Bruce Lawson's personal site

Signs of a sick organisation

It’s three years since Wrox Press went bankrupt and I got caught with redundancy for the first time, having survived four previous rounds of downsizing in various organisations. It got me thinking about the common signs of sickness I’ve seen in each company before it slides into corporate intensive care.

Managers don’t decide, they just administrate

There can be two reasons for this. The first is relatively benign, as long as it’s a temporary phase in the transition from small start-up to smallish established company. I encountered this with Wrox, which was begun by a charismatic entrepreneur. It takes a long time for such people to take a more hands-off role to concentrate on high-level strategy and let the managers take the day-to-day decisions instead of just implementing the entrepreneur’s wishes.

But in a mature organisation, inert management is a killer. I’ve worked in places where the colour of a button on a Web form was decided by the Big Chief because everyone was afraid of taking the decision in case they got it wrong or were called on it in the future.

This is ultimately fatal to a company. Some decisions are relatively trivial (do we use this photo of our new Widget on the cover of the Annual Report, or that one?) but if managers won’t decide, it goes up and up the chain, until the person with the bollocks actually to take the decision is so far from the debates that they can’t hope to get it right. Meanwhile, lower ranks feel disenfranchised and nobody wins.

Empires of nothingness grow and grow

Inert managers need to justify their existence and keep their budgets up, as the best way to self-esteem and the Chief’s ear is to hold a large budget.

So a department for the polishing of paperclips is established. That’s fine; every organisation needs shiny paperclips. An extra person is recruited, and suddenly, the manager has to hire an underling to be Manager of Paperclip Polishing. Policies and procedures are needed, debated in endless meetings, posted on the Intranet to an oblivious workforce.

Sally from Events needs urgently to source some paperclips at short notice for the Shareholder’s meeting. An anguished email from Bob, the Head of Paperclips, lands on her computer: she can’t possibly source them from anywhere without requisitioning them Bob, using form 78/c in triplicate (counter-signed by The Big Chief) and it takes three days.

Bob can’t possibly acknowledge that it doesn’t fucking matter, because that would be admitting his job is null. Sally is irate because the shareholder’s meeting notes aren’t nicely clipped together. Bob’s team are annoyed because Sally is trying to circumvent Paperclip Policy.

Meanwhile, Bob’s manager is delighted; she decides to hire a Paperclip Evangelist to sell Paperclip Procedures to the rest of the company, so her budget and thus her sense of self-worth increases.

“Human Resources” expands

HR departments are a classic example of the tail wagging the dog. My personal opinion of most HR directors is that I wouldn’t piss down their throats if their hearts were on fire (except for my mates Bruce and Steph, and I knew them before they went to the Dark Side).

However, I acknowledge that organisations sometimes need a Personnel Officer. (Enough with the self-aggrandising “HR” bullshit). Organisations get difficult staff, tricky situations, and you need Personnel Officers to sort them out. They’re a bit like adult diapers – if you need something to catch a little bit of mess, they should be hidden: nobody should ever know you’ve got them.

But in sick organisations, Personnel Officers are as rampant as threadworms in a stray dog’s guts. They write policies, go to meetings, even sometimes sit on the Board.

If Personnel are expanding while core businesses are in a recruitment freeze, then your organisation isn’t just sick – it’s got cancer. Excise it before it spreads.

Consultants spread faster than Athlete’s Foot

Bad managers know that the easiest way to look decisive while doing fuck all is to get a Consultant in. These modern-day witch doctors come in with shiny suits and shiny teeth, charge the ailing organisation £1000 a day to write some report that says what everyone knew anyway. (Another sign of a sick organisation is that management never trust their own staff to have a brain, so always need to obvious spelled out by a consultant).

The report is then endlessly debated, given to Personnel to implement, they fuck it up and the departed consultant is blamed.

Too much uncertainty and not enough truthful communication

At some point in a sick organisation there will be a cull, a.k.a. “redundancies”. If there’s “downsizing” to be done, bosses get hard-ons/ wide-ons as it’s a chance for them to be decisive, show leadership, etc etc. But the troops hate it.

While Personnel expands and senior managers bang on about “challenges” and “change”, the best quality staff get demoralised and demotivated. They figure that, if their less able colleagues are going to be fired, they will have to do more work, and there’s no guarantee that the company will get better.

And so the talent starts looking for other jobs, and generally finds them, leaving the dead wood sitting pretty as firing them will leave nobody at all to polish Personnel’s paperclips. Thus, nobody wins.

If there’s going to be redundancies, do them swiftly, humanely, don’t require redundant staff to work their notice and thereby make everyone feel embarrassed and lethargic. And tell the fucking truth: “We, your managers, have ballsed-up. Obviously, we’re not going to fall on our own swords, but will instead fire some of you”, not “The year ahead will present many challenges. It will be a time of change which we will embrace blah blah fucking blah”.

Anyone else ever worked for a sick organisation and can point out some more signs?

Update July 2006. Just found this brilliant essay by a Venture Capitalist called “The Art of The Layoff“.

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19 Responses to “ Signs of a sick organisation ”

Comment by Tim

Joseph Heller said that anyone who hadn’t been in the army thought that catch 22 was fiction.
Are you sure you haven’t worked in the NHS?
A tabloid headlne today indentified an NHS Trust that was making nurses redundant – but advertising for “risk managers” (paperclip managers?) at £41k p.a.
I rest my case yer honour…

Comment by Carolyn Wood

I was going to start my response with “The most infuriating thing about working for one of these companies is…” and then I sat here, mind reeling with all the possible ways I could end that sentence. Then I went and made a cup of coffee, still conducting the contest in my brain. I finally realized that I can’t come up with a winner when there infinite choices. But I’ll choose one randomly, so you don’t sit there wondering why on earth I bothered to comment.

