Better Mondays - Chapter Nine
Looking Out for Number One
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Chapter Nine - Looking Out for Number One
In this section, we’re going to talk about professional self-defense for your career, including the best ways to stay under HR’s radar and avoid being targeted for termination.
Your workday should always be executed with a precautionary mindset designed to protect your professional reputation, a vital component to your long term success.
Beware Human Resources – Department of Smoke and Mirrors. Its name—Human Resources—suggests a division of the company dedicated to the well-being and advancement of the company’s employees. It sounds like a downright friendly and inviting place, where you can find the help you need to accelerate your career, work through problems, and increase the enjoyment and satisfaction you receive from your work. The term human resources conveys such a sense of positivity about it, it’s easy to assume the HR department to be a place designed to serve and benefit the company’s workforce.
In a word . . . wrong.
In three words . . . wrong, wrong, wrong.
If I could suggest a new name that more accurately describes what goes on inside the HR department, I’d offer this: “Department for the mitigation of corporate liability in managing employee discipline, exits, terminations, and transfers.”
The HR department’s number one responsibility is to protect the company from liability. The primary source of this liability originates from wrongful termination lawsuits and damage claims resulting from alleged discrimination or harassment. Notice the emphasis on protecting the company. The HR department represents the company’s interests and assets, not yours.
In short, the HR department IS the company, pared down to its most legal and protective persona. When you talk to anyone in HR, consider your conversation—your choice of subject and what you choose to reveal—the same way you would if speaking to a lawyer for the opposing side.
Santa isn’t the only one with a naughty list.
In addition to mitigating liability resulting from employee interactions and terminations, HR also keeps a watchful eye on employee behavior, hoping to ferret out potential problems and eliminate the “bad apples” in the earliest stages. Their tools are managing to terminate (managing out), demotion, transfers, and large-scale employee termination via lay-offs and downsizing.
HR is the quintessential incarnation of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. More than one HR manager has revealed how naive most employees are about the department’s function, with most workers never realizing HR’s intentions are seldom—if ever—in the best interests of the individual worker.
One ex-HR manager once related the subtle irony of the department’s typical smoke and mirror approach by recalling HR’s presentation of an in-house motivational seminar designed to promote sensitivity and tolerance between co-workers on the same day they circulated a memo to management, titled, “Make sure the discharge is legal.”
“But I’m the model employee,” you say. “I have nothing to fear from HR.”
Even the best employees can find themselves suddenly engaged in a conversation with HR due to a takeover, buyout, or reorganization. So never let your defenses down. Unless you originate the correspondence, treat any communication from HR as a threat to terminate, even when disguised as an opportunity to transfer, acquire more education, or the possibility of a promotion. Be courteous, professional, and prompt. And never give them a reason to doubt your loyalty.
How can you stay on the good side of HR? By avoiding the most egregious “sins” cited by HR managers as “actionable offenses requiring intervention.” You may want to use the following suggestions to create a personal behavior code that defines your line in the sand—one you must never cross. Exceptions are seldom—if ever—justified by the situation, the circumstances, or the aberrant behavior of others. So consider these to be “fatal errors,” with little chance of forgiveness.
1. Never threaten anyone, either with idle intent or physical violence.
2. Never badmouth the company in the presence of others. That includes expressing dissatisfaction with your job, compensation, your supervisor, or company policy. Keep in mind there is no such thing as a “private conversation” on company property. Ears are everywhere, and there’s always a chance someone will overhear you. If you need to vent, buy a diary and fill it with a daily record of gripes, complaints, and grievances. Remember to keep it locked away at home so no one else can read it.
