To preserve talent and energy for the business, we want to address the grievances of wronged employees to retain them, and we want to address the wrong doings of the manager to reform them, and we want to do this in a timely manner.
What keeps us from achieving those goals today is the company’s need to protect itself from lawsuits.
Company policy today enables unethical behavior through a refusal to admit fault which leads to a lack of accountability and therefore empowers unethical managers to stay in power and continue to behave unethically.
We need a way for employees who have been wronged to negotiate terms for the company to admit fault and the misbehaving individual to be brought to justice without having to engage in an expensive and long lawsuit.
The first step is to acknowledge that it is possible for managers to abuse their power to scapegoat employees for their own mistakes. While it is true some mistakes are shared by all people involved, it is also true that some mistakes are the fault of one specific person. When the one person at fault is a manager and the conflict is between a manager and an employee, the power imbalance between manager and employee gives the manager the opportunity to abuse their power to wrongfully pin the blame on the employee and avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.
The next step is to explicitly allocate time for this kind of event and set up a process to handle it, so you are prepared when it happens. When designing this process, consider how you would handle an external event that is out of your control: you would be forced to either find an alternative solution, or pause operations until the external event is resolved. In dealing with an internal employee conflict where you want to retain both employees, I would recommend the second approach: pause operations until the external event is resolved, the external event being an unethical behavior that needs to be highlighted and held accountable.
Finally, use emotional intelligence to resolve the conflict. This is the hardest step. I will not go into detail because it’s about judgement and context and so it can’t be captured in this article. What I can say is there is a lot at stake here. If you get this wrong, victims of abuse will be gaslit and wrongfully terminated, and abusers will be protected and promoted. We need to demand more ethics and emotional intelligence from our managers. Stop promoting people to management based on their work ability alone. Ask for more. Require more. Demand more.
We all want to run a successful business. A successful business is based on a successful organization. A successful organization anticipates the reality of human nature and successfully detects and reforms unethical behavior.
What follows is a story. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.
A 6 month project with 3 deliverables is planned for by 3 people during the 6 months leading up to the start of the project. The 3 people are a software engineer, a program manager, and a business stakeholder.
At the start of the project, a new software engineering manager joins with no context on the project. This manager verbally tells the software engineer that he wants to experiment with the roles and responsibilities of the team. The manager asks the software engineer to trust the manager and to give feedback if things aren’t working, so the software engineer agrees.
The manager says he wants the software engineer to stop talking to the business stakeholder and to stop gathering requirements and to let the program manager do that. The software engineer reports that there isn’t enough requirements for the coding work to begin, and the manager says he will take full responsibility of getting the requirements and of the project, and to not worry about it. This is all verbal.
The manager asks the software engineer to put tentative dates down in writing, and reassures the software engineer verbally that none of these dates are binding and they are just for reference. The manager verbally assures that nothing bad will come from missing these dates, and that it would be perfectly fine to miss them by up to 4 months because they are doing a transition of how software engineers and program managers will work together, and that transition is going to take time.
Recap: Verbally, the manager will take full responsibility for the project, the software engineer should stop gathering requirements, the project deadlines can be delayed by 4 months for this transition in working relationships to take place, and the engineer should not worry about not coding while waiting for requirements. Written, there is a plan to release the 3 originally planned features according to the 6 month original plan.
The first month goes by, and the software engineer becomes concerned with the mismatch between what the manager is saying verbally and what is written. Furthermore, the software engineer notices that upper management and business partners and even the business stakeholder and program manager seem to think that the original dates are what we are working towards. In 3 consecutive weekly 1:1s with the manager, the software engineer brings this up as a concern and the manager interrupts the software engineer, dominates the conversation verbally, and asserts that the software engineer should do nothing, to trust the manager, and to not say a word about this to anyone else.
As the second month starts, it is now 4 weeks until the first project deadline, and the project is nowhere near having the necessary requirements to begin work. The manager took responsibility for gathering the requirements, and then made no progress for 5 weeks on gathering requirements, and assured the engineer to not worry about it for the 3 weeks that the engineer was worried.
At this point, the engineer suspects foul play. The engineer believes the manager has artificially lied to everyone to set up a situation where the engineer will miss an important project deliverable and then be held accountable and wrongfully terminated. However, this is far fetched and the engineer decides to give the manager the benefit of the doubt. What the engineer decides to do is to discuss the status of the project with the manager.
For the last 3 1:1s, the manager has talked over the engineer and refused to let the engineer voice concerns over the situation. In the 4th 1:1, the engineer does not let the manager talk over the engineer. The engineer stays solid and firm and asks that they have a serious talk about how to deliver success for the project. In this meeting, the manager says: I am giving you full responsibility over the project. I am stepping away and will not be involved.
The engineer now realizes that the project is 5 weeks behind, and everyone else expects it to complete in 3 weeks, and that the manager has lied to the engineer about taking full responsibility of the project and gathering the requirements for the project. The engineer thinks about how to react, and decides to proceed diplomatically. The engineer says: Let’s talk about what we can do given the current situation. The manager says No, absolutely not. I will not be involved at all, you are taking full responsibility. The engineer says: This is not acceptable. The manager says: You are refusing to work, that is unacceptable, I am going to have to report you.
The manager reports the engineer for not working and for underperforming for the last 5 weeks to the manager’s manager.
The engineer contacts HR.
In the coming weeks of investigation, the engineer learns that the manager never communicated to the business stakeholder and the program manager that the software engineering manager would be taking full responsibility of requirements gathering, nor did they get the same speeches on changes to roles and responsibilities that the software engineer was told. The engineer also learns that the manager’s manager was never told of the ‘4 months delay of the project is acceptable.’
Therefore, it is confirmed that the manager did lie to set up the engineer for a failure to wrongfully terminate the engineer. However, the manager claims the engineer has a problematic perception, and that is what cause the failure of the project. Because the manager intelligently balanced verbal and written communication during that period, the engineer has no hard evidence to contradict the manager’s claim. HR is unable to take the engineer’s side without hard evidence, so HR takes the manager’s side in this “he said she said” situation, the manager’s manager stays neutral, and the damage to the project is done and the engineer is held responsible.
In the subsequent months, the manager publicly pins the failure of the project on the engineer, and writes in the PSC that it was fully the responsibility of the engineer to do the work, and therefore the failed project means a failed engineer.
Also, in the 1:1s of these subsequent months, the manager no longer hides his hatred for the engineer during the unrecorded video calls. The manager verbally abuses the engineer, bullies, intimidates, and insults the character of the engineer. Any time the engineer asks for respect, it is ignored.
When the engineer shares asks for help on critical junction points for the project, the manager will take the opposite action of success, and then when the failure of the project happens as an outcome of that opposite action, the engineer is blamed.
When the engineer starts delivering functioning work, the manager verbally harasses the engineer and demands that the engineer do something else. When the engineer refuses to do something else, HR is brought in and the topic of insubordination is mentioned as a veiled threat of termination. Thus, the engineer sends an email to the manager and HR outlining how the engineer anticipates the decision the manager is making will fail, and then obeys the manager. However, when the failure happens exactly as described by the email, the employee is blamed by the manager, and HR does nothing to reverse the work performance record.
As a result, the engineer accumulates more negative work performance reviews and is eventually managed out. Not only is the managing out wrongful because the negative results are due to the manager avoiding responsibility, but we know this is malicious intent from the initial lie that set up the whole series of events, and the verbal abuse and harassment that escalated once the abuser was called out.
Stories like this are terrible. I believe the world will be a better place if we put processes in place to ensure that abuses of power are caught and the abusers are held accountable.
Let’s work together to Hold Unethical Managers Accountable for Their Actions