John’s worst career mistake happened after a reorganization. His new manager, part of the new executive leadership team, had asked his opinion on several issues.

John cheerfully complied. Big mistake.

Executives are smart to learn as much about each new area of responsibility as they can. That means taking their direct reports to lunch, asking questions, and listening carefully. John’s new manager did exactly what she was supposed to do.

John achieved his goals in this conversation. He demonstrated his encyclopedic grasp of technology, his extensive knowledge of how to run IS, and his philosophy of leadership — which was based in large part on a management “initiative” that had been extolled as the Next Big Thing by the previous CEO. He figured he’d done a great job of impressing his new boss.

And he had. He’d impressed her with his insights, his range, and his leadership potential — and with his lack of interest in her insights, range, leadership, plans, and goals. Even worse, he demonstrated loyalty to the old regime. In short, he’d established himself as a potential troublemaker but not as a likely source of support.

So John went into “special projects,” wondering what had gone wrong and feeling bitter about his enforced change of career direction.

Served him right.

Executives get a lot of flak for bringing in management fads — panaceas that will make the company a great place to work, increase market share, generate awesome shareholder value, and cure the common cold. The flak is largely undeserved. Although these fads rarely accomplish anything, they’re the inevitable result of people doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. If you want to avoid John’s fate, you need to understand the dynamics of management fads.

Most fads fall into one of two categories. The first, Humoring a Promising Subordinate (HAPS) happens when the CEO wants to provide an opportunity for a protege. The protege reads about a promising new something and voila! HAPS happens.

You can recognize HAPS by the lack of CEO commitment. You’ll hear lip service, and you’ll probably attend a training session, but you’ll find the CEO’s attention focused on more pressing matters, such as new product development, a change in market focus, or improving the company’s key ratios.

Follow the leader. Give the HAPS lip service and whatever attention you think it deserves based on its intrinsic merits. HAPS can offer very good ideas. It just doesn’t represent the company’s strategic direction.

The more dangerous fads are Strategic Company Directions (SCDs) sponsored directly by the CEO and leadership team. They are major change initiatives, intended to transform the organization. Typically, SCDs won’t pay off for several years — three years is the minimum for total quality management, for example — and they can’t succeed unless the whole company gets behind them.

CEOs don’t get three years. Unless short-term results are strong, the board will find a new CEO. Since the board doesn’t hire a new CEO to implement ideas that didn’t work, that big SCD is yesterday’s news — a fad.

When faced with an SCD, commit to it. Do everything you can to make it succeed. If and when the company leadership changes, make it clear that you’re an implementer, not an advocate, and that you’ll work just as hard to implement the new team’s strategic direction. In other words, listen before you opine.

There are no bad guys here. Shareholders invest wanting prices to rise immediately, not three years from now. Boards of directors serve shareholders. The CEO answers to the board — no leeway there — and the rest of management follows along. Remarkably, the long-term health of the company isn’t anyone’s top priority — except, perhaps, employees’. And many companies, by their actions, discourage employee loyalty.

Sure, there are some executives who move from fad to fad like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. They’re the exception. Most are doing what they’re paid to do. They’re trying to define, articulate, and create the future company according to their vision, not someone else’s.

I know. I was John.

A joke that’s far too crude and disgusting to tell in this column has the punch line, “Because it can.”

That, of course, is the explanation for a lot of behavior that otherwise would be too crude, disgusting, or otherwise unbelievable to otherwise account for.

A reader I’ll call “Jim” because that isn’t his name relates the following. I’ve removed his employer’s name and made minor edits for length. Jim has given me full permission to relate the specifics, understanding that his employer will easily recognize itself and him. I’ve e-mailed his employer asking for its account; so far I’ve received no response.

“Just recently, I forwarded a joke through the company e-mail system to three coworkers and one equivalent project employee from a “sister” company. One of them forwarded the joke to an employee in Human Resources.”

“I made a bee-line to that HR employee and apologized for the incident. She accepted my apology and told me she thought it was funny. I was pulled aside by another HR staff member who asked me to sign a fair warning agreement confirming that I understood the proper usage of the company’s e-mail system, and further occurrences of inappropriate use of company e-mail would result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

“Okay, fine. So, I signed the agreement. I went directly back to my workstation and deleted all personal e-mail, and warned others to do the same. Case closed, right? Wrong.”

“The following day I received a call from a manager in HR telling me that not only did I disrupt relations between the firm and our sister company by sending this joke via e-mail, but also that this was a fatal flaw in my employment with the firm.”

“I asked my boss to hold my hand while I met with HR the second time around. Despite his presence I was awarded a one-week suspension without pay as the penalty for my crime. I felt belittled. What was I going to tell my wife staying home with our newborn? ‘I’m sorry, honey, no food on the table for a week because I forwarded a joke at work.'”

“My boss, by the way, didn’t say the one thing that might have impressed me. The irony is that he sent me the joke in the first place. I removed his name as the originator of the e-mail to protect his anonymity. To this day, HR does not know who sent me the joke, though I’m really not sure if it mattered.”

“The joke itself: a simple dialogue box application that read, ‘For your Annual Bonus, Click OK’. As the cursor moved toward OK, the OK button moved farther and farther away until it disappeared from the dialogue box. Funny, eh?”

Jim’s employer clearly acted within its legal rights in handing him his suspension. As noted in a recent column, in most organizations HR’s unstated mission is to keep the company out of court, and Jim confirmed with counsel that he has no basis for filing a complaint.

I don’t want to beat on HR. I doubt HR formulated the e-mail policy Jim violated. Its rigid enforcement may not be by choice either.

Here’s what I do know: right now it’s an employee’s job market. Any IS professional who isn’t a complete loser can find new employment quickly and easily, and probably for an increase in pay. And it costs a whole lot more to replace an employee than to preserve one you have, both in overt and opportunity costs.

Here’s something else I know: if you want high-performing “human resources” you need strong morale, high levels of trust, and employees who are comfortable working with each other. Swapping jokes helps that happen; punishing joke-telling kills it, regardless of the joke transmission medium.

And here’s something I’m sure of: If I suspended someone with a newborn at home for a week without pay for e-mailing an inoffensive joke to three friends, my mother would rise from her grave to ask me, in pointed terms, if this is how she raised me.