The Phony Ultimatum — Or Else

Before I start spinning this yarn, look in the mirror and make sure you are pure, your motives are sincere, your policies just and fair and that the little old guy with the rain cloud always over his head isn’t sitting next to you. As a company owner or manager, we may have experienced the “ultimatum” from an employee, that “or else” pronouncement: I need more money, or else; I didn’t sign on to drive no truck or haul trash, so get somebody to do it, or else.

These or-elses come from Mr. or Ms. Indispensible, the one we can’t do without (at least in their mind) and usually at a time when they feel we are most vulnerable, inundated with work and/or short-handed.

The message our or-else friends are sending with their ultimatum intended to scare us into giving in to them is really a beneficial warning. Most of the or-else family members are marginal producers. They can be good, even excellent, but they don’t think you are worth the regular effort, so you as their employer are only entitled to occasional sincere effort. In too many cases, Mr. Or-Else is someone about whose performance you are concerned but you are giving them some slack. They are probably aware of your concern but rather than strive for improvement, they choose the ultimatum. The beneficial warning of which I spoke becomes a solid foundation to make a change. Since they have said, “either you do this for me or I will leave,” you have been given the opportunity to rid your company of a bad symptom or an outright disease and to be politically correct in doing so. It’s almost like they are wearing a monogrammed T-shirt that says, “I am a bad apple; get rid of me to save the barrel.”

Normally, these kinds of statements come at a time when they believe you are most vulnerable. Sometimes they may be right, but what do you do as a manager when confronted by such a threat? If you said “yes” to most of the qualifications you asked the person in the mirror, then the answer to the ultimatum should almost always be the same; something like: “You know, I have had a sense lately that you were unhappy with your job or responsibilities and that’s not a good thing; am I right?” You’ll probably get a “yes.” So if they are unhappy enough to leave (unless they get even more money to make their job less painful), consider this solution to their problem: “I don’t want you to be unhappy, so I think the change you suggest makes some sense; I’ll take the ‘or else.’”

How soon should you make this effective? The last thing in the world you want is to have someone really unhappy with their job because it affects the quality, service and profits, and other workers notice it. You may agree to accept, say, a two-week notice, but as soon as you have things under control, end the association immediately. Only harm can come from their continued presence. Make sure that you copy, lock or delete all information from the individual’s computers, PDAs or any other company equipment the same day of the first conversation. In some cases this might be a little over-reaction but in most cases, once the “or else” is called, allegiances are changed.

If the ultimatum is phony (many times it is) and the individual is trying to get a raise instead of a rise, they will be stunned and start to backtrack. If this happens, be very careful if you allow them to stay; they have described vividly to you how deep their loyalty is. Remember, they did this at a time of vulnerability; they were playing hardball. Play this hand to your advantage because you were given the ultimatum.

If you really need them because you are in a spot, here are some other things to consider:

  1. Immediately examine their responsibility very thoroughly and try to isolate them and the work you need them to finish.
  2. Establish a significant incentive you agree to pay them if the work they do after the decision to leave is of a quality standard meeting your requirement; you can also include back charges against the incentive for warranty service charges that are the result of their faulty work.
  3. See if you can subcontract the completion of their work to someone reliable before the end of their notice period, and do so even if it costs you more. The watch word is always that they are aliens from the moment they give you the old “or else” and as such they will only sow bad seeds if left inside the company.

Strangely enough, the prompt calling of the bluff or resolution of the issue usually has a very salutary effect on the other personnel in your company. The boss is sometimes the last to know who is goofing off and if the company B.S.-er is boosted off the gravy train, co-workers will gain additional respect as a result.

If someone is happy with their job but has financial pressures that force them to ask for more money than the position they hold will support and you have nowhere else to use them, the following worked well for my company on more than one occasion where I needed the departing person to help train a new recruit.

I had a very competent office manager-bookkeeper who found herself in the position described above. She simply had to try to find a higher salary than I could justify. She agreed to stay for two weeks and to train the new person. I offered her an additional two weeks’ pay to prepare a written procedure manual (on the basic side) from which she was to train the new person. If the training met my satisfaction at the end of the two-week period, the additional amount of money was to be paid to her. She earned it in spades, and everyone won; plus the procedure manual was the beginning of a detailed company manual we developed. This, of course, is a much different scenario than the threat from someone seeking an easy raise.

Now, before you send me a poison-pen letter, please go back and read the first sentence, as that is very important. Remember the definition of leadership is you first. Before you can apply the methods discussed here, do a company physical to make sure you are being fair to all and Joe Bfstplk (the Lil’ Abner cartoon character with the black cloud) is not one of your advisers. One of the best ways to avoid having any of the or-else family hiding out in your company is openness and input from your employees; informed workers are more happy and remember the applause for them. While you’re here . . .