Eric and Kipsy:

Complexities of management and organizational behavior CONSIDER THE PLIGHT OF ERIC Eric is a new manager of product information for a national firm which wholesales electrical components. He’s proud because he was assigned a ‘tough’ office right out of management training. He’s challenged because he can see as clearly as everyone else in the office that the work is not getting done on time – and that mistakes are far above the 2 per cent target.

And he’s scared because he finds himself utterly incapable of figuring out what he ought to do to make things better.

Eric’s first day

The office is a new, one-storey building in a wooded suburban location – complete with carpeting on the floor and Muzak in the walls. There are 35 female employees, ranging from recent high school graduates in their first job to experienced middle-aged housewives. Their job is to provide salesmen in the field with current information about price, availability and delivery times of an exceptionally large inventory of electrical equipment and supplies.

Eric spent his first day on the job – some three months ago now – just watching and listening. While in management training, he had thought a lot about how he would handle that first day. He knew that everyone in the office would be as eager to find out what he was like as he was to learn about them and their jobs. And he wanted to make a good impression.

But Eric finally decided not to give a false impression. The fact was that he knew virtually nothing about the people he would be managing, or the kind of work they did. So why, he asked himself, act otherwise? Besides, if the people saw that he was genuinely interested in listening to them and learning from them, perhaps that would help establish good mutual rapport between him and his people. So he would just watch, and listen, and try to learn in his first few days on the job.

The first day was fun. Soon after arriving and being introduced to the four first-level supervisors, he asked to be ‘plugged in’ to one of the complicated-looking operating consoles at which the women received calls from the field. A green light would blink on the console, and the information clerk would be connected to the salesman in the field – all taken care of by an outof- sight computer, which assigned calls sequentially the waiting clerks. The salesman would ask for information about the availability of a certain piece of equipment. The clerk would then look up the stock number of that item in a large catalogue at her side and punch the number into a keyboard on the console. Immediately, the computer would present full information about stocks and delivery times of that item on an electronic display panel on the console, and the clerk would relay the appropriate information to the salesman. When the call ended, the green light would extinguish itself, and the clerk would then wait for the light to flash again, signalling the arrival of a new call.

Eric was fascinated by both the efficiency of the operation and the pleasantness of the surroundings. His biggest worry at that point was that everything was so efficiently designed that he, as manager, would not have anything to do with his time.

Beware first impressions

He soon learned how wrong he was. When, on his second day at the office, he began to attack a pile of paperwork on his desk, he found messages from nearly a dozen field salesmen, all wanting him to return their calls. Each of these salesmen, it turned out, had a significant complaint about the product information service – and some were obviously quite angry. Eric managed to maintain a calm, responsive stance in relation to the complaining salesmen, but he also felt his stomach tightening as he heard what they had to say. By the day’s end, he had made a list of three general problems which seemed both frequent enough and serious enough to warrant his immediate attention and action:

1 Salesmen often were unable to get through quickly to information clerks. Since salesmen’s calls usually were made from customer offices, this meant that they were left holding the telephone of a client for up to 10 or 15 minutes waiting for a clerk

– while both the salesman and the customer became increasingly impatient.

2 Errors were excessive. Salesman after salesman reported that, on the basis of information provided by the clerks, they would promise delivery of materials on a specific date at a specific price

– only to hear later from an irate customer that the materials had not been delivered, that the price was different from that quoted, or (all too often) both. 3 The clerks were often abrupt and unfriendly to the salesmen when they called. According to more than one salesman, the clerks acted as if they were being imposed upon, rather than providing the salesmen with help in carrying out the company’s business.

The source of the problems

In the following week, as Eric attempted to track down the reasons for these difficulties, other problems came to light. First, absenteeism and turnover were extremely high. It appeared that the excessive delays were partly due to the fact that 15 to 20 per cent of the clerks were unlikely to show up for work on any given day

– especially Monday and Friday

– and that up to an hour’s tardiness was not uncommon. This created call ‘backups’ on the computer.