3. Stay cool and collected under fire. While you may think you’re occasionally entitled to curse, vent, or blow off steam, the results can and will hurt you. Just because the conversation turns heated or you’re put under pressure, there’s no excuse for verbal attacks and derogatory statements—even when they’re true. Going ballistic may seem like the only option you’ve got, but others will see your emotional outburst as a symptom of fear and emotional immaturity. Even worse, it’s an indication that the other guy got to you, and you couldn’t handle it. Make it a habit of silently dismissing the stupid behavior and comments of others. It demonstrates you’re operating on a much higher level, and in fact, have the capacity to handle far more serious situations.
4. Avoid making negative comments or innuendo about another employee. Although similar to misdeed number two, expressing negativity about others is so prevalent in the workplace, it deserves more emphasis. Never trash a co-worker, not even to a trusted confidant. The moment it leaves your lips, it’s out there—a loose missile no longer under your control—and you never know when it’s going to circle back and blow up in your face. By keeping negative comments out of your conversations, you’ll be safeguarding your reputation and character. Regardless of how poorly another employee is doing, never volunteer a negative opinion about them. If you have responsibility for their performance, and your manager pushes you to deliver a less than glowing evaluation, do it with a positive spin, indicating that with more direct supervision, feedback, or directed assignments there's a chance for improvement.
5. Avoid becoming a company liability. This is why the HR Department is continually pumping out all those little signs and posters warning workers to avoid the possession and use of illegal substances, never steal or misuse company property, and never engage in behavior that could be construed as sexual harassment. So leave the contraband at home, never put un-earned company money or property in your pocket (more on this subject below), and eliminate sexual innuendo in your conversations with co-workers.
6. Never be the instigator of rumor or gossip. Some years back, the water cooler became a metaphor for an impromptu meeting area on company property. It might be the parking lot, the break room, the bathroom, or yes, even the water cooler. Regardless of where it takes place, it’s the main distribution point for drama and distraction, with the topic usually centered on office rumors. My advice? Stay out of it. Make it a point to protect yourself from the busy-bodies and blabbermouths who love to spread rumor, conjecture, and gossip. Management is always on the lookout for “agitators” who incite discontent or raise the anxiety level of other employees. If you’re pressed for a comment, just smile and say nothing. Your response will leave the impression that regardless of whether you know or don’t know, you’re not saying anything about it. You’re making it clear it’s information you cannot or will not share—because you know better. Over time, you’ll be respected for it. Yes, others may try to coerce or bait you into revealing what you know, and while the temptation to take the spotlight can be overwhelming, the rewards of keeping your mouth shut are far more valuable in the long run.
7. Treat company email and inter-office correspondence as if it were public. Here’s an axiom for using email you should commit to memory: Never put anything in your email correspondence that you wouldn’t want to be said publically. Email isn’t secure, and after it’s received, you no longer have any control over its distribution and who ultimately sees it. The same is true with any communication taking place under the company umbrella. Regardless of the assurance you’ve received confirming your conversation is private or privileged, once your words are part of a retrievable file, you’ve lost the advantage of plausible deniability. Worse, your comments and opinions—especially those containing innuendo or framed within a negative context—can be used against you if you’re ever targeted to be managed out.
Use the company channels of correspondence for business only. Always use professional dialogue and avoid any personal references, slang, or innuendo. If you feel the need to criticize or convey an attitude, feeling, or suggestion that contains a negative inference about company policy, programs, customers, or employees, ask yourself what the repercussions would be if your email was broadcast to every employee within the company. In short, don’t do it.
8. Avoid revealing proprietary information in front of the competition. It happens more frequently than you realize. You’ll typically run into competitors at trade shows, marketing conventions, a customer’s place of business, or industry association meetings. There’s also the inevitability of seeing them in restaurants and other public places.
How do you behave when finding yourself face-to-face with a competitor? Here’s a general rule: Be cordial and professional, and when it comes to business, keep your mouth shut.
Never, never, never (that’s three in a row, so pay attention) talk about price, profit, markups, costs, market share, or anything having to do with money, customers, or a particular job or project. If you’re overheard by someone who wishes to harm you professionally, you could be accused of collusion or price setting, a violation of anti-trust law.
