Crucial Conversations QA

Doing the Right Thing

Dear Crucial Skills,

Here’s my struggle: I work for a very well respected company that prides itself on doing the right thing, always having integrity, etc. I recently discovered that one of the HR employee conference rooms has a hidden video camera. The vast majority of employees who meet with the HR staff in this room are not aware of this. I find it ironic that the company projects an image of integrity and openness, then equips a room like this without letting anyone know they could be videotaped at any time.

So, I’m wondering, what is the “right thing” for me to do?

Webcams at Work

Dear Webcams,

Most companies today have statements of values, ethical conduct, etc. And yet when you survey most employees, they report that these statements carry about as much weight in day-to-day conduct as the ink on the statement itself.

So I’m glad you asked this question. I’m glad for two reasons: 1) Because it gives us a chance to talk about what truly makes a company ethical; and 2) Because your very question demonstrates that you are willing to be part of the solution in your own company.

First, let me debunk a myth about ethics. Ethical companies are not created by rolling out compulsory “Ethics Training” so that everyone is aware of the standards expected of them. Everyone does this. And it tends to accomplish little more than reducing the company’s liability when an employee sells out. So how, then, do you create a culture that strongly influences people to behave ethically? By creating a culture where people hold crucial conversations with those who violate standards. Or even better, where people will challenge others when they even begin moving into gray areas.

By this principle, Enron was not the story of a few bad apples at the top of the pyramid. Enron could not have happened had there not been hundreds and even thousands of “good” people who stood by and said nothing when illegal practices were just beginning. It is at these moments that a company’s soul is at risk—not when the later egregious errors emerge. And if the culture is one where no one wants to offend, risk a confrontation, look naive, or seem “holier than thou”—the end result is inevitable. The culture will change—for the worse.

So, my second point is that the very fact that you are asking how to handle this crucial conversation gives me hope for the character of your company. If you find a way to tactfully, respectfully, and directly raise the perceived concern, you will provide others with an opportunity to examine the ethics of the situation. If you do it poorly—accusingly or self-righteously—you will likely provoke defensiveness that will shortcut others’ reflection on the ethical issue.

My advice for you as you open this issue is that you a) do it with the right person, and b) do it in the right way.

First, ensure you are meeting with someone who has influence over HR policy. If you want to have influence, hold the conversation with someone who has influence. And preferably someone who has a reputation for openness—why make your crucial conversation any harder than it has to be?

Second, be sure to lead with the facts and not your story. You have drawn some conclusions that may or may not be correct. It is these that you are there to check out and discuss. For example, it may just be a story rather than a fact that:

  • There are, in fact, cameras.
  • The room is used by those who don’t know there are cameras.
  • The cameras are functional and videotape those who are unaware of it.
  • The HR staff is intentionally hiding the fact that there are cameras.

So, as you lay out your concerns, strip out any “hot words” that sound accusatory or self-righteous and simply describe what you think is happening, why you think it could reflect badly on the company, and then invite the other party to confirm or disconfirm your assertions. Be open to other points of view—including other interests that are served by current practices that you do not understand or appreciate at present.

Finally, make sure they understand not just your content (the issue you want to raise), but also your intent (you care about the company and want to be part of helping it live up to its aspirations).

Good luck—and thanks for standing up for what your company is capable of becoming.


Sucess Story

Before and After: Smoking Conversations by Connie Smock

My mother and I have always had a solid relationship and have been very open with one another—except on one point. My mother is a smoker. Although I don’t have strong objections to her smoking habits, I do have serious concerns about her smoking in my home and around my family.

I am not the only one in the family who harbors these concerns. For years Mother’s smoking has agitated the entire family, but for years it has also been a clearly taboo subject—not something that could be easily discussed. Past attempts by my sister and I to address the issue have resulted in defensiveness, resentment, and strained relationships. In fact, there was a period of time when my mother and I didn’t speak to one another due to a turbulent conversation about her smoking.

Against my family’s pleading, I decided to use my newly acquired crucial conversations skills to discuss the smoking issue with my mother. Nervous but confident, I called her. I began by asking if I could discuss an issue with her that was bothering me. She responded positively, sounding interested in what I had to say. I used “contrasting” to explain that while I respect her chosen lifestyle and did not want to offend her, I did want to resolve a concern I had regarding her smoking in my home and around my children. Instead of becoming defensive, she respectfully discussed the issue with me—even apologizing once she had learned of my concerns.

We ended the conversation having become closer to and more understanding of one another. Since the crucial conversation, Mother’s smoking hasn’t been an issue. She still enjoys her smoking, my family and I enjoy our smoke-free home, and we all enjoy a more open and honest family relationship.

