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Lynne Curry: Asking for help is better than brushing off the problem

Lynne Curry

Q. I was fired for doing my best.

I worked for my company for 18 years. I was promoted to a senior position because my managers trusted me to handle problems. That's what I was fired for, for handling a problem, exactly what I was paid to do.

An insecure, newly hired female employee pulled me aside and claimed one of the guys had come on to her and needed to be talked with. I reminded her his attention was a compliment. I asked her if she liked compliments. She said she did. I asked if she was ready to go back to work. The whole conversation took five minutes.

The next thing I knew she and this guy had had another encounter, and she'd gotten the state human rights commission involved. Our company's human relations staffers flew to our work site and started running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

I was called on the carpet for not calling in HR earlier. They said I hid the problem and should have, at a minimum, informed my manager. In my experience, you don't bring in HR types unless you have or want a real problem or to waste a lot of time. You also don't escalate problems up the ladder.

Because this problem blew up, I became the scapegoat. Was this or was this not an unfair firing?

A. While I don't know that you should have been fired, you weren't fired for doing your best. You were fired for not realizing you needed help with a problem that could blow up.

Yes, you know operations. Do you also know human resources and legal? You thought you handled the problem. You brushed it off. Would it have wasted your time to call in help -- or would you have been able to move a problem to individuals who could assess and resolve it?

Is a guy coming on to a new employee a problem? Often not. It's pretty normal. But you didn't know for sure. You might have found out for sure if you'd followed up with her. Meanwhile, your employee got your message: "I'm done listening, get back to work."

Why did you need to call in HR? Like many competent operations individuals, you didn't hear your employee's comment as anything worth further attention -- but one of them might have followed up with her to check it out and resolve the situation before it escalated.

In the first critical hours after March's deadly Snohomish mudslide, county officials tried to handle the problem on their own, without calling in experienced assistance. Said county emergency-management director John Pennington, "Candidly, you don't want to call out those (state and federal) assets until you absolutely need them."

The Washington National Guard commander said he offered his help to county emergency-management officials but was rebuffed for two days. State Rep. Elizabeth Scott described the local offices attempting to handle the problem on their own as a "real shortage of common sense."

What led county officials to waste precious time trying to handle a difficult situation on their own? The same attitude that leads some mid-level managers to avoid reaching out to senior managers or their company's legal or human resources officers -- the view that asking for help equals not being up to the task.

In Washington, the National Guard's 50-person search and extraction team brought their experience and specialized equipment to the scene Tuesday. So did FEMA's 65-person search and rescue team. Could they have saved lives if county officials had requested assistance Saturday? Although county officials insisted additional rescuers wouldn't have helped over the weekend because the ground was too dangerous to attempt extractions, it seems possible that experienced rescue workers might have figured out a way.

Did you get fired because you're a scapegoat? Or because you thought you could handle a problem on your own and it turned into an iceberg?

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACEBy LYNNE CURRY