Most of the strife centers around the firing of RP&L General Manager Steve Saum; the short version is that the Board of Directors unexpectedly removed Saum from his position after a negative performance review, and Saum along with others are concerned that he wasn't given due process. After the story hit the media, there's been additional concern about the way the RP&L Board has (or has not) communicated the reasoning behind their decision and what it means for the future of the utility. There's a story in today's Palladium-Item with some new revelations about the proceedings.
Few are in any good position to pass judgment on these matters. In my limited interactions with Steve Saum I've always found him to be a person of good intent and competence in his leadership. I also know most of members of the RP&L Board well enough to say they are people of good intent and great care for the future of RP&L and the City. (Full disclosure: I ran unsuccessfully for election to the RP&L Board last year.) And no matter what you think of any of their actions or decisions, it's just a painful and messy thing when matters of someone's employment and livelihood (or managerial methods) become a topic of public conversation.
But even with the limited facts available about this series of events, it seems there are some missed opportunities to reflect on moving forward:
First, if an employer thinks an employee is performing poorly, the annual performance review is not when they should find out about it. That this apparently happened in this case is the sign of a broken review process. If indeed Mr. Saum had gone from performing "commendably" as his last review indicated to "unsatisfactory" and not serving the needs of RP&L, or even if he was just rubbing members of the RP&L Board the wrong way, as his supervisors they had an ongoing responsibility to communicate that clearly at the first sign of a problem that might even remotely lead to his termination. "Here's our concern, here's why this is a problem, here's what we want you to do about it, here's when we'll check in again." If the board members were getting employee calls about Mr. Saum's managerial decisions, they had a responsibility to include him in a constructive conversation about how to address those employee concerns well before they were used as evidence of his own poor performance. Yes, there are some kinds of incompetence or insubordination that might necessitate fast, decisive action, but there's been no indication by any of the RP&L Board members that Mr. Saum's failings were so serious as to immediately endanger the future of the utility.
Second, in any given employment conversation, if the boss or supervisor is an elected official, the rules of the game change. The same is true if the employee is in a leadership position of some prominence or public scrutiny, such as the head of a public utility. Put those two together in the context of any kind of disagreement, and you have a recipe for an uncomfortable situation at the very best. We should wonder whether it makes sense for elected members of the RP&L Board to be conducting performance reviews of the RP&L GM. Are they in the best position to know how well the GM has performed? Is there too much of a power imbalance for it to be a collegial, respectful conversation when disagreement occurs? Or will the pressures of public scrutiny always mean that these review conversations are a power struggle instead of an opportunity for true professional development?
Third, an employer has a unique burden to bear if they're going to give someone a negative performance review without firing them on the spot. If you've just told someone they aren't doing well enough at their job and then asked them to get back to work, this can put them in a pretty difficult position for figuring out what to do next. It's important to provide some clear next steps, especially when what happens next affects a lot of other employees, not to mention RP&L's in-progress projects and customers. That someone is frustrated about a negative performance review is not in itself a cause for their termination. That they ask hard questions about the processes and information used to create that review is not a cause for termination. Of course someone is going to be defensive if you've just told them they suck at their job. Of course someone might want to take some drastic actions to try to get on a more solid footing. But if a supervisor and employee can't have an honest and open - even if tense - conversation about their different perspectives on how that employee is performing with a focus on how best to move forward, then the review process itself is probably a waste of time.
Why does any of this really matter to the rest of us? Isn't this just between RP&L and Steve Saum?
If there was some sense that this was an exceptional case of miscommunication or poor HR practices, I might not bother to blog about it. But I hear too many stories in our community of employers and employees missing opportunities for more humane and constructive conversations around areas of conflict or disagreement. The Really Cool Foods closing in November represents some of the worst of this: having employees show up to work only to be blocked at the gate as their employer announces going out of business that day.
The RP&L Board's treatment of Mr. Saum is different, but no less a setback in any efforts to find a model of "doing business" that honors complexity of differing interests and needs, human dignity and effective conflict resolution. I don't claim to be any expert at this, and as an employer myself who's had to struggle with these issues, I know I still have much to learn. As with every such case, it seems worthwhile to try to learn some lessons that will help us know how to do it better the next time around.
In the meantime, let us hope for some kind of clarity and closure for Mr. Saum and for members of the RP&L Board.