The computer, of course, calmly held the calls for as long as necessary, oblivious as only a machine can be to the rise in tempers in the customer’s office.

When absenteeism was particularly high on any given day, part-time employees were called to fill in. Many of these individuals were not entirely familiar with the job and often did not remember some of the procedures to be used in looking up equipment numbers in the catalogue

– resulting in wrong catalogue numbers and erroneous information being given to the customers. Worse, even experienced clerks had a high error rate. Eric’s hope that the error problem was in the computerized information displayed on the clerks’ consoles rather than a fault of the clerks themselves was clearly misplaced. Reports of errors arrived weeks after the information was provided (when orders failed to arrive on the customer’s premises, or arrived with unexpected prices), and so it was usually impossible to determine who had made the mistake or why.

Finally, quite contrary to the impression he had received on his first day, Eric learned that loafing on the job not only was common practice among the clerks, but had indeed been developed into a rather elegant art form. It turned out that the clerks had devised ingenious ways to ‘busy out’ their consoles (i.e., to manipulate the console in order to provide the computer with a ‘busy’ indication when in fact the console was free). All a clerk needed to do, when she wanted a break from work, was to busy out her console and, if a supervisor happened to be nearby, act as if she were listening intently to a salesman on her headset.

Worse, there appeared to be a highly efficient system of informal communication among the clerks, which alerted everyone when a supervisor was about to appear on the scene (or was monitoring calls surreptitiously from the private listening room). This informal network was also popular for creative co-ordination of ‘personals’ (i.e., short breaks for visits to the toilet) and for making sure that none of the clerks was violating the generally accepted norms about how much work should be carried out on a given day.

Eric’s challenge

Given his own observations and impressions, Eric was not surprised when, a few weeks after he had taken over management of the office, he was visited by the regional vice-president of the company. The vice-president informed him that sales were falling company-wide, and that at least part of the problem had to do with the quality of the information with which salesmen were being provided. Eric’s operation was one of the most critical points of co-ordination in the entire company, he said, and it was important to everyone in the company that Eric reduce both the error rate and the number of delays salesmen currently were experiencing. The vice-president said he had enormous confidence in Eric’s managerial ability, that he was sure the problems would be remedied quickly, and that he viewed Eric’s future in the company with great optimism. Eric panicked.

Eric’s action plan

Within two days he had instituted a crash programmer to increase efficiency, reduce call-in delays, and slash the error rate. He held a half-day meeting with his four first-level supervisors, impressing upon them the urgency of the situation and the need for them to work with their people, individually if necessary, to improve service. He held an evening meeting with all staff members (with everyone receiving both refreshments and overtime pay), at which he announced a set of office-wide performance goals, and encouraged each employee to do her best to help achieve the new goals. He even had one of the supervisors construct four large signs reading ‘Increase Efficiency’ (each with a line drawing of a smiling face under the words), which were placed on the four walls of the operating area. Beginning the day after the kick-off meeting, all supervisory personnel (himself included) were to spend at least three hours a day on the floor, helping the employees improve their efficiency, making spot checks for errors, and generally doing anything possible to smooth the flow of work.

The first two days under the new programmer seemed to go reasonably well: the average waiting time for incoming calls dropped slightly, spot checks of errors showed performance to be close to an acceptable level, and everyone seemed to be

working hard and intently. No longer, for example, did the employees take time to look up from their work and smile or exchange a few words when Eric entered the room. That bothered him a bit because he always had enjoyed chatting with the clerks, but he accepted the loss of the smiles as a small price to pay for the increases in efficiency he hoped for.

On the third day, disaster struck. Eric did not notice until mid-morning that someone had carefully written ‘IN’ before ‘Efficiency’ on each of the four posters – and the smiles on the line drawings’ faces had been extended into full-fledged, if subtly sarcastic, grins. Worse, everyone seemed to be studiously ignoring both the posters and him. Even the first-level supervisors said nothing to him about the posters, although Eric noticed that the supervisors, like the clerks, collected in pairs and threes for animated conversation when they were not aware of his presence. When he walked out into the operating area to start his three-hour stint, all eyes looked away and stayed there. He had never felt so completely alone. That evening Eric stayed after everyone else had left; he removed the posters and pondered what to do next. With possibly one or two exceptions, he was sure that the people who worked for him were decent human beings. He knew that he himself was only trying to do his job, to get performance back up to standard. As he had told the employees at the kick-off meeting, this was in the best interest of everybody: the customers, the salesmen, the clerks, himself. So why the hostility towards him and his programmer?

