An unhappy support staffer takes aim at an owner by releasing confidential information. 

As an office manager, Carrie Hannah was competent. As an employee, she was difficult and inflexible. As a team player, she was … well, she wasn’t.

Carrie had been with Jack Marcus Designs for almost ten years. Carrie started as a part-time salesperson, but was moved to the bookkeeping position in her second year when it became clear that Jack could no longer handle the day-to-day office operation along with the design part of the business. It was also clear early on that Carrie’s detail focus was greater than her sales ability.

Jack appreciated Carrie’s loyalty and her ability to keep the store’s paperwork in order. Over time, he trusted her with more and more of the details of the business as he focused on growth and expansion. She always managed to get the job done, but her general attitude had been an ongoing problem. At the root was a simple premise: Carrie hated — and, Jack thought, feared — change in any form. When a new person was hired, Carrie was the first to be critical and challenging. When Jack chose to install a new POS system, Carrie resisted every step of the way. When they moved into their much larger, very cool new location, all she did was complain about things that didn’t work properly and the additional 10 minutes she had to drive to work every morning. He knew that in most cases, she would eventually come around if he just gave her time to adjust, but he also recognized that as the years went on and Carrie got closer to retirement, age wasn’t making the adjustments any easier — and their “spirited discussions” seemed to be getting louder and more frequent.

Things came to a head several months ago when Jack decided to shift to an incentive-based compensation system that would allow all of the company’s employees to benefit from the continued growth at Jack Marcus. Under the new system, salespeople would be paid a base hourly rate plus a percentage of their individual gross profit production, and support staff (including Carrie) would be paid an hourly rate and would earn incentives based on the total company’s productivity vs. goal each month. Support staff incentive percentages were set so that overall, everyone would earn the same as last year if the store produced the same gross profit dollars. Going forward, increases in income would be tied directly to increases in business. 

Jack knew that Carrie already thought she was worth more than she was being paid (she had been grumbling about it for several months in advance of her annual review), but he underestimated the vehemence of her reaction. She was furious over not getting the substantial base pay increase she had expected and was even more annoyed with the fact that part of her income would now be incentive-based. 

During their conversation, Carrie complained about being undervalued and underappreciated, and she made it clear that she was expecting a lot more. The conversation ended with Jack holding firm but asking her to consider the numbers (as the company was still on a strong growth trajectory) before deciding that the new system wouldn’t work for her. He committed to meeting with her again the next morning to answer any additional questions she might have.

Carrie spent the rest of the day angry and sullen, working at her desk and avoiding any interaction with Jack or anyone else. At 6 p.m., she took care of her usual closing duties and left without a word. When she and Jack met the next morning, she very calmly told him that the new structure would not work for her and said that unless he was prepared to offer her a base increase of 20 percent, she would have to resign. Jack felt he had no choice but to accept her resignation. He told her he would see that her last paycheck was mailed to her home, escorted her back to her desk, let her pack up all of her personal items and walked her to the door. 

That evening, Jack picked up an email from Dennis Healey, his top (and highest paid) salesperson. Dennis forwarded a message that had been sent to all 16 of the company’s employees by Carrie. It said, “As of today, I am no longer a part of the Jack Marcus team. Since you are all having to deal with the impending changes to your pay, I thought I might offer this one last favor before I go. Here’s how you stack up relative to your peers.” She then provided a list of every employee and his or her current hourly pay rate.

Jack was mortified. He had never made any rule about keeping compensation confidential, but he couldn’t believe that anyone thought it was OK to actually discuss pay rates. He didn’t have a fixed standard for hiring, and over the years, he most often just paid what it took to get the people he wanted. That philosophy had worked pretty well for him, as most everyone typically delivered to his expectations — but he couldn’t deny that there was a wide range represented in that list, and he was certain that a number of his people would be more than a little upset.

The Big Questions
  • How should Jack respond?
  • Should he send an email to all of his employees, or should he wait until morning to face them?
  • What is his best course of action with regard to his team going forward?
  • Does Jack have any legal recourse with regard to Carrie’s actions — and if so, is it worth the expense and effort?

 

Real Deal Expanded Responses

Denise B. Waynesboro, PA

Sorry Jack, but you should have seen it coming. You should have nipped this attitude issue in the bud years ago. A certain amount of flexibility is required from any employee, and that needs to be made clear from the get-go. Coddling this woman for years on end just allowed her to think she had every right to dictate her terms as an employee. I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t comment on the “legal” recourse. Having said that, the “emotional” ramifications are huge. Why should two people doing the same job (at the same level of quality) be paid differently? Eventually, they will find out and somebody is going to be resentful. Give them all the chance to earn well and be up front about their worth as an employee. If the company does well, reward the people who made that happen. If the company tanks, so does their job. People understand that.

Valerie W. Kingston, NY

I would call a staff meeting with all the employees. One, to inform them that you are looking for her replacement, and two, that she left angry and you understand she compared salaries and compensation to each of you. You may also explain that salaries are based on time, individual skills and performance.

Also, I would set an individual meeting with each employee to hear their personal response and if they have questions as to how they can increase their pay scale. I always value the team working as a team and removing any sore feelings they may have towards each other and you as their leaders.

Bruce A. Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada

Last question first: Do not initiate legal action. Middle question: Talk directly to his team! This is not an email situation and it deserves his complete and personal response.

Jack should have dealt with Carrie years ago. One team member acting like a petulant child could have been far more destructive to other team players. Jack got off lightly for his resistance to not deal with the issue years ago!

Marcus M. Midland, TX

Oh boy! Carrie was a cancer that Jack knew about years before this happened and he allowed it to grow. And he gave a lot of access to a person that he knew from day one wasn’t a team player? No bueno. If I was Jack, I would wait until the morning and take on any issues and questions then, but I would be prepared for a war. I don’t know exactly what I would do because you don’t really expect things like this to happen. As for legal action, I would definitely look into it. If you have some ground to stand on, then I would pursue it. Carrie sounds like a conniving human being and she did you a horrible injustice. I would make her pay (literally) if there’s some merit behind it.

Ralph H. Richmond, IN

The “boss” needs to be the boss. It appears that Carrie’s attitude has been a problem for a long time. It and she should have been dealt with years ago. Call a store meeting, soon, but not tomorrow. Call your lawyer to cover all bases (follow his suggestions, maybe have him at the meeting). Get an employee manual prepared; everybody signs, including the boss. Deal with discussions of “equality” of pay and that pay level is not discussed. Bring employees into the pay discussion, but decide and live by the choices. Carrie violated informal policies, but likely no liability (an old farmer’s joke about “kicking the cow pie” applies). This is an example of “success” from larger operations bringing larger complications along with larger revenue. If you want the “big store,” be professional about the complications; if not, go back to small! Treat everybody fairly. Do not confuse friendship and employment; they are disparate concepts. As an aside, this applies to customers as well. Don’t be unfriendly, but don’t forget the difference.

Stacey H. Lincolnwood, IL

Jack should have offered her the opportunity to stay at the same pay scale OR choose to opt into the new “package” within the next 2-3 months based on her observations about how it would affect her pay. That said, she quit and violated his trust, and she undermined his position with 15 people he employs, so now he has to fear that the rest of the staff may mutiny. He needs to call a meeting to explain that he will be discussing the situation with a lawyer and let the staff know that if they are unhappy about their pay, he will speak to each person individually about their concerns. He should be prepared to lose the five lowest-paid employees and replace them; they’re sure to leave in the aftermath. The employees who stay should be asked to keep peace by keeping quiet when new hires start. The next bookkeeper should be told that the books are not hers to discuss with anyone else, and that confidentiality is vital.

Dennis P. Johnstown, PA

What a can of worms. I would approach the bookkeeper with the same attitude as I would someone accusing me of “switching” a diamond. Have an attorney review the issue and determine if any financial damages resulting from the malicious breach of information could be attributed to the bookkeeper. If there is cause, I would litigate for any untimely compensation increases that had to be given for the continuity of the store. Definitely put safeguards of written confidentially agreements in place.

