HR Administration

Dear Workforce How Do We Handle a Mutiny in Our Senior Ranks?

By Staff Report

Jul. 28, 2011

Dear No Captain Bligh:

Anonymous letters like the one you’ve described are a pain for human resources professionals, who are the ones commonly tasked with running them to ground. Although it is difficult (if not impossible) to respond to such letters, resist any urge you have to ignore them: They often provide much-needed information. At a minimum, you should do two things:

  1. Determine whether the allegation has any substance. In other words, is there any fire accompanying the smoke?
  2. If possible, find out why more preferred feedback mechanisms (including the chain of command and your HR office) apparently weren’t used.

Obviously, if the letter contains any threats or hints of impropriety, a rigorous professional investigation to discover the author or authors becomes relevant, as well. Since you didn’t mention any, we’ll assume that isn’t the case here.

While we don’t know if the letter represents the legitimate concerns of a real group or simply the ranting of a lone individual, the fact that it purportedly comes from the management ranks is of special concern. If it did have the complicity of a group, this could certainly be an indicator of a debilitating trust deficit in the organization. Either way, it suggests a breakdown in the company’s feedback mechanisms.

Here’s what we’d recommend as appropriate responses, in sequential order:

  • Quietly approach a couple of individuals whom you trust—people who have their fingers pretty firmly on the pulse of the organization. Privately and confidentially ask if they think the letter accurately represents reality. If so, ask what things they have observed that supports the claims made in the letter.
  • Conduct a robust, broad-scope employee survey—now, not later. If yours is at all a labor-intensive business, you should probably be doing them anyway. A well-designed and implemented survey process has legitimate built-in anonymity. This is not a do-it-yourself job. Hire an experienced service provider with a track record of successful implementations. Insist on discreet reporting by managers, and pay close attention to the findings. If the survey, the private interviews, or both, corroborate the anonymous letter, you’ll need to devise—with input from your CEO—a plan to treat the symptoms and root cause. Depending on what you find, your CEO may need to brief the board of directors
  • Lastly, encourage (insist, if you’re in a position to do so) the CEO or another senior officer to meet with the management team as a group to discuss the anonymous letter, its contents and its tone. The message should be clear and unambiguous:

“The following letter was received. We obviously don’t know who sent it, but it purports to come from one or more of the people in this room. There are a number of legitimate and helpful ways to make concerns of this type known, but this is not one of them. If at any time, any of you (or someone in your organization) ever has a concern of this sort, you/they are encouraged and expected to talk with your reporting senior, our HR executive, compliance officer, or me promptly, openly, and honestly about it. You’ll never be punished for respectfully airing what you believe to be a legitimate concern.”

The way in which you handle this matter has the potential to earn additional trust and appreciation from your senior leadership. You’ve gotten off to a good start by seeking the benefit of outside perspective. Best of luck as you move ahead with addressing these issues.

SOURCE: Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden, Contented Cows, Memphis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida

LEARN MORE: All levels of management are needed to help rebuild trust in leadership.

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The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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