Last year I presented at DisruptHR with its unique 20 slides in 5 minutes “speed dating for ideas” format. My chosen subject? “Wouldn’t work be better if we all stopped lying?“
Lying at work – to each other and our people – is so embedded in business culture that much of the time we don’t even realise that we’re doing it. Holding back information, not telling the whole truth, saying one thing when we really mean another, inviting people to read between the lines – they’re all just different ways of lying. And we wonder why half our staff don’t trust anyone at work. Who can blame them?
A couple of weeks ago, Barnes & Noble, the struggling US bookseller that has seen its sales slide for 11 consistent years fired their CEO. The fourth CEO they’ve had in as many years.
Firing the CEO isn’t the big issue, the way they did it is.
Because in a display of minimal accountability to anyone, stockholders or workforce, the company decided to whitewash the whole affair and give no reason other than the CEO, Demos Parneros “had violated company policies”.
The guy got no severance, no notice and the termination ended a 14-month stint as CEO and a 2-year stint at the company where he was previously COO.
The company said the termination was not related to any disagreement with Parneros over “financial reporting, policies or practices or any potential fraud”. So we and the 26,000 employees who are each dependent on the company and its leadership for their salary, are left wondering what happened. What policy did he breach to get fired with no compensation on the spot? What could he possibly have done? And if what he did is so terrible, why is the company protecting him by effectively lying to their whole workforce by withholding any information about what happened?
From the outside, this looks cowardly, stupid or arrogant. But most of all it is destructive and short-sighted. The fact that Parneros was fired with no termination compensation, highly unusual at his level, suggests that the “policy violation” was significant and the evidence solid. But that isn’t how it will be seen by many Barnes & Noble associates, all of whom will be doing their best in a tough market and deserving of solid, dependable leadership.
Firing anyone, let alone someone as visible as the CEO citing vague “policy violations” has the destructive effect of making others frightened that they will be next.
Which policy did he violate? Can we get fired for violating any policy? Is someone now watching all of us? Which of us working for a corporate has even read the myriad of policies, let alone memorised them and assured ourselves of lifelong compliance?
Trust in a workplace is built on transparency and sometimes that transparency will be uncomfortable and it may even have a financial cost. I suspect that the Barnes & Noble board did a deal – keep silent about what happened and pay the guy no severance – it was probably a tough call for him and less of one for them. But if that’s true, his exit does not come at zero cost to the company, it comes at the cost of the trust and belief of the workforce, those 26,000 hard-working Americans.
When I was CEO, I decided years ago that I wouldn’t allow whitewashing clauses in compromise or settlement agreements even if that cost me a few months more compensation pay – the price in the trust of your people is too high a price to pay.
When people leave suddenly, whether they be the CEO or the intern, being straight with colleagues and peers on the reasons and circumstances is essential if you want to maintain trust. You don’t need or want to burn the person leaving and you should treat everyone leaving with kindness and compassion, whatever they have done. But you shouldn’t cross the line of lying to the people remaining because any trust you’ve built with your people is too hard won. They say trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback, and I’ve seen that a hundred times myself.
It is normal, routine business practice to sugar-coat someone’s dismissal reasons, cover them up or write some baloney euphemism about them moving on to pastures new, spending more time with their family or taking a career break. But that doesn’t make it right!
When people leave an organisation we should treat them with kindness but also be up front and honest with everyone they leave behind about what has happened and why. The only way to build trust in your people is to treat them as adults. And Barnes & Noble didn’t do anything like that in this case.
Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership and the future of work weekly at www.glennelliott.me.
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