The root causes? Gradually he began to suspect that the problems he had confronted

– high errors and delays, excessive absenteeism and turnover

– were merely outcroppings of some more basic difficulty. Perhaps, he thought, he had attacked the symptom rather than the disease.

But what was the disease? He considered each of the possibilities. He knew that there was a lot of complaining about the pay and the inflexibility of the hours. But the pay was actually very good, higher than for almost any other non-skilled job available to females in the suburban area – and every year there was a pay increase for everyone, which almost always was greater than the increase in the cost of living.

The hours were a problem, he knew, but even those employees who complained the most knew that he had tried mightily to convince the regional office to let him introduce a flexible scheduling plan that would allow the employees to better coordinate their personal and work lives. He had been told that company policy dictated an 8.30 to 5.00 workday and that hours (just like all other personnel policies) were centrally controlled in the interest of company-wide efficiency and regularity. Eric didn’t like the decision (he felt he needed to be given much more personal authority to be able to run his own operation effectively). He did, however, understand that there was some need for central coordination of policy, and he thought that the employees should also be able to see the necessity for it. The hours, he decided, could not conceivably be the root of all the difficulties.

He considered briefly the possibility that the employees were simply not capable of doing the work at satisfactory levels of speed and accuracy. However, he knew that could not be the case: all had passed a company-administered ability test before they were hired and all had gone through a rigorous training programmer which covered every contingency a person conceivably could face as an information clerk. Besides, the job was not all that difficult; he personally suspected that even the requirement of a high school diploma was superfluous, that anybody who could read and write could handle the job without significant difficulty. No, lack of ability was not the core of the problem.

Indeed, as Eric reflected further, it seemed that the reverse could be true: that perhaps the job was so simple and routine that the clerks were bored – and therefore chose to be absent a lot and to loaf whenever they could on the job. But surely the high pay and the pleasantness of the work setting should more than compensate for any such feelings of boredom? Furthermore, holding errors below 2 per cent could provide a real challenge, and loafing on the job would itself probably be more boring than working. Supervision?

It seemed most unlikely that this was the root of the difficulty. Each of the four supervisors had been information clerks themselves (although in the old days, when there was no computer and you had to look everything up in a set of reference manuals), and they knew the job inside out. Moreover, he knew from talking with the supervisors that they were genuinely committed to spending as much time as needed to help each clerk do as good a job as possible. Eric had observed each of them working on the floor many times, and there was no question in his mind about how much time and energy they spent in assisting and developing individual clerks.


Then what? Maybe, he finally concluded, the key was Kipsy. Kipsy had been a thorn in his side (the supervisors agreed) ever since Eric started the job. Although she herself had been working as a clerk for less than a year, she already had emerged as one of the informal leaders of the workforce. Eric found himself agreeing with one of his supervisors who had suggested over coffee one morning that Kipsy alone created as many problems as a dozen other clerks taken together. He was 99 per cent confident, for example, that it was she who had mutilated his signs. He had been recently hearing rumblings that Kipsy was informally talking up the possibility of the clerks unionising, probably even affiliating with some national outfit that had no understanding of the local situation.

He had tried to talk with her once. She had showed up unannounced at his office one day, with a long list of complaints about him and the work. His approach had been to listen and hear her out, to see what was troubling her, and then to do something about it – for her own sake, as well as for her supervisor and the company. Thinking back now, however, the main thing he remembered about the conversation (if you could call it a conversation) was her incredible anger. He was perplexed that he could not remember specifically what it was that she had been so mad about. Eric did recall telling her, as the conversation ended, that if she worked hard and effectively on her job for a year or two she would become eligible for enrolment in a company-run training course for a higher paying job. But again, he could not recall whether or not that had interested her.

