Harriet Heinz, Vice PresidentDuties:Manufacture productsManage relationships with suppliers of raw materials Manage relationships with vendorsIssues: Educate company employees about the production processCreate ways to increase task significance for employees of this division Avoid feeling disconnected from the rest of the company
Discussion Questions: (ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS)
What are the options available to Atwood (identify a minimum of 3 options)? Whose interests do they satisfy .? Why?
After evaluating the possible options, (pick one the best option) explain and justify why you think your suggested solution for change offers a win-win option for all involved. In doing so, explain what the major strengths of your suggested option are; acknowledge possible weaknesses that your suggestion may cause at the personal or organizational level; opportunities you see your suggestion offering to all involved; and possible challenges the organization may face as a result of your decision.
How would you present your suggested change to the key players of the organization in order to get their support and commitment? If your suggested change is not enthusiastically accepted, what alternatives do you have? You may use a change model to illustrate and explain your approach
How would you present your suggested change to the key players of the organization in order to get their support and commitment? If your suggested change is not enthusiastically accepted, what alternatives do you have?
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