When engaging the competition, smile, talk about the weather, the traffic, your trip to Yosemite, but steer clear of business. If the other person asks a question about your sales, a company project, or internal changes in responsibility or leadership, say you’re not privy to that kind of information. Or, you can be more direct and respond with: “I can’t say. As you know, those subjects are proprietary.” Avoid phrases like, “I haven’t heard,” or “I suppose we’ll find out later.” This infers there is a situation under consideration, and that fact alone could be the very thing your competition wants to know. Asking about rumors, conjecture, and industry scuttlebutt is part of a competitive strategy—and it’s your job to protect the company’s secrets.
9. Never steal from the company. That includes using proprietary information for personal gain, accepting kickbacks or bribes, manipulating a competitive situation to the financial advantage of one customer over another, or participating in any activity that diverts company money or assets into your pocket. As an employee, part of your job is to conserve and protect company property. And while I’m sure most recognize the illegality of stealing office furniture or computers, I'm referring to the more subtle but intentional manipulation of reports, records, or accounts that directly or indirectly results in personal financial benefit.
I can hear the groans now . . . “Hey, I gotta fudge a few bucks on the expense account to cover the miscellaneous charges. Otherwise, I’ll never break even.”
And I’m telling you, don’t do it. Keep records of your reimbursable expenses as if your job depended on it. If you can’t produce a receipt, don’t submit it for repayment. Expense accounts have been used for decades to pad incomes, put gas into the spouse’s car, and take the family out for a nice dinner. Moreover, those who do it think they’re getting away with it.
The accounting department, fleet managers, and Human Resources KNOWS. They talk about it over lunch—who’s doing it, and how much was embezzled from the company this month. Think the term “embezzled” too harsh? Read on.
Dipping your hand into the corporate till—regardless of the amount—will hurt you in the long run. Your actions define your reputation. And if you can’t be trusted to handle a couple of hundred dollars in an honest and forthright way, why would management put you in charge of thousands?
The same goes for local office managers who buy copy machines and desk computers for the office staff. If given local purchasing authority, make sure you collect evidence of having price shopped, negotiated for extra warranty periods, and obtained the very best price, terms, and conditions of sale before you purchase. Make it a habit to get everything in writing and save every quote and estimate. You never know when this can be useful to rationalize your choice of brand and vendor. Having to justify your choice may have nothing to do with an attack on your honesty, but could come in the form of a random audit. So be prepared to prove your best intentions by having a backup file of paperwork.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about bribes, kickbacks, and slush funds. Beginning to feel uncomfortable? It’s a common reaction, and that’s because the flow of money under the table is a common problem in large companies. Product managers, sales associates, and marketing heads are continually being asked to cut prices to meet a competitive situation where none exists. In exchange, they’re promised cash, or a cash-equivalent kickback (a bribe, if we call it what it really is).
For example, Distributor A asks their factory rep to give them a better price than Distributor B, their competitor. When Distributor A gets the business, the rep receives a “thank you” in the form of an expense-paid weekend to Vegas.
Kickbacks, slush money, and bribes can also originate from un-billed (free) replacement stock meant to replace “faulty” merchandise that never existed. It can also take the form of a “pass-through” discount (employee discounts, merchandise ordered as samples, or unjustified wholesale pricing) in which real value is exchanged, and one or more undeserving individuals receive a financial advantage. It’s wrong and usually illegal.
Here’s an objective way to determine whether an activity is questionable. Put yourself in the position of having purchased the company you work for. That’s right; you own the whole thing, every desk, chair, and computer. The trash cans, staplers, and copy machines belong to you. You also pay everyone’s salary. You own the company cars and pay for the gas to keep them running. Every month, you pay out tens of thousands of dollars for the building lease, utilities, and taxes. And when your company sells a product or service, you take a commensurate and reasonable amount for compensation, but most of the profit is used to pay for the continuing operation of the company.