In any case, it was clear that Kipsy was the link pin in the informal network among the clerks – and if they were turning against him and the company, you could be pretty sure that she was right in the middle of it. The question, though, was what to do about it. Fire her? In a very important sense, that would be admitting defeat – and publicly. Talk to her again? That probably would result in nothing more than his getting another load of hostility dumped in his lap, and that he didn’t need.

Eric was in trouble, and he knew it. He realised it first when he could not think of a good way to repair the damage that his new motivational programme apparently had created. But he knew it for sure when he found that he was no longer thinking about work except when he was actually at his desk in the office and had to do so. When he started this job he had expected to become totally immersed in it; indeed, he had wanted to be. But now he was psychologically fleeing from his job as much as the clerks seemed to be fleeing from theirs.


Kipsy has been an information clerk in Eric’s office for almost a year. In that year she has become increasingly frustrated and unhappy in her work – and she doesn’t know quite what to do about it. Things certainly have not worked out as she had expected them to.

Early optimism …

She had applied for the job because a friend told her that the company was a great place to work, that the pay was excellent, and that the people she would be working with were friendly and stimulating. Moreover, it was well known that the company was growing and expanding at a fast clip. That, Kipsy concluded, meant that there was a good chance for advancement for anyone who showed some initiative and performed well on the job.

Advancement was important. Throughout her high school years, Kipsy had always been seen as a leader by her classmates, and she had enjoyed that role much more than she had let on at the time. Her grades had been good – mostly As and Bs – and she knew if she had pushed a bit harder she could have obtained almost all As. However, she had decided that participation in school activities, doing afterschool volunteer work, and (importantly) having friends and learning from them were just as important as grades; so she had deliberately let the grades slip a little.

The man who interviewed Kipsy for the job was extremely nice – and what he said about the job confirmed her high hopes for it. He even took her into the room filled with the complicated-looking consoles and let her watch some of the people at work. It seemed like it would be great fun – though perhaps a little scary – working with all that computerised equipment. She didn’t know anything at all about computers.

When they returned to the hiring area from their visit to the console room, Kipsy’s employment tests had been scored. The interviewer told her that she had scored in the top 10 per cent of all applicants for the job, that all signs pointed to a great future for her in the company, and that she could start training the next day if she wanted. Kipsy accepted the job on the spot.

Training for the job was just as exciting as she had expected it to be. The console seemed awfully complicated, and there was no end to the special requests and problems she had to learn how to deal with. The other people working on the job were also very nice, and Kipsy soon had made many new friends.

… replaced by frustration and disappointment After a few weeks, however, the fun wore off. The kinds of difficult problems she had been trained to solve on the console seemed never to occur. Instead, the calls began to fall into what Kipsy experienced as an endless routine: the green light flashes, the salesman gives the name of a piece of equipment, you look it up in the book and punch the number on the keyboard, you recite the information displayed by the computer back to the salesman, and the green light goes off. Then you wait – maybe only a second, maybe five minutes – for the light to go on again. You never know how long you are going to wait, so you can never think or read or even carry on an uninterrupted conversation with the girl next to you. It was, Kipsy decided, pretty awful.

Worse, many of her new friends were quitting. The rumour was that nearly 80 per cent of the people on the job quit every year, and Kipsy was beginning to understand why. Neither she nor any of her friends knew of anybody who had been promoted to management or to a better job from the ranks of the console operators, at least not in the last couple of years. Kipsy was also smart enough to realise that in time the whole operation would be automated – with salesmen punching in their requests for information directly from the field – at which time, she surmised, she and everyone else who had stuck out the job in hopes of something better would be laid off.

The only good thing about the job, she concluded, was that she was becoming the informal leader of the work group – and that had its moments. Like the time one of the girls had her planned vacation postponed at short notice, supposedly because absenteeism was so high that everyone had to be available for work merely to keep up with the flow of incoming calls. The girl (and two of her friends) had come to Kipsy and asked what she could do about it. Kipsy had marched straightaway into the manager’s office with the girl, asked for an explanation, and got him to agree to let her take the vacation as planned. That felt awfully good.

