Over the last few weeks, the informal rules surrounding workplace behavior changed far more than I think most people yet realize. We went from an environment where many looked at the rules surrounding behavior between employees, particularly managers and subordinates, as little more than loosely enforced guidelines to tolerance levels where an accusation, without proof, could end careers, collapse projects and potentially end companies. This is no longer an innocent until painstakingly proven guilty and then hand slapped environment, where those with titles could be shielded by their titles and reputations. This is a near rabid hunt for perpetrators, which undoubtedly will cull a herd that needs culling and overreach, damaging those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another troubling aspect of this that should be addressed is that many of the accusations doing the most damage are decades old and seem to be able to jump companies. This may burn out in a few months and it may not, but here are some things you might want to consider on top of the fact that, given the holidays, this is even more complicated.
Practice and Preach Zero Tolerance
I think zero tolerance is stupid but here I don’t think you have a choice. If there was ever a time not to let your hair down with employees, this is it. A casual offhand remark misunderstood could be a career ender and whether you are a manager, executive or employee, you need to be on your game. This means social gatherings are particularly dangerous because alcohol will lower inhibitions and reduce judgment, and that funny anecdote, joke, or demeaning co-worker story that would have been funny in prior years could land you in a world of hurt.
I advise not drinking at work events, make sure your partner is on your arm and has your back, and let other soon-to-be-unemployed people tell the jokes. Were I a manager, I’d have a heart to heart with all my employees, reviewing company policy and ethics and discussing potential consequences that should be front of mind.
New young employees are particularly likely to make these mistakes because they often haven’t adjusted to the business world of consequences. Employees who are known to come close to or who have crossed lines should be brought in and individually counselled. You may have to act proactively and let one or two folks get fired depending on the environment, so the rest get the message.
Back when I was in executive training, we had a highly placed sales executive tell an inappropriate joke during the harassment class. I often wondered since if that had been staged, because two security folks showed up and hauled him off the company property and we were told he was terminated on the spot. But the folks you have who don’t get this you’ll likely lose. Firing someone over the holidays is no fun at all and it is far less fun getting fired yourself.
Longevity of These Problems
These accusations of impropriety and worse seem to have quite long arcs, in some cases. It is hard to defend against them when they are current, but now accusations going back decades are coming up