Now, how do you feel about an employee who makes illicit arrangements to redirect money from your company’s pocket into his? Still think it’s a gray area?
Here’s the acid test: If company management wouldn’t approve of it, or you couldn’t openly talk about it in front of the CEO, you’ve crossed the line.
The days of looking the other way are gone. The excuse of “Hell, everybody does it,” won’t fly. Here are three facts of life for employees who embezzle funds from their employer: (1) you will be found out. (2) You will lose your job. (3) You may go to jail.
Oh, and by the way, your reputation? It’s in the sewer. Even if you’re able to negotiate your way out of criminal charges, you’ll have a blotch on your personal work history. If your misdeeds or financial impropriety results in a discharge for “nebulous” reasons—occasionally offered in exchange for a resignation—the resulting rumors will pretty much guarantee you’ll never work in the industry again. People talk. And what was nebulous to some will be explained in great detail to others.
Look at it this way: Protecting the assets of your employer is protecting your livelihood. The company provides you with the financial resources to maintain your standard of living and invest in your future. Never endanger that relationship by taking advantage of your employer’s trust—you’ll only wind up stealing from yourself.
10. Never openly or publically disagree with a supervisor or any member of a management team. If you believe it is in the best interest of the company for an individual to be made aware of your opposing opinion (because you know something they don’t), then objectively and privately present the new or overlooked information that substantiates your viewpoint. Make it clear your objective is for them to have all the facts before making a final decision, and regardless of what they decide, you will support it.
11. Avoid making a legal claim (of any kind) against the company. Regardless of your rights as defined by law, bringing formal legal action against your employer is applying the kiss of death to your career.
Granted, there are situations in which you may have good reason to go after the organization, but here’s the real question: Do you plan to continue working there? If the issue can be resolved “off the books,” you may be able to preserve your future with the company—if you really want to stay. However, if you take your grievances public with a formal complaint or lawsuit, you’ll be labeled a whistleblower—a headache for the company and not someone they will want to keep.
The exception? If your complaint is clearly a case of discrimination or sexual harassment and after repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issue, you’ve reached the point where you’ve had enough. If this describes your situation, you need to take action to protect yourself. Check out the additional information in chapter nineteen. Hopefully, the suggestions you’ll find there will provide you with a few defensive tools you can use.
12. Keep the controversial and idiosyncratic parts of your life confidential. I want to point out a few additional activities that might not seem to be a career risk, but can definitely slow or stall your advancement within the company. In extreme cases—based on bias or the “moral compass” of management—engaging in any of the following activities can put you on the shortlist for termination. Luckily, any negative repercussions that might result from these “career killers” can be prevented by one simple action: Keep the controversial and idiosyncratic parts of your life to yourself!
For example, you may believe that using your backyard pool au-natural is a harmless, benign activity.
However, before you mention it during the morning coffee break, think again—your boss may find it offensive and even deviant. If it’s not something you can read about in a family-friendly magazine, keep it to yourself. And that includes trips to provocative locations, resorts, or events.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? In plain English, if you want to avoid being pigeon-holed as depraved or corrupt, stay away from the Hookers Ball in San Francisco, the adult entertainment award shows in Las Vegas, Fantasy Fest in Key West, or any other event that suggests or promotes “alternative” social or sexual behavior.
Regardless of the so-called “newly enlightened” attitudes that supposedly inhabit the upper floors of corporate America, we are still a country of conservative traditionalists. If you make it a point to broadcast or otherwise advertise your unconventional behavior, you may find yourself encountering all kinds of roadblocks unrelated to your work performance and productivity.
(Note: I’m not talking about an individual’s primary sexual orientation. If you’re gay or identify with a non-mainstream orientation, many states now have legal covenants in place to protect your lifestyle. Your choice of orientation or the gender of your life-partner should not impact your career path. If you believe it has, seek legal counsel.)