But such moments were too infrequent to keep her interested and involved – so she found herself making up interesting things to do, just to keep from going crazy. She developed a humorous list, Rules for Handling Salesmen, which she surreptitiously passed around the office, partly in fun but also partly to help the new girls (there always were a lot of new girls) learn the tricks necessary to keep from getting put down by the always impatient, sometimes crude salesmen. She also found that girls having difficulties on the job (again, usually the new workers) often came to her rather than to the supervisors for help – which she gladly gave, despite the obvious disapproval of the supervisors. She even found herself assuming the role of monitor for the group, prodding girls who were not doing their share of the work, and showing new girls who were working too hard the various tricks that could be done to keep the pace of work at a reasonable level (such as ‘busying out’ the machine, when you just couldn’t take any more and needed a break).

That was all fun, but as she reflected on it, it just didn’t compensate for the basic monotony of the work or for the picky, almost schoolmarmish attitude of the supervisors. So she was buoyed up when she heard that a new manager was coming, fresh out of school. The rumour mill had it that he was one of the top young managers in the company, and she decided he surely would shake things up a bit as soon as he found out how miserable it was for people who worked in the office.

The new boss

Eric’s first few days on the job confirmed her high hopes for him: he seemed genuinely interested in learning about the job and in hearing what changes people had to suggest. And he talked directly to the people doing the work, rather than keeping safely out of sight and listening only to what the schoolmarms said people thought and felt. All to the good.

Her opinion about Eric’s managerial abilities dropped sharply a few weeks later, however, by what came to be known around the office as the ‘flexible hours fiasco’. Kipsy and two other girls had come up with a proposal for pre-scheduling work hours so that there would be substantially more flexibility in the hours each person would work. The plan was designed so that management would know at least two days ahead of time who would be coming in when. The only cost to the company would be some additional clerical time spent on actually doing the scheduling, and Kipsy had obtained agreement from almost everyone in the office to share in the clerical tasks, in their own time.

Eric had seemed receptive to the plan when Kipsy first presented it to him, and said only that he would have to check it out with his superiors before instituting it. Nothing more was heard about the plan for about two weeks. Finally Eric called Kipsy into his office and (after a good deal of talking around the issue) reported that ‘the people upstairs won’t let us do it’.

Kipsy’s respect for Eric plummeted. Rather than give a flat no, he had wriggled around for two weeks, and then lamely blamed the decision on ‘the people upstairs’. She knew very well that the manager of an office could run his office however he pleased, so long as the work got done. And here was Eric, the bright new manager on the way up:

■ He wouldn’t go along with an employee-initiated proposal for making their life at work more bearable. ■ He refused to take personal responsibility for that decision.

■ He even had the gall to ask Kipsy to help ‘explain to the girls’ how hard he had tried to get the plan approved, and how sad he was that it had been turned down. Kipsy’s response was a forced smile, an elaborately sympathetic ‘Of course I’ll help’, and a quick escape from his office. Kipsy’s demands

She took the Monday of the next week off, to think about whether or not she should quit and try to find a better job. At the end of the day, she made up a list of what she wanted from her work, what she was getting, and whether or not things would improve if she stuck with the job:

My wants

Am I getting them?

Hope for improvement

1 Good pay

OK, not great

Little, till my hair turns grey

2 Interesting


No change, except friends keep leaving


3 Interesting work



4 Chance to show


No hope

initiative and



5 Chance to



contribute to

an organisation

I believe in

The next day, Tuesday, she took her list and went to see Eric. After listening to a fatherly lecture on the importance of not missing work, especially on Mondays when the workload was heaviest, she began to tell him how upset she was. She told him that the only thing she got from working hard on the job was a backache every evening. She told him she had been misled about the chances for promotion on the job, and she asked him, as politely as she knew how, what he suggested she should do.