The company I worked for added an HR department. The first thing it did was begin to fire people. This was a small company where everyone knew everyone. The way they fired a person was they called them into the HR office. They told the person they were fired. They then accompanied the person to his or her desk and stood there while the person had a couple of minutes to grab personal belongings.

There was no opportunity to sort through files or erase emails or files from the computer. Then they accompanied the person to the front door of the building and sent them on their way. All the other employees witnessed having one of their fellow employees treated like a criminal. This method was used for everyone, and none of the people had been fired for doing anything wrong. They were “let go” due to “redundancy” when two small companies merged.

On the other hand, the insanity of these companies can be entertaining at times:

A few years before that merger took place, the president of the company fired an especially belligerent, uncooperative employee who had annoyed customers and fellow employees for years. But the president was a weak and indecisive person. So it took an exceptionally grievous offense and all of his courage for him to fire her. (Hmm, maybe I should have made this an anonymous comment.) What did the employee do? She did something brilliant. She simply showed up for work the next day as if nothing had happened. She correctly assumed that he would never gather the courage again to fire her. Years later, she was still working there.

Comment by Isofarro

In a company, an email was sent out to all the occupants of one area of the building to tell them their area was suffering from a powercut.

You can’t make these things up.

Comment by Rob Kirton


When the company decides that it does not want to seem too sclerotic and moribund (no doubt as advised by the consultants), it decides to re-organise, and repeat this exercise every 18 months or so to prove their new found dynamism.

Before they know it, paperclips have been successivley merged with facilities management, risk management, corporate finance and put to work on “special projects”. The new division that is formed will prove to be such a behemoth, that it needs to be spun off as a separate entity and ultimately outsourced to a multinational who sets up a call centre in India to handle customer requests.

Paper clips procured in UK, made in China, served by business partners in India, and still turning up too late for Sally events.

Bit of a puzzle really because policy is being adhered to. maybe they need to rationalise by laying off a few more staff. Better call in the consultants…

Comment by mearso


I’ve mailed this link to all my colleagues, and the spark of recognition was seen by all.

Managers don’t decide they just administrate really struck a chord with me.

Comment by Phyllis Balls

HR bollocks…

I resigned from a job due to bullying and a schoolground environment.

Human remains said I was free to apply for jobs across the organisation – a well-known newspaper group – and sent me job alerts every two weeks (well, I often had to chase these up).

I applied for jobs, but heard nothing. I sent an email from a work email and, yes, heard back… It materialised that HR was intercepting emails from my home address.

The HR queen claimed she’d only been sending the job alerts as a goodwill gesture, clearly unaware of what a goodwill gesture is.

She should work for Farepak: her goodwill gesture would be supermarket vouchers which no supermarkets acccepted.

And she was negative by the very fact she had nothing positive in mind when sending me these job alerts.

I decided to take civil action. But as the county court claimed it had not received my application, I gave up. What’s the chance of justice if the courts can’t even handle their post…

Recently I applied for an intellectual property (IP law) position at Google. I asked whether I could work on a job share basis, because of my disability. Of course I did not receieve a personal reply, just a generic computerised “you have not been successful”.

If you look on Google’s own website, you’ll discover it is advertising for a disproportionate amount of HR staff. No mention is made of people with disabilities and whether it operates the two ticks scheme. Well, that’s HR. Two bollocks scheme, perhaps.

Comment by Russell Lutchman

Hi Bruce
I really enjoyed this publication on signs of a sick organisation.

The sad reality is that only 20% of managers in the UK are qualified ( How would people think about that statistic if it was about their GP’s or hospital consultant? I don’t suppose they would be too happy. If that situation was true people might refer to doctors in derogatory terms.

Your observations are correct about an anomalous dysfunctional situation in the UK, where so-called managers are by and large plonkers who end up doing administration and ballsing it up. So that leaves people with a nasty impression about what management is about.

What’s going on in Health Services for example is that you have people being being called managers who couldn’t distinguish an arse from an elbow – yet they want to direct highly skilled and trained staff what to do. Now isn’t that a recipe for balls up and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

When you meet the odd real and qualified manager it is quite a different experience. I’m not defending anyone here. I just wanted to add a certain context to your accurate observations.



Comment by Carla Pendergraft

If you work for a sick organization, and you have lots of smarts and great ideas, why not show how much guts you have by starting your own company? This, however, would require that you stop complaining.

I have to say, your use of foul language made it hard for me to appreciate fully what you had to say here. I guess it seems normal to you to use these words? It’s a real turn-off.

Comment by Sick Boy Fat

It is interesting to note that employees(u) are disheartened, managers rather send email then meet, meetings are actionless in order to avoid confrontation, a sort of psychological ritualistic leading to gradual ineffectiveness of habitual actions. Who is to be held accountable? Does this happen only in entrepreneurial type of organizations?

Wake up, lets go for a team building game, improve our sales efforts,search for a new job or are you happy wasting your time at this sick company because you are a parasite. That is it my colleagues- we are parasites we milk the company and when it falls sick we sometimes ride it until it dies and then claim we got laid off.

I think someone said it better if you were so good why did you not set up your own company!!!

Comment by Justus

In sick organizations the managersm do everything alone. Alot of mistrust, too much spying and alot of absenteesm in government organizations.

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