Marc F. Houston, TX

The damage is done for Jack. He should first change all employee emails to prevent further damage. Second, call each team member to understand their mindset, then have a company meeting as soon as possible. In the meeting, he and his accountant should show and demonstrate how this plan was designed with their best interest and the income projections for the company as a whole. The team will either be on board or not and there could be a shake-up; that’s what happens when you just go and flow with key employees like Carrie. Now the learning part: what have you done to maintain control of company communications? What fail-safes do you have to block unwanted transmissions from internal/external actors? Do you have an employee contract addressing confidential company information? Sounds like a good New Year’s resolution!

Cammie M. Ocala, FL

Wow, I’m always amazed as a business owner how you can be so good to your employees and how quickly they can turn on you. I’m glad she was let go; bookkeepers tend to be so controlling because we trust them with everything.

I definitely would meet with the entire staff face to face ASAP, and you’re probably going to have to make adjustments to hourly pay because of her. I’m not an attorney, but I would try legal action for sure, even if it cost you! I would be curious how it was handled and to know Jack’s plan of action to replace her.

Ira K. Tallahassee, FL

Jack’s biggest mistake was not letting Carrie loose a long time ago. Too bad we can’t go back in time. That said, he probably can’t do anything legally, but he could check with his attorney. As to the staff, have a group meeting tomorrow explaining that by working as a team, everyone will make more money. Follow that up with a one-on-one with every member of the crew. Let them vent as they will and explain your old hiring policy. The new way WILL WORK to everyone’s benefit.

Glyn J. Victoria, TX

Jack should send an email to each of his employees and hold a general round table discussion with all present. He should explain why this incident took place and get feedback. Jack should tell his employees that if they were dissatisfied with the way the operation was being handled, they are free to turn in their resignations. They should all remember it is his operation and he makes the rules. He can’t make everyone happy, but he should allow feedback without any repercussion.

Jonathan L.Draper, UT

I would send an email to all the employees and let them know my vision for the future and the fact that they should all make more than they were before based on growth. I would have a follow-up meeting as a group and then individually as needed. You may lose a few employees, but those that see your vision will stay. Anytime you change things, people will not see it your way. That is OK because you need to have unity on the team, and real team players catch the vision of the future. You will find people who fit and will thrive. Change is hard, but if you have a good plan, you can win in the end.

Mark R. Ottawa, Canada

Carry on like nothing happened. Call all employees for a meeting with coffee and donuts. Thank all for being associated with you. Ask each employee in the presence of others if they are happy with their present employment and pay rate.

Listen carefully, and if needed, adjust pay/conditions to the rate of performance. Thank all again and carry on like nothing happened. Make sure the TEAM is happy.

 

THE REST OF THE STORY: 

Kate Peterson, author of The Real Deal, reveals how the story ended – as well as her perspective on the best course of action.

As many of our Brain Squad members were quick to point out, this whole situation could have been avoided if Jack had dealt with Carrie’s behavior issues early on.  Like most business owners, though, Jack came to rely on the "good side" of a problem employee, and waiting out her bouts of resistance seemed to be much easier than finding, training and trusting someone new.

Jack’s first move was to talk with his attorney.  He learned that it’s a violation of free speech to restrict employees from talking about their own compensation.  Carrie’s distribution of confidential company information might have been actionable, but since she was not under any sort of contract, attempting legal action would likely have been a costly and ultimately unproductive adventure.

Jack’s approach with his employees was an effective one.  In an attempt to avoid escalating emotions, he sent a brief note to everyone that night apologizing for Carrie’s disruptive actions and asking them to reserve judgment till they could all meet the next morning.  Once he had everyone together, he explained, as Valerie Whitworth suggested, that individual pay rates are based on a variety of factors, but that he has always, in good conscience, tried to be fair to everyone.  He also explained that the new system was specifically designed to allow each one of them to share in the success of the business, giving them all essentially unlimited earning potential.  Further, he offered to meet privately with anyone who wanted to discuss the matter or their individual circumstances in greater detail.

What he learned in the meeting surprised him.  He found that despite a few rough spots, the people who were upset were upset with Carrie for her betrayal – not with him.  As a group, they made it clear that they felt that he – and they – had put up with her childish behavior for too long and that they were glad to see her go.


This article originally appeared in the February 2018 edition of INSTORE.

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