February 19, 2015
Ever since I wrote my book 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, people ask how to handle particular, quirky situations in the workplace. One that tops the list is how to deal with executives who just don’t seem to get it.
Whether they continually make off-color political remarks, refer to female staffers as “sweetie” and “honey,” or simply enjoy good old-fashioned public shaming sessions where they censure others openly and inject ongoing embarrassment and resentment into their working relationships, these executives apparently don’t want to play nicely or otherwise get along with others. In fact, some are “spoken to” and even disciplined for past behaviors, yet their inappropriate conduct continues to roller coaster up and down every few months. At some point, frustrated and angry employees challenge why such behavior is allowed to continue, and company leaders often times don’t take the situation truly seriously until people threaten to leave or a lawsuit looms on the horizon.
How do you stop these roller coaster patterns from recurring in the workplace? How do you raise executives’ attention to the fact that they’ve got a significant perception problem on their hands? And how do you stop these types of toxic behaviors in their tracks so that they go away once and for all and the errant leader finally gets it and starts acting normally? The key, like most things in business, lies not in what you say but how you say it and how you structure your go-forward expectations. Follow this three-step structure to gaining employee commitment and fixing the problem once and for all.
Rule 1: Hold People Accountable for Their Own “Perception Management”
Such meetings or executive interventions require a combined front. For example, if a director-level executive continues to suffer from ongoing behavior lapses and poor judgment episodes, then three leaders should prepare to meet with him to discuss this: the director’s immediate VP boss, the VP’s boss (one tier higher, for example, a senior VP or company president), and HR. This way, the errant executive receives one consistent message from all key stakeholders: there’s no way to “divide the baby” or work one group against another. All are on board with the same message, plain and simple.
Next, determine upfront whether your organization can risk losing this individual, either via termination or resignation. If the answer is yes, then the suggested scripts that follow can be strengthened in terms of the consequence language that you inject; if not, because the individual is simply too valuable to your organization to risk losing at this point in time, then you can soften the language that follows.
What’s critical, however, is that you not come across as judgmental. “Why do you keep making inappropriate remarks about people on your team and throwing them under the bus in public?” won’t get you very far as a supervisor. The individual will simply go into self-defense mode and place blame elsewhere. Instead, come from observation—the “what’s so” rather than the “so what”—to explain the challenges as you see them:
“John, we’ve had these discussions before, and you’ve committed to undoing some of the damage that occurred when you admittedly engaged in public shaming sessions with some of your staff members in the past by censuring them at group meetings in front of their peers. You agreed at the time to follow our guidelines that you praise in public and censure in private. Yet yesterday two members of your team came to me, your immediate supervisor, to complain of that very same behavior repeating itself at your staff meeting. From what I was told, you reverted to using the F-word and questioned why people “aren’t thinking” and “acting like f-ing idiots.” Is that an accurate assessment of what occurred yesterday? [Yes]
“Based on our prior discussions and reflecting on your handling of yesterday’s meeting, can you look back and see some sort of justification for your behavior? [No] Would you be surprised then if I told you that both employees were now considering quitting because of how they were treated in front of the rest of the team? [No]
“Then based on that, John, you’ve got a real perception problem on your hands. They say that perception is reality until proven otherwise, and people are simply assuming bad intentions when dealing with you. In fact, your actions yesterday are very much now part of everyone’s reality—perception issues aside. We’re holding you fully accountable for your own perception management from this point forward. In other words, regardless of your intentions or how you think others may be receiving your message, you’ve got to raise your awareness level about how you’re coming across. You no longer have the discretion to fly off the handle or enter into public diatribes about your entire team or individuals on your team, especially using that kind of language. Is that a fair request on our part?” [Yes]
Rule 2: Remind Leaders about Personal Liability Surrounding “Managerial Bad Acts”
HR can then add the following to the conversation:
“John, you’ve also got to remember that you may be putting yourself at risk from a liability and financial standpoint. When a manager engages in what could be construed as harassing behavior or in potentially creating a hostile work environment, a lawsuit from a disgruntled ex-worker will typically name you separately from the company. We don’t pay you enough money to warrant risking your savings and your home in a personal lawsuit for what’s deemed to be ‘managerial bad acts’ or ‘acting outside the course and scope of your employment.’
“But the threshold for individual liability is fairly low, and last I read, one out of four managers in corporate America will become personally involved in some sort of work-related lawsuit during their career. What executives don’t realize is that, in some states, they can be sued for up to $50,000 of their own money, while in states like California, there’s no cap on how much they could be personally sued for. As an executive in our company, you may be seen as a juicy target yourself—a high net worth individual—who’s worth pursuing separately and apart from the company, and you can’t risk your personal savings because you keep losing your temper or otherwise striking fear in the hearts of your staffers. They could all serve as witnesses to your behavior in a court of law.”
Rule 3: Gain a Lasting Commitment That You Won’t Have to Discuss This Matter Again
The senior-most executive in the room—John’s boss’s boss in this case—can then conclude the meeting by resetting expectations:
“John, we want you to be successful here. We’re having this meeting to confirm for you that you’re a valued and key member of our company’s leadership team, but that this sort of conduct has to stop. We want you to think about options and resources that may be helpful, including an executive coach. If you feel you would benefit from having one-on-one guidance from an external expert who could help you navigate through these types of situations, especially when you’re feeling frustrated, let us know. If there are other resources—education, headcount, or otherwise—that you feel are necessary at this point to relieve some of your stress and pressure, we’d like to hear about them. You tell us what will help, and we’ll do our best to accommodate.
“But I’d like a commitment from you right now that we’ll never have to have a meeting like this again. This is totally within your control, and as much as we value you and want to support your success, we don’t want to risk unnecessary turnover or the potential of lawsuits because you can’t or won’t control your temper. In short, the roller coaster needs to stop as of today. This type of meeting is uncomfortable for us, and we know it’s uncomfortable for you, but once you give us your commitment, I expect that this will become water under the bridge and ancient history. We’re re-welcoming you to the company today—a fresh start and a new beginning—but it’s up to you to accept our olive branch and make this commitment. Are you willing to commit to us right here and now that you’ll hold yourself fully accountable for your behavior and actions and ensure that we never have to have a meeting like this with you again? [Yes]
“Great. Then I’ll consider the matter handled and taken care of at this point. That being said, if you have any additional suggestions or concerns that you want to share with me separately, my door is always open. Thanks for joining us today.”
Said quietly and without a lot of drama, a respectful discussion scenario like this, led by the individual’s immediate supervisor, next-level supervisor, and HR, will more than likely quell the drama once and for all. After all, you’ve placed John in control, listened to him openly, and offered additional resources and options to support him. Even if it doesn’t and you’re forced to pursue this issue again, you’ll have created an outstanding record of according the executive due process in the legal sense. Any further actions on the company’s part—whether in the form of progressive discipline or ultimately termination—will be strengthened by this healthy and fair intervention.