Lynne Curry: All lose in control battles

When Webb Chevrolet general manager Jerry Roberts asked salesperson John Stone to take off his Green Bay Packers tie, Stone initially thought Roberts was joking.

In the next hour, Roberts asked Stone three more times to take off his tie. Three more times Stone said no.

Roberts finally told Stone, who is a good salesperson and had sold 14 cars the previous month for the car dealership, to take his tie off or get fired. Stone, either believing Roberts didn't mean it or not caring, chose to get fired.

What led Stone to value his tie more than his job? What led Roberts to fire an otherwise effective salesperson?

Those who dug into this story, which went viral among Midwestern sports fans, learned the following.

Stone said he wore the tie to honor his recently deceased grandmother, a diehard Packers fan, who the family buried two days before the Packers beat the Bears in the NFC Championship game.

After the firing, Roberts learned this heart-warming story when Stone's dismissal became front page news in several newspapers, appeared on TV news shows and was transmitted nationwide by The Associated Press.

Roberts explained his Chicago-area dealership spent $20,000 monthly advertising with the Bears and even gave the Bears' players free loaner vehicles.

He said that Stone's wearing a Packers tie undercut the dealership's advertising campaign and might turn off potential car buyers who supported the Bears. Roberts couldn't believe Stone refused to take off his tie.

Because Roberts made a repeated and clear direct request to Stone, when Stone ignored it and Roberts fired him, Roberts did so legally.

Under employment at will, employers can fire employees for any reason that doesn't violate discrimination laws or the laws governing employee rights, such as the right to protest unsafe work conditions.

Courts, juries and other neutral third parties almost invariably side with employers who fire employees that act insubordinately by ignoring manager directives.

Although Roberts legally would prevail should Stone protest the firing, did he do the right thing?

Rival dealership Chevrolet of Homewood quickly snapped up Stone. When Roberts learned Stone's reason for wearing the tie, he offered Stone his job back.

Too late -- Stone didn't want to return. Meanwhile, the rival dealership hopes to reap the benefits of the media attention and reports that dozens of Packers fans have promised to buy vehicles from Stone and the dealership.

Although Stone immediately landed a new job, he lost as well. By his own account, he didn't learn why his manager wanted him to remove his tie. Had he asked, he might have realized his tie flew in the face of his employer's $20,000 a month advertising campaign and he may have chosen to honor his grandmother in another way.

The moral of this story -- when employers and supervisors lock horns in a control battle, both lose.

If you ask an employee to do something and he says "no," ask "how come?" and listen. Then, explain why you're making your request, even if you think you shouldn't need to.

If your manager makes a request that seems unreasonable, don't just say no. Ask for his or her reasons. Generally, those who make requests have reasons that make sense -- at least to them.

Roberts issued an ultimatum. Stone gave a blanket refusal. They fought a control battle that became public. Both Stone and Roberts felt they were in the right ... and both were wrong.

-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. E-mail her at