Archive for the ‘Andy Epstein’ Category

Last week, in this column, I wrote about the realities of workplace bullying and noted that in-house designers are particularly vulnerable because of the client/designer dynamic. Knowing that many organizations tolerate and ignore the abuse that clients can inflict on their designer colleagues, I’d like to suggest, when confronted with a bully client, that you take radical action to get your managers’ and HR’s attention – FIRE YOUR CLIENT.


If outside agencies, when confronted with a client whose demands and behaviors damage their business, can resign that client, then why can’t an in-house team? The key is to capture the costs of the inflicted damage, both in financial, morale (and moral) terms. If you position your arguments for taking this action from the perspective of serving the best interests of the company, then you can base a subsequent conversation (which will surely come) on a premise that will be less about blame and more about finding solutions. Simply put, the primary argument should be predicated on the assumption that you have multiple clients and that the bully client has become such a drain on your team that he or she is diverting your resources away from your other responsible clients.

This “break glass in case of emergency” approach should only be attempted after all other options and channels for airing grievances have been exhausted and should be handled as objectively as possible. My recommendation would be to craft an email stating that your department is no longer going to be servicing the offending client, list the offenses and then, most importantly, clearly point out the negative impact that the offenses have had on you, your team and the company. Refrain from using inflammatory language and keep the email as concise as possible. Send it to your manager and HR and cc the client.

Firing a client is, of course, a contentious act, in and of itself, no matter how carefully you approach it. That fact alone should be enough to deter any in-house designer from taking this route in any but the most extreme circumstances. But, if all else has failed, it may be appropriate as the alternative of tolerating abusive or irresponsible behavior is the worse of the 2 options.


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It can be a delicate balancing act, but allowing for workplace banter improves team morale and collaboration – especially for design teams for whom teamwork is critical to their performance. Healthy interpersonal relationships, which are partially created through playful conversation, foster trust, communication and innovation.

While too much small talk pulls people off of their tasks leading to unacceptable inefficiencies, too little leads to a siloed environment where lack of respect for coworkers and poor team culture can lead to rivalry, finger pointing and poor project handoffs – also contributing to unacceptable inefficiencies.

The rule of thumb is that any personal conversation that creeps over the 5 minute mark is probably best tabled to be picked up again either at lunch or after work. It’s critical that the whole team is on the same page and that everyone gives the other team members permission to end a conversation and thus ensure that feelings are not hurt if someone calls a time out.

The biggest challenge can be running interference with HR and upper managers who don’t understand the design team culture and the benefits that banter bring to the team’s performance. “Click”, a book by Ori and Rom Brafman on the value that strong personal connections bring to business is a quick read that can provide rationales to support a more informal culture when dealing with doubters of that type of environment.

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So you’ve become savvy enough at the in-house game to have put an effective creative team marketing strategy into play. It finally became obvious to you that the benefits of promoting your team far outweighed the extra effort required to create that website, brochure and PPT you designed that showcases your team’s work and the value you bring to your company. You’ve put together case studies, capabilities descriptions and cost-savings analysis.

Chances are, though, that you’ve failed to articulate some of the most important contributions your department makes to your company. These are the non-design value-adds that you bring to the table each day. You want to make sure these contributions don’t get ignored when you’re promoting your team.

We all tend to define ourselves so much by the design deliverables we create that we forget or minimize the other ways we help our companies. These ways might include facilitating the marketing materials routing and review process, schooling up new inexperienced marketing managers on the design side of the marketing function, assisting clients with their outside vendor relationships, helping procurement audit and validate invoices and contracts with outside marketing services vendors and proactively targeting and addressing corporate branding or marketing issues not obvious to our non-design peers.

I’ve heard of design teams that have assisted their IT departments in the implementation of Digital Asset Management solutions, supported their C-level teams in business meetings by visualizing complex strategic initiatives and worked with Manufacturing on integrating more efficient packaging processes and procedures into the production process.

These types of success stories distinguish your team from outside design vendors and validate the notion that an in-house team brings more value to a company than other marketing services business models. Leverage this fact and use it to raise your team’s stature and credibility.

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I was reading an opinion piece in this week’s Sunday New York Times about the prevalence of the bullying of nurses by doctors and the detrimental impact it ultimately has on patient care. The author noted that while the offending doctors were in the minority and many of the instances were not blatantly abusive, the condescending nasty behaviors were damaging and corrosive enough to the entire industry’s culture and the self-esteem and confidence of the nurses that a number of studies of the phenomenon recommended swift and decisive action. The bottom line was that nurses who were the victims of this type of bullying were less inclined to inform or challenge the bully doctors on their errors and the bullying behavior tended to infect the entire organization with nurses picking on younger hires, residents abusing interns and on and on.

The parallels to the company/designer dynamic are hard to ignore. Actually in-house designers are in a worse position than the nurses as they’re vulnerable not only to the potential bullying by upper managers but, unlike their non-design peers, they may be victimized by their clients as well. As with the nurses, the offenses may not be blatant or practiced by a majority of clients or managers. They often show up as sarcastic quips, nasty tones, abrupt emails, unreasonable demands and lack of responsiveness to requests for support.

