Trust, But Verify

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.


A business owner from the great state of Texas called me the other day to talk about a problematic Tree Care Supervisor who has been with the company for about four years.  The successful business owner has been blessed with steady customers, sound profit margins, and a loyal workforce that has stayed with him for more than 10 years; all credit is forthrightly ascribed to the organizational culture the business owner has cultivated through some extremely difficult times.

For the most part, all is well with his company; except for the Tree Care Supervisor who, unbeknownst to the business owner, often talked down to his tree crew using a confrontational, condescending, and coercive tone, replete with threats of reprimand, demotion, and termination.  Like all of us, the seasoned, dedicated Tree Crew Members have their limit.  

One day after belabored badgering from the Tree Care Supervisor, one of the Tree Crew Members, who had worked with the business owner for more than 15 years, had enough abuse and simply walked off the job.  Imbued with indelible professionalism, the Tree Crew Member called the business owner to inform him of his resignation.  Shocked by this news, the business owner told the Tree Crew Member that he would not honor the employee’s resignation, and pledged to get to the bottom of the issue.

The owner conducted a meeting with the Tree Care Supervisor, who had a history of documented emotional immaturity and egotism, and found those characteristics had now metastasized to the point of widespread bullying.  Disrupted by this turn of events, the business owner called a team meeting with the Tree Care Supervisor and all the Tree Crew Members to clear the air, make amends, and move forward.

Hoping for a Kumbaya moment manifested by group hugs and Ultra Bright smiles, the owner was surprised by the lack of respect the Tree Care Supervisor showed to the employees and the business owner, culminating to the point that the Tree Care Supervisor said he disagreed with the meeting and abruptly left.

Once he left, the Tree Crew Members proceeded to detail numerous examples of unkind behavior they had been subjected to for several years.  Incredulous, the business asked the employees why they did not come forward sooner.  Their response was they did not want to upset him, and tried to honor their supervisor who was hand-picked by the business owner to lead the team; they trusted the owner’s decision-making.  Shocked, humbled, and dismayed, the business owner immediately called me for guidance.

As a capitalist, I told the owner there are three sets of goals we must attain:  empirical, process, and cultural. Based upon his lack of interpersonal respect, offensive comments, and serial harassment, the Tree Care Supervisor did not meet his goal of sustaining the team-oriented culture the business owner had instituted, and as such must be dismissed, lest the entire trusted tree team resign en masse.  The business owner obliged, contacted the Tree Care Supervisor, and terminated him via a text message thread.

Still shaken and surprised by his complete lack of awareness, the business owner admitted “I had no idea this was going on, Steve.”  I believe him. On its face, the work metrics were satisfactory, there were no complaints, and everything seemed to be okay. Due to perceived stability, underscored by his own sense of comfort and complacency, he had lost direct contact with his faithful field team.

Looking forward, I told him to “Trust, but Verify.”  The proficiency, dedication, and respect that his Tree Crew Members had for him unintentionally camouflaged a dormant toxicity that was damaging the company from the inside out.  To stay connected to the team, I suggested that he meet with the entire team bi-weekly and complete a Start-Stop-Keep exercise on each other to highlight any perceptible or latent concerns, issues, or ideas that should be discussed openly to improve the company culture, performance, and value.

Have you conducted any open, honest, and direct verification with your field employees this month?

What about last month?

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.