I’ve had the great fortune to have amazingly talented and hard-working people work for me over the years. The talent always comes with a high degree of honesty and integrity. Honesty isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the basis for all healthy human relationships.
In business, honesty builds strong professional networks, streamlines team-solving of tough problems, and is just easier than juggling lies. So I’m disappointed when a member of my team feels the need to be less than honest.
To get more granular on this, consider the tough case where an employee is looking for another job. To cover his tracks when interviewing, he tells me he’s sick or has a doctor appointment. For an active job search, that’s a lot of sick days and doctor appointments. I find myself wanting to send flowers. Why does he choose to undermine our relationship by lying to me?
Well, I’ve figured it out. It’s all my fault.
At the risk of suggesting every nail needs to be hit with a privacy hammer, it comes down to the privacy exerted by the less powerful player in a relationship — the power gap I’ve discussed in Creepy Is As Creepy Does. It’s my job, as the boss with the upper hand, to create an environment of trust. Keeping information private levels the playing field against a boss that holds the cards.
What cards, you ask? First, if I discover the employee is looking for work, I might fire him on the spot or work behind the scenes to replace him on my timetable, not his. Second, if his job search fails and he ends up staying with the company, he worries I’ll question his company loyalty and treat him badly — maybe pass him over for promotion or give him bad assignments. In both cases, it’s clear that he doesn’t (and really shouldn’t) trust that I won’t abuse my power.
It doesn’t always have to be like this. An alternate, albeit unconventional, reality would be to recognize that careers are long (extending through good markets and bad) but jobs are short. When you’re fortunate to work with someone great, recognize that his opportunities are many, and it is the company’s responsibility to hit the bid on his opportunity costs. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, “An employee is only as loyal as his or her opportunities.”
Frankly, if the company just can’t satisfy the employee within the company, what’s wrong with using my network to help him find another position outside the company and negotiate a smooth transition? The goodwill is priceless. If they stay, I respect them for managing their career so conscientiously.
The pointy-haired bosses I’ve encountered live in a dreamworld where their leadership is perfect and the company is flawless. Too often, such bosses are deluding employees or themselves and can’t be trusted with their power. To level the playing field, the only option open to an employee is to exert their privacy by withholding information — that is, lie.
It’s really hard, but if we bosses can earn the trust of our employees, even during the toughest of times, the company inures huge competitive benefits in team efficiency, retention, and reduced disruption; and, for the employee and boss, a trusted bond that might last a lifetime.