Town Halls — I’ve Seen that Movie Too

I can see by your eyes you must be lying
 When you think I don’t have a clue
 Baby you’re crazy
 If you think that you can fool me
 Because I’ve seen that movie too . .
  Between forcing smiles, with the knives in their eyes
 Well their actions become so absurd
I’ve Seen that Movie Too, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
© 1973 Dick James Music Limited
Corporations have turned the concept of Town Halls on its head
    Town hall meetings began in small New England towns where members of the local community were invited to present their ideas, voice their opinions, and ask questions of their local public figures, elected officials, or political candidates.

    Corporate America has turned this idea on its head. 

Now, instead of a venue for citizens (or in this case employees) to present their opinions, management uses these meetings as a tool for expressing their own views in a way that purports to be egalitarian and inclusive. But really, it’s more of a “state of the union” address.  It is not designed or intended for public discourse.
    At the end of each town hall meeting, the presenter (usually the CEO or one of his shills) will ask for questions. 
     Typically, no one speaks up.  To do so would be a “career limiting move.”
     Norman Rockwell must be turning over in his grave.
     Case in point.  At my previous company, I attended a town hall in which the CEO announced the company’s new policy of “adjusting infrastructure ahead of volume declines,” which was a thinly disguised euphemism for lay-offs at the manufacturing facility.
    “Any questions?” asked the 7 foot, 300 pound former basketball player. 

Gulfstream 550: A sweet ride for $50m

    I wanted to ask — “how can you justify layoffs while at the same time the company just bought a $50+ million Gulfstream G550 jet for your own use? (The company already owned two other planes for the other executives to use.)  [Source:]
     How many ‘infrastuctures’ could have kept their jobs if the company hadn’t bought that jet?
    But I didn’t ask that of course.

    Later, I met with one of my clients, Amy, who was new to the company.  I told her what I had wanted to ask.

    She replied that she had started to raise her hand to ask a question, and the woman next to her pulled her arm down.
    Amy said to the woman, “why shouldn’t I ask my question?”
    The answer:  “They don’t actually want you to ask questions; not real ones anyway.” 
No, management doesn’t want any questions. 
     My department, of course, never held a Town Hall.   We did, however, have quarterly meetings, which was the minions’ only chance to see the GC live and up close — at least if you had the guts to sit in the front of the room. Most people sat in the back.
     After all the mind-numbing presentations filled with corporate jargon, double-speak and nonsensical terms, she would ask for questions.

    There would be none.  I would look around the room.  Everyone would have expressions that reminded me of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.  (Myself included.) 
     If someone did speak, they would say something along the lines of:  “No questions.  Nope, we are just happy as clams here.  You’re doing a great job, Madam GC. Keep up the good work.” 

     It’s like that famous line in A Few Good Men” — “You can’t handle the truth!”
     Except that it’s not that exactly.  It’s not that management can’t handle the truth.  Management doesn’t want to know the truth, and they don’t care about the truth either. 

“I don’t care about the truth!”
    Take employee surveys, for example.  They are a joke.  Management does them because they think they have too.  They provide an artificial veneer of caring. 

    In my experience, when the results come out, management highlights the good results and minimizes the bad ones.
    Hey—92% of employees like the free parking!  Great.
    Only 32% of employees think their views are important and that they feel like a valued member of a team.  Oh well, must be a few disgruntled employees.  No action plan needed here. 
    Let’s hear it for free parking!
    The fact is, employees are fungible in this economy.  What they think is immaterial.
    The only thing that matters to a large, publicly held company is “shareholder value.” 
    Or, put another way, “what the street thinks.”   Meeting or exceeding analysts’ expectations is key to upper management. 
    Take the case of Symantec, a technology company that makes Norton anti-virus software. It recently announced its second quarter earnings:

Security software maker Symantec Corp. (SYMC: Quote) said Wednesday after the markets closed that its second quarter profit rose 1% from last year, as better cost and expenses control helped offset a slight decrease in revenue.
The company’s quarterly earnings per share, excluding items, also came in above analysts’ expectations and its quarterly revenue met analysts’ forecast. . . .  RTT News, November 5, 2014 (emphasis added).

     Another recent headline announced:  “Altria beat earnings estimate for the third quarter of fiscal ’14, led by higher pricing of tobacco products; the company also raised its guidance . . .”, October 30, 2104.
    Admittedly, employees who own stock in the company are happy when stock prices go up.  But if you look behind the headlines, it’s easy to see that the employees are the ones paying the price.  As the Symantec news indicated, its second quarter profit rose because “better cost and expense control helped offset [the] decrease in revenue.”
    Better cost and expense control often translates into “infrastructure adjustments” which in turn means—layoffs. 
    Another result of “cost and expense control”– employees are asked to “do more with less.”  As employees leave the company, they are not replaced.  Instead, their work is spread around among the remaining employees.  Do those employees get a raise or promotion?  Of course not.  They are asked to “tighten their belts.” 
    But does management do the same?   Of course not.
    I once participated in an utterly useless cross-functional team that was supposed to come up with ideas as to how to make the company “more green.”  I suggested that all company cars, including the cars driven by the executives, be replaced with Priuses.

Why drive a Prius when you drive this for free?
    The room roared with laughter.

    No, while rank and file employees are asked to “tighten their belts,” upper management still gets their free cars, free gasoline, hotel suites and first class travel.  And a driver who shows up at the airport at midnight to drive the V.P. home.  The rest of us can drive.
    Or, as Bernie Taupin once put it:  “Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown.” 

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, © 1972 Dick James Music Limited.

    So let’s dispense with the Town Hall meetings (or at least call them something else). 
    After all, vaudeville is dead.

Important note:  My current place of employment does follow the true Town Hall model.  More on that later. 


1 thought on “Town Halls — I’ve Seen that Movie Too

  1. My favorite “anonymous employee survey” moment was from a few years ago. In the survey I added a comment about how it appeared the most important regular upper-management communications item was prompt submission of timecards to the exclusion of almost everything else. About 6 months later I was invited to an all-day meeting from someone from corporate HQ for a group of “random” employees. During a break we all wondered why we were chosen and we discovered we all had commented on the employee survey. I went back to the emails and, yes, the surveys were “anonymous” and we were all “randomly selected”. In the afternoon I asked about that and the person from HQ was at least honest enough to not really answer the question. Fortunately, I have a reputation as a technically skilled, no-bullshit person (who does know when to not comment at all) which lets me get away with a lot.


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