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Susan, 55, has worked for a corporation for thirty years. Most of the time, that corporation was small, and even upper management was able to visit most branches of the business. For years, her vacations had to be approved only by her immediate supervisor.

One day, Susan gives her request for three days’ vacation to her supervisor’s new secretary. The secretary glances at her request, returns it to Sue, and gives her another form. “You need to fill out this form for vacation requests. They must be approved by both your supervisor and your senior manager. Susan protests. “In the past I’ve always given my request to my supervisor.” The secretary waves her off and says, “No paperwork, no vacation.” Susan walks away, furious, feeling powerless, and almost in tears–but she fills out the form anyway.

Most of us, if not all of us, must deal with bureaucracy in some areas of our lives. We may work for a large organization with a complex bureaucracy. We may have to deal with banks, electric and water companies, and other organizations that provide the necessities of life. Most of us find ourselves frustrated at bureaucracy in our lives. Why is that the case? Is it just a matter of the time it takes to go through person after person on the phone before we find help? Is it a matter of the loads of paperwork we have to fill out? In most cases, those reasons are adequate. But when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy in our workplace, as in Susan’s situation, there may be a more fundamental reason.

Most people recognize the need for complex authority structures as organizations grow. There must be a clear hierarchy and clear procedures for business to be accomplished; otherwise an organization would function poorly, and perhaps fail. But there are cases in which a bureaucratic structure can interfere with good employer-employee relations. The problem is a matter of trust.

No employee wants to work for a company she does not trust. Corporations require some level of trust to encourage loyality and hard work. But a corporation, without being naive, should trust its employees. Management should not assume that the employees are essentially lazy and “out to get” the employer (as in Theory X management). This will only result in a hostile work force.

Adding layers of bureaucracy, especially with a lack of good communication with employees, sends a clear message to employees: “We do not trust you.” For example, in Susan’s situation, upper management apparently changed policy on vacation requests without informing lower-level employees. Susan may think (and she might be right) that such action reveals a fundamental distrust of employees (“we’ll do this without consulting our workforce; this is an executive decision, and the workers can find out about the new policy as they make vacation requests”). Such action may also reflect a belief by management that employees will take advantage of their vacation time.

Now Susan may be wrong about all this. Management’s decision might be related to a desire to know when workers will be on vacation company-wide in order to discern patterns and make appropriate plans. And the lack of communcation might be due to the slowness of communication in any large bureaucracy. Even if that is the case, we can understand why Susan is upset–and why we would most likely be upset in similar situations.

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