Eric’s response blew her mind. There was a new programme, he said, in which people who did well on entry-level jobs for a few years could apply for advanced training in a technical specialty. This training would be done at company expense and in company time, and would qualify her for a promotional- type transfer, whenever openings in her chosen specialty developed. If she worked hard and was rated high on the quarterly supervisory assessments, Eric said, he would be prepared to nominate her for the advanced training. It was important, however, he emphasised, that she behave herself – no unnecessary absences, high work productivity, good ratings by her supervisors. Otherwise, she certainly would not be selected by ‘the people upstairs’ for the new programme.

Something snapped. What kind of a fool did he think she was? How long did he expect her to wait for a ‘chance to be nominated’ for some foggy ‘technical training programme’? She started telling him, no holds barred now, no false politeness, exactly what she thought of the job, of the supervisors, even of the way he was running the office. The more she talked, the madder she got – until finally she got up, almost in tears, and ran out leaving behind only the reverberations of a well-slammed door.

Kipsy’s dilemma

She was ashamed later, of course. She knew she would be, and she was, but she also was too embarrassed to go up to Eric and apologise. Which was too bad, because she suspected that behind it all Eric was probably a decent man, and maybe even somebody she could learn to like and respect – if only he would let himself be human once in a while. However, she knew there was nothing she could do to change the way Eric did his job; the first move clearly had to be his. It could be a long wait, Kipsy decided. In the meantime she would come to work, try to minimise her backaches and upsets, and continue to think about finding another job. Of one thing she was sure: no more ‘bright ideas’ for improving things at the office would come from her; they brought nothing but grief. Furthermore, she was no longer going to worry so much if she happened to misremember a catalogue number or accidentally disconnect a salesman. If all they wanted was a machine, that was all they were going to get.

Kipsy found herself much less able to be cavalier about her work than she had thought she could be. As hard as she tried not to care when she made errors, the distressing fact was that mistakes still did bother her. And she still felt like an unreconstituted sinner when she was a few minutes late for work.

It took the ‘Increase Efficiency’ programme to finally break her completely. It was not to be believed: an evening meeting, complete with supposedly inspirational messages from all the bosses about how we all had to pitch in and help the company make more money; grade school posters on all the walls imploring people to work harder; and, to top it all, all the bosses, even Eric, standing around for hours at a time, looking over everybody’s shoulders, day after day.

Did Eric really believe that treating people like children would make them work harder? She could have told him straight out beforehand that the programme would make things worse rather than better. But of course he didn’t ask.

Kipsy went on the offensive. She knew it was wrong, but she also knew she had to do something to preserve her sanity. Her first target was the signs; she and another girl stayed late in the rest room and, when everybody else had left, carefully changed the lettering of the signs to read ‘Increase INEfficiency’, and turned the smiling face on each sign into an obviously sarcastic grin. Kipsy also began discussing with the other girls the possibility of forming a club, which would be partly social but which could possibly develop into a vehicle for doing some hard-nosed bargaining with Eric.

It didn’t work. Changing the signs, after the initial thrill, only made her feel more guilty. And even though virtually everyone in the office shared her dismay about the monotony of the work and was as upset as she about Eric and his ‘Increase Efficiency’ programme, nobody was very excited about forming a club. Some thought it wouldn’t have any impact and would be a waste of time; others thought it sounded like the first step towards unionisation, which they didn’t want. So the club idea died.

Kipsy was depressed. What should she do? Quit? Her preliminary explorations had not yet turned up any jobs which were much better – and most paid less than this one. Besides, to quit would be to admit publicly her inability to change anything in the office. She was supposed to be the leader of the girls in the office; she shouldn’t become just one more tally towards the 80 per cent a year who left.

Talk to Eric again? She seriously doubted that he would listen to one word she said. And she doubted equally seriously that she could keep herself from blowing up again at him – which would accomplish nothing and help no one.

Shut up and stick it out? That was what she had been trying for the last three months. Without noticeable success. What, then?


(a) Analyse the issues of management and organisational behaviour which are raised in this case study. (b) Suggest solutions to the problems faced by Eric and Kipsy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *