Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Keeping personal integrity

DSC06863Do you lie to the people who work for you?

My student intern from Cambridge asked this question during a discussion of how I conduct group communications through e-mails, reports, and meetings.

The short answer is 'no', shaded with a couple of lightly textured exceptions.

I have a legal obligation to keep some information confidential: involvement in due diligence, notice of pending press announcements, and detailed budget numbers prior to announcement.

I try to avoid feeding speculation: if several possible scenarios are being considered, then the ball is still in play and I say that "Nothing has been decided".

But the question is still relevant in extreme cases like the circumstances leading up to the announcement of the shutdown. Where is the line; did I stay on the right side of it?

One relates to how much information to give when situations are uncertain. We've been aware that this was one of a wide range of possible outcomes since February, and have been working as hard as we could towards a more favorable resolution. There was every reason to expect that the worst would not happen, right up to the end. As you might expect, there were meetings, analyses, flights back for consultations, and closed door discussions. People worry and ask questions; I tell them nothing is decided yet. What is the right thing to say, and why?

The more difficult problem came when I heard about people are making life decisions: to buy a house, to relocate, or to turn down an outside job offer. I really wrestled with whether to advise people to wait until the outcome was known. But if I told one person, my moral obligation would be to tell everyone. Or, if a better scenario had happened, they would have lost their opportunity because I was worrying at shadows. I hold my peace. What is the right thing to do, and why?

Now, the worst has happened, and it hurts everyone. Did I stay on the right side of the line?

The acid test came quickly, as the question was raised in an employee meeting with support people here. In the discussion, we openly discussed the events of the past months. I could honestly say I did my best for the group and didn't mislead people. In the end, nobody benefited at the expense of others, and nobody has a parachute.

And, in the evening, I could call my intern to share the full story with him, and have a good open talk about why this whole question of personal integrity is so important to get right.


AB said...

We are going through the same scenarios here at my job. Waves of layoffs, trying to find ways to avoid or minimize layoffs, etc. It is a very difficult call. But I have to say, I would rather know as early as possible the worst case scenario, to determine if my job is in jeopardy. As you said, it affects major life decisions. I would rather postpone a move or major purchase unneccessarily to be safe, than find out soon after getting locked into something I can no longer afford. Additionally, some people may have job offers that come available that they might take if they know there is a chance they will be laid off, where if they are pretty certain they will not be affected by a layoff, they would not otherwise take.

However, most managers will not make announcements until things are certain so you are not alone there. And in the mean time, moral is greatly affected and rumors and speculation run rampant when stuff like this is announced too soon before the outcome is fully known.

At any rate - I know firsthand what you are going through right now and it is not fun! We just had our second round of layoffs notified yesterday. We knew they were coming, just not who until yesterday. On the flip side, we know there is the possibility of more in Novemeber and let me tell you if there is any possibility I am on the next list I would MUCH rather know now than a month or two before Christmas!!!!

Dave Hampton said...

This was a tough essay for me to try to write, because it's so easy to sound smug or self-serving. In reality, I struggled hard with this issue over the past months, and now I do need to sort out whether I did the right thing in hindsight. Ab, I really appreciate getting your perspective.

I take your point on wanting to know when its a factor in life events. I still think it's all-or-none: you can't take a few people aside and advise them to wait. So, would it have been better to tell everyone "You might want to avoid making major financial commitments until we get the budget sorted out"? Or would that just fuel more concern?

My concern about opening the door to job offers is that the resulting loss of talent or disruption in projects makes it more likely that budget negotiations would fail. It becomes a self-fulfilling act, where perception of what might happen could drive the reality of what does. Our best argument was to point to our people, their organization and accomplishments.

If the product line was going to close, then it would have been a different matter too: It wouldn't be right to keep people working on dead-end projects. In this case, though, the product will transfer and customers can still buy what we built. Only the faces behind it will change.

Finally, while people knew that it was a tough budget year and that management was working unusually hard on the fiscal planning process, I don't think that this became a disruptive source of rumors. In all of the subsequent discussions, people say that they were caught completely by surprise that it was a shutdown rather than cutbacks. And we, too, believed, right up to the end, that it made sense to continue the work here and that we could prevail in that argument.

When the situation is so dynamic and the alternatives so wide-ranging, I'm just not sure what guidance we could have given other than to say that it's a tough year and we are working hard on it.

I really hope that you are able to keep your position and that the company's prospects improve. I'm getting notes from lots of friends in other companies that this is happening everywhere, unfortunately. Good luck!