Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Part of Management/Managing that Totally Sucks: Lying

So I talk a lot in my blog about manipulation and bribery...things that, unless you are upfront and transparent about are more likely to breed an atmosphere of distrust and a difficulty working.

Let's just be clear: I don't advocate lying. Lies of omission, lies of commission...anything that breaks the trust of the people you need to trust you to do your job (and whom you need to trust) is toxic to the work environment. If it doesn't immediately end badly, it gets exponentially worse before it ends badly.

There is, of course, a more practical approach, too, which was Mark Twain's: "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."

Now that we're clear that my normal operating procedure abhors a lie, we're going to talk about lying because, as a manager, this is sometimes part of your job.

Now keep in mind most management texts and advice advocate my approach--don't lie--and therefore don't cover this part of the program. Which is annoying, because as much as we'd like to always be upfront and transparent, we, by the nature of our jobs, cannot be.

As a manager, your responsibilities are to your employees, your peers, your bosses, AND the company; the company is the one who pays you, so it has to make the list, though typically it is at the end of the list in terms of importance. However, you should be keeping in the back of your mind that the health of the company is important to your employees, your peers and your bosses, so while it may not always come first, it has to be a present factor when you're making decisions in your every day job life.

Why am I singling out the company? Generally, when you need to lie, it's related to the company more than anyone else. What I'm talking about is things like firing people, lay offs, sales projections, reorganizations, and support of management. That's not an all inclusive list regarding when you may have to lie, but its a pretty good chunk.

Your bosses may ask you to lie, too, but that is usually a far more gray area; if they are asking you to lie for the company to align with specific goals to which you agreed when you started working, it sucks, but its not too alarming. If, however, they are asking you to lie in a less structured way, start looking for a new gig. People who ask you to lie for them are likely lying to other people, such as yourself. Start documenting EVERYTHING and polish up that resume.

While I'm not going to go into firing, lay offs, et all today, I am going to talk about the kind of lies you will be required to tell (or not tell, as the case may be).

When you are prepping to fire someone, often you have a lot of notice: you've talked to them several times about their behavior, tried to rectify it, etc. However, if you just started to work on a team, or the offense is so egregious that immediate action is required, that extra padding of trying to make things work out (which helps build trust with other team members who want to know that they won't be suddenly fired), is gone.

While you're prepping to get rid of that person, you may still have to take complaints from co-workers about him, who would feel TERRIBLE (or relieved in some cases) to find out that he/she was being fired. By the very nature of their reactions--let alone what damage informationally some people can do by saying "don't tell anyone else" and then spilling a secret--they can betray what is happening before you or your HR team is ready. This is particularly problematic because if that person opts to get legal counsel, any such breaches become serious problems for you personally as well as for the company: screwing up badly here can have fiscal implications for YOU and not just the company.

So you end up having to lie. Are you going to fire him? Answering that with "I can neither confirm nor deny" = "Yes, I am firing him" (assuming your employees/peers/etc. are not complete idiots). Instead you need them to believe you are not firing him/her until he/she has been notified they've been fired. If this means a bald faced lie, "No, not firing him" or "I'm investigating what is happening for now" (which is true, but doesn't answer the question), you are lying either by omission or commission. Whatever lie you choose to use, you need to be ready to answer for it when that guy is FIRED. Note, HR will usually talk to you about what you can and cannot say in this instance, but inevitably, you'll be lying to someone about it until its all over. In the case of a firing, typically at least some of the lying will come to light--especially if the person asking if you're firing "him" is the person being fired him (or her) self.

Layoffs and reorgs are similar beasts, but on a much larger scale. Imagine your entire team losing their shit for months at a time. Now imagine you know all their jobs are safe. BUT YOU CANNOT TELL THEM. Its unfair to the folks whose jobs are not safe, its a requirement from management, and HR is not 100% sure its true (even if they are 99% sure), and so they want to delay making any promises that can be acted on in a court of law. You spend months, weeks, etc. telling them to "hang in there" and "you're sure it will all work out ok," but answering "Do you know if we're losing anyone" with "I don't know, they haven't told me," because you cannot communicate to them that their jobs are ok. It is a seriously suck situation.

It becomes worse if you do know you're losing headcount. Suddenly you want to give them advice about whether or not to buy that new car or move to the more expensive apartment...but you cannot. Legally, you can't tell them their job is going away for a variety of excellent HR reasons that make you feel like a terrible person/snake/inanimate object made of goo inside. You will have to lie to them (though you may certainly hedge those lies by telling them that "that model of car isn't fully tested" or "that apartment seems way too small" or whatever else you can think of to dissuade them without giving up the fact they may not have a job).

Sales projections are slightly easier to lie about (unless you are talking to the person actually making those projections, and then good luck). Normally people care about them as an indicator of the health of the company--whether or not they should start looking elsewhere. Typically, unless there are upcoming layoffs, you don't really want people looking elsewhere. This series of lies walks the fine line between doing what is right for that individual and doing what is right for your team and the company. Most companies insist you always talk about sales projections as being positive (even if they suck rocks). This usually involves lying, because no company has positive sales projections forever. Your employees, again, are unlikely to be idiots, so they will know this. So your lies need to cover the sales projections in a positive manner, but you probably don't want to be saying that "everything is sunny" all the time, or you will lose a ton of credibility.

Finally, upper management may be changing the direction for the company; often this includes reorganization and/or lay offs, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it means your team is going to end up doing stuff they didn't sign up for--ever been in a company that decided that "every employee is a salesperson"? You end up going to classes, and people quit in droves...because if they wanted to be a sales person, they would have become one, rather than say, a systems engineer.

To keep face with your bosses, to keep the company in the best light possible so people don't flee like rats from a sinking ship, you have to be positive about the new direction even (and especially), when you may hate it yourself. Here the lies may be considerably less believable, but you're still going to have to lie, and you'll be accountable for those lies as long as those members of your team remain on board.

Most of these lies force you to pit the good of the company against the good of the people with whom you work. I don't know about you, but I usually think of myself as working for the people I see every day, rather than for the company that employs me, which makes it even harder. My boss and HR are individuals I often weigh against the individuals on my team or who are my peers. This is really the only way I can remain sane; that + knowing my legal rights (note: the web is an awesome place, but a night class on current HR stuff is invaluable every couple of years).

So basically, you will have to lie. Pretty much you do it all the time, to a certain degree; if you are out at a restaurant and a buddy asks if the shirt looks ok, and it totally doesn't, but there's squat he can do about it for four hours, the answer is "You look fine." This is a lie. But its a small one, compared to the secrets you may have to keep and or lie about as a manager.

A future installment will talk about how to make peace with yourself and your people in the hairy world of lying, but for now, I've certainly said enough. Probably too much.


  1. Speaking as a former manager, I can say that you are totally correct, and I have totally been there.

  2. I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of this essay.