The Passive Aggressive Business Owner

Right after I joined the company, I realized the owner was doing some strange things. Which made me believe he was, in fact, strange.

Monday through Thursday the dress code for men was suit and tie, and Fridays were “casual day.”

What did this guy do? Monday through Thursday he dressed casually; Fridays he wore a suit and tie. He later told someone he did this simply because he could.

Once he walked into hallway of the office, stopped so everyone could see him and then began loudly sniffing the air. He did this several times, gaining attention, and then announced, to all those watching, “Smell the overhead around here! Smell the overhead!” Then he returned to his office. No explanation was given; this was one of his preferred methods of communicating.

When this owner got mad at someone, he refused to look into the eyes of that employee. I was clued in on this the first time I did something that upset him. It was up to me to guess what I had not done, or done, that got him angry.

He never directly confronted anyone. Instead, he stored up his frustrations and let loose in front of a group. Even in that setting, he never specifically called out those with whom he was angry. People heard about their so-called offenses through the grapevine. The owner preferred to avoid direction confrontation.

Apparently he never forgot or forgave any of these alleged transgressions, and he spent time getting “even” in some very small and petty ways. This gave him the feeling of superiority.

After witnessing these odd behaviors, I nicknamed him “Psycho.” I refer to my tenure at his company as “my time at the asylum.” I’ve since heard from people who work there who want me to explain his behaviors and I respond by simply saying, “I think he is nuts.”

Now, when I meet with owners for an initial meeting, I identify possible passive aggressive behavior by assessing how the owner interacts with his or her employees.

Once I get the CNN sound bite about the company, I inquire about human resources. It’s a fair issue; salaries and burden are usually the single largest business expense category. In a business, employees can be the largest asset or its greatest bane. Which category it falls into is usually a direct result of the owner’s behavior.

First, I ask about the management structure. If there is no published org chart, I assume that, essentially, everyone reports to the owner, which negates the role of all the managers on the payroll.

Second, I inquire about the performance review system. If no such system exists, I determine that the owner decides who gets paid what, who gets bonuses and how much, who gets additional time off, who can leave early and so forth, all based on whether or not he or she likes an employee. Yes, affection, not effectiveness, seems to matter more to some owners.

Third, I verify the actual management authority levels. I ask who has authorization to spend company money, to what limit and for what purpose. I sit quietly until the owner shares that there is only one person in the company permitted to spend “my money.”

No team exists with this kind of employer; it is a group of individuals sharing a single purpose: to get a paycheck. Nothing else matters and employees will do whatever it takes to maintain this income stream, to the extent that employees will fight each other to keep the money and to be in the good graces of the owner.

As you read this, you may think that this column does not apply to you, and it might not. I am willing to bet that “Psycho” believes he is still the best owner on the planet because no one has ever had the courage to tell him differently.

The owner who trusts no one will discover that their employees do not trust them. The owner who shows no loyalty will reap that in return. The owner who pits employees against each other for favors can expect disengagement, low productivity and anger. Do you want this to be your legacy?