Crucial Conversations QA

Looking for a Way Out

Dear Crucial Skills,

I love my job but would like to transfer out of the department due to my manager, “Bob.” He used to be an ok coworker until our then-manager retired and as the most senior of our team, he got promoted.

I was on maternity leave at the time, and when I returned, I found that the helpful coworker had turned into a power-hungry and controlling maniac of a manager and the team was shell-shocked.

I have spoken to Bob several times regarding my performance appraisal, to my HR rep for guidance, and finally to Bob’s manager in exasperation–who, to my relief, agreed with my assessment of Bob, but whose hands are tied. It seems the next-level manager is Bob’s long-time friend and our department is profitable.

How do I tell Bob I’d like to move on without him getting angry? How do I manage the transition? Should I just try to find another job while trying to do my old job ducking bombshells? How do I make objective comments on my boss in upcoming interviews? Is trying to obtain a positive reference letter out of the question?


Desperate Housewife

Dear Desperate,

Once you’ve decided that you’ve exhausted all methods for remedying your current situation and that it makes sense to move to a new company, you can be at great risk. Many people under these circumstances figure that they need to fix their boss before they move on. Don’t even think about it. It hasn’t worked yet and it’s not going to get better as you leave.

If people become particularly angry as they prepare to exit, many figure that it’s safe to do and say whatever they like–after all, they’re leaving. And since they’ve been raked over the coals along the way, it’s now time to get even. Once they take this attitude they often adopt many of the very behaviors that they found so despicable in their boss. They become intractable, sarcastic, unresponsive, and pretty much do what they want. They’ve become their own worst nightmare.

Obviously, you’re not thinking of such tactics, but you do need to guard against any feelings of revenge that can crop up under these circumstances. You’d be shocked to see how many people not only leave a company in anger (often deserved) but then burn bridges along the way.

Never burn bridges. You don’t want to be that kind of person, and you don’t want to suffer the consequences that often follow. Instead, quietly continue to do your job as well as possible while seeking new employment. Only approach your boss once you have an offer in your pocket. Explain that a great opportunity came up and that you’ll be taking it. Offer to make the transition as easy as possible. If your current boss needs you to stay and train the next person, see if you can arrange this with your new employer. Your job is to remain the picture of professionalism–despite how others are behaving around you. And yes, if you’re doing a good job, you should expect a positive reference.

When it comes to talking about your boss in upcoming discussions–possible employers, your replacement, friends and family, etc.–it never helps to badmouth people behind their backs. In this case, either talk with your boss directly or let it go and move on. Since you’ve decided to move on, let it go. Focus on the benefits of your new job and leave any information about your former boss a private matter.

Now for the tricky part. What if the person you’re talking with about a new job wants to talk with your current boss? If he or she calls without knowing your circumstances, your boss learns that that you’re looking for a new job–and then if you don’t get the new job . . . oops.

I’ve actually interviewed people who faced these circumstances and two that I can recall handled the challenge quite nicely. Both were up front with me about the fact that they didn’t have a very good relationship with their boss (as was the case with their entire department), and they were choosing to move on. These two didn’t give details, but did give me a warning. Both hoped that they’d get a job offer on the basis of their resume and the interview and not on the basis of what their current boss had to say. When I decided that I wanted to hire one of them, I asked him if it would be okay to give the boss a call, in order to make a final check. He gave me permission, I made the call, and it worked out just fine.

Now, let me add one final element–and this deals with your former coworkers. As long as people in authority (in this case, your boss’s boss) remain in the dark about Bob, he’ll be allowed to continue his reign of terror. So, do you make an effort to inform senior executives about the horrific manager, even though it will do nothing for you, but might benefit the majority?

As outside consultants, we often encourage HR professionals and senior managers to go out of their way to conduct exit interviews with people who are leaving. That way they can learn from people firsthand why they’re moving on. Is their pay out of whack? Are the jobs noxious? Is there a manager who’s driving people away?

With this in mind, you might ask for an exit interview with both the HR manager and a senior leader. Explain your motives–you want to see the organization improve. Then during the interviews, explain that you’re exiting because of your boss. Don’t be angry, just frank. Describe a few specific examples of what your manager routinely did. Avoid using caustic terms–stick with examples. Also point out that you’ve voiced your concerns and nobody has the will or ability to do anything and that you’re now leaving because of it.

Should you choose this additional step, take comfort in knowing that you’ve shared valuable information and that if others do the same, eventually the problem will be solved.

Best of luck,
Kerry Patterson