13. Keep your investments and other income sources private. Maybe you do a little consulting work on the side or edit manuscripts on the weekends, or manage social media for an online company. Although these activities are non-competitive and you perform them after regular work hours, they must remain a secret.
Your employer will, by default, consider other income-producing activities as threatening competition to your company career. In the myopic vision of management, an employee’s attention and dedication to their job is diluted when they engage in other money-making activities, even when performed outside of regular working hours. Corporations are jealous masters, and they will not knowingly share their employees’ commitment with other financially oriented activities.
In management’s opinion, your off-hours should be spent recharging your batteries, so you return to work refreshed, ready to perform at peak efficiency. If your supervisor learns of your involvement in a sideline business or part-time venture, she’ll blame any indication of stress, overwork, or distraction during working hours as a result of your outside activities, even though your symptoms may be the direct result of your day job.
14. Never reveal serious personal health problems. Except for a rare case of the sniffles, you should always project the image of someone who is in perfect health. Smoking, obesity, and excessive drinking are liabilities, and we’ve already discussed how companies feel about liabilities. In theory, your medical records are private, but a continuing chain of medical claims processed through the company insurance plan may prompt questions about your ability to perform your job. If taking time off for a doctor’s visit or medical tests raises suspicions about your health, downplay the symptoms, and refer to any tests as “just routine.”
15. Use prudence and caution when posting on social media. This includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all their various permutations. If you post something business-related, make sure it’s positive and praiseworthy. Use extreme discretion if you post something personal. If it isn’t something your mother, minister, or boss could read without you needing to offer an apology, don’t do it. Anything suggestive, off-color, or having a sexual connotation is definitely off-limits. Plenty of employees have lost their jobs because they posted an inappropriate comment, revealed too much skin, or disclosed information that cast their employer in a negative light.
16. Never discuss or disclose personal issues with anyone who could influence your career, either now or in the future. Maybe you’re having marital problems, or you’re upset over the recent loss of a relative or pet, or you’re just not feeling up to par. It happens. And it’s human nature to take others into our confidence. But you’re better off professionally if you keep your feelings to yourself. Revealing these issues—especially the details and how it’s affecting you—can create doubt in the minds of those who are constantly evaluating your capability and competence. If management knows you’re distracted or otherwise preoccupied with problems outside of work, they will assume you’re off your game—your judgment is impaired and your priorities are in the wrong place. Revealing your personal plight may evoke all kinds of sympathy, but as far as management is concerned, you’ve just admitted you’re not as effective as you could be, and if your disclosure takes place at the same time you’re being considered for a promotion, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
What if you’re blindsided? What if there are no warnings and you end up the target of an orchestrated effort to terminate you? As I said before, even the best employee can find themselves on HR’s shortlist. The reason can be anything from an innocent mistake that angered a member of senior management, to a buy-out by a larger company, resulting in the elimination of your position or job function.
When HR strikes, you may be tempted to fight back. But never forget: HR always wins.
Right or wrong, they will prevail. Yes, we read about the occasional (pronounced rare) instance of an employee who stands up against unfair termination due to discrimination, legal infractions, or some other blatant disregard for personal rights. However, the vast majority of whistleblowers, martyrs, and champions-for-change pay an enormous price, both personally and professionally. And while I’ll be the first to admit that the sacrifices made by some have been instrumental in improving the work environment for all of us, this book is written for the 99.9 percent of employees who want to use the corporate structure to not only survive, but to build a prosperous and satisfying life.
Having said that, I’ll offer this to the 00.1 percent who’ve taken all they can take and are ready to fight back. I’ve provided a few suggestions in Chapter 20 titled, “Signs it’s Time to Leave.” Look under the subheading, “What if you’re being harassed out?” It contains three specific actions you can use to defend yourself and lend credibility to your side of the story if you decide to pursue legal action.
Coming up next from Better Mondays:
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.