Michael Stuban, a 58 year old mid level manger decided to take early retirement from his company, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The company was responsible for the toll-controlled highway that ran for 360 miles across the whole state.
On his leaving day, he was asked to fill in an exit questionnaire and return it to Human Resources. This was common practice. What he filled in was a sharp tongue missive, a brutally frank assessment of his colleagues, his bosses and the general work culture within the Commission.
But instead of returning it directly to Human Resources, he went rogue — hitting the ‘reply all’ button. So a copy of the questionnaire landed on the desks of the other 2000 employees of the Commission. The story went viral and was reported in all the business sections of the major newspapers in America.
Stuban said “they asked for an honest exit interview and I gave them one. I sent it minutes before I officially left the building. I didn’t want to retire. I liked my job. The first 30 years were great, the last 5 were terrible.”
From Stuban’s perspective, there were serious systematic problems within the organisation. The general morale of employees was poor; the executive level of management was out of touch with the average employee; everything seemed to be a dark secret with little communication across the office and there was a culture of ‘phoniness’. “We were given classes where we were told that we had to be non political, but top jobs were all filled by ex-politicians.” The chairman, Sean Logan, was a former state senator.
How the company responded to all the publicity was a lesson on how not to deal with such a situation.
Its statements were defensive in tone and showed little understanding or interest in the problems that Stuban had highlighted. The questionnaire was regarded as the work of a very bitter and disaffected ex-employee.
Sean Logan, the chairman, sent this email to Stuban. “I don’t believe we have ever met, and after reading your exit questionnaire, I am grateful we didn’t. The commission couldn’t have been too bad a place considering you stayed for 35 years. Best of luck in your retirement.”
Later in further statement, Logan said “it was a disingenuous way to communicate such issues. There is a whole other way to do it. This is a billion dollar business and so not everything can be put out there.” He stood by his two senior executives, Mark Compton and Craig Shuey saying that they communicated well with all employees and were constantly “out in the field with them.”
Stuban responded by saying that he had missed the point. “If he was an effective company chairman, and someone told you there are problems and no morale, maybe someone should check it out.”
The company claimed they valued transparency and honesty and encouraged feedback. This information would be used to improve the company, but with most companies this is just warm words. Office politics come into play. Employees have limited access to senior managers and team leaders. Those that do are reluctant to share critical opinions for fear of being sidelined, demoted or dismissed.
The company also made the mistake of emphasising delivery over content. The chairman said “I would have loved to have received that criticism in a more constructive way.“ Perhaps he was right and that even negative criticism should be respectful and constructive. But Instead of being so critical of delivery and taking it as a personal attack, Logan should have set up an investigation to determine how far the contents of the questionnaire really reflected the feeling of other employees. Even if the negative feedback was largely unfounded, it would show that the company was intent on finding out if there was a major cultural problem within the organisation. That is the function of a good chairman. His position allows him to take an overview when necessary.
The key lesson he should have learned was that if you send out a internal questionnaire or meet employees on a one to one basis, encourage people to share their thoughts as if that was their last day in the job.