As subtle and seemingly acceptably benign as these behaviors may appear, along with the fact that the bully clients and managers are (hopefully) in the minority, they should absolutely not be tolerated. This issue is difficult to address, though, because designers, when they do attempt to confront this type of behavior are told that they’re not being a team player, they’re not practicing good customer service, the client could dump the in-house team in favor of an outside agency, the work still has to get done and (the ace in the hole) that they’re behaving like prima donnas. They should rest assured that they’re not.

When designers accept a job at a company, they are accepting the mandate that they perform their assigned functions to the best of their ability. What they are not signing on for is the requirement that they tolerate abuse in any of its blatant or more subtle guises. Actually, it is all designers’ responsibility to their company to challenge this type of behavior because of the overall negative impact it wreaks on the company’s efficiency and quality of work.

I’m not naïve enough to ignore the fact that nasty bosses and clients have been and are tolerated at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, but I am very clear that, just like in grade school, if bullying is not called out and confronted, it will persist and corrode, personal self esteem, corporate culture and the performance of everyone in the organization.

It is every designer’s right to be treated with respect and it is their duty to responsibly challenge abusive behavior by addressing it with the offender, their managers and their human resources department the moment it occurs.

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The higher you go up the org. chart the more vulnerable you become to being downsized right out the company door. As unfair and shortsighted as this practice is, it is a fact of corporate life. Therefore it’s your responsibility to mitigate the risk of receiving a cost cutting pink slip by bringing strategic value to your role and showcasing that value to your managers.

It’s critical that you adopt a proactive mindset and look for opportunities to improve your team’s performance through the implementation or refinement of SOPs, staffing structures, client service practices and project management protocols. Outside of your team, you need to aggressively look for ways you can better serve your company. This could include acting as a liaison between clients and outside agencies, consulting with procurement on their dealings with outside marketing services vendors, becoming a key supporter of your company’s routing and approval process and, of course, looking for new clients to support.

Your work doesn’t stop there, though. You need to actively promote your successes to your clients, managers and the members of the C-suite through email bulletins, lunches and printed promotional materials. Case studies that identify the problem, your solution and the outcome are the most effective format to use. This is not the time to be modest.

To be frank, if you’re not committed and savvy enough to take these steps and practice them consistently, you probably shouldn’t be in the position you’re in. Certainly, if you can’t promote yourself, how can you be expected to promote your company.  Conversely, if you successfully build on the value you and your team brings to your company and powerfully articulate your successes, you end up supporting the interests of you, your team and your company in ways you could never have imagined.

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Pay attention. If you listen hard you’ll hear the other shoe dropping. As in-house designers, we’re all aware of the outsourcing/offshoring tsunami of career-killing corporate shortsightedness and greed in action. Well there’s another less visible wave of beancounter headcount cutting going on at the expense of our profession and the companies we serve – title deflation and responsibility inflation.


Here’s how it works. A company has an in-house department with seasoned experienced managers at its helm. These creative directors and team leads also happen to have higher salaries than their younger reports and more expensive benefits (vested 401Ks, more vacation time etc.). From the beancounters’ perspective, they might as well be wearing florescent bull’s-eyes on their backs.

The Finance pinheads, in their cost-cutting mindless budget reducing bloodlust, figure that firing them will save the company money (which it won’t when all that institutional knowledge walks right out the door taking all time and cost cutting efficiencies with them).

Now trying to fill those vacant positions with equally experienced designers and design managers would defeat the purpose because the new hires’ salaries would be as high as the professionals who were fired. So the trick is to bring in less experienced folks and drop them into a sink or swim situation (without the tools, training or experience needed to succeed – thus setting them and the remaining team up for failure).

There’s one problem, though. In the corporate world’s obsession with hierarchy, new staff can’t be brought in at the same titles and levels as their canned predecessors. A whole new level and group of positions needs to be created. HR quickly addresses the problem and advertises openings with new fancy titles that semantically and financially allows for the dumbing-down of the in-house team’s most critical asset – their leaders.

What you end up finding in the job postings section are positions with different names and markedly lower compensation than the original positions that were eliminated but with exactly the same set of responsibilities and expectations as the original positions. Who said that business execs aren’t creative?…

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By the very nature of its process, design is an entrepreneurial exercise. Unlike most other professional pursuits that primarily rely on managerial, analytical or maintenance practices, design incorporates action, improvisation and resourcefulness – all decidedly entrepreneurial behaviors. This fact sets the stage for conflict between in-house design teams and their departmental neighbors whose functions put them squarely outside of the innovative sphere.


It could be argued that, because designers are forced to be entrepreneurial because of the process they have to engage in to do their jobs, they’re being unintentionally set up to fail when having to work within a larger innovation resistant organization. There have certainly been enough in-house teams that have either stumbled and been disbanded or been beaten into compliant submission, to support this proposition. But there are enough successful entrepreneurial in-house groups to bolster the notion that the diametrically opposed conservative and innovative mindsets can exist and succeed in the same environment.

This success requires the rare combination of a powerful creative team leader and enlightened management. Which begs the question – are you that articulate, savvy and passionate entrepreneur who is able to partner with clients, department heads and the C-suite in a way that allows your team the flexibility needed to be a true entrepreneurial enterprise? Or are you the cynical, browbeaten corporate cog who follows untested and unquestioned policy, habit and tradition, devaluing you, your team and the practice of design?

Being an entrepreneur is a choice. A choice that should be especially easy to make for us designers who have been trained and encouraged to be entrepreneurial because of the very nature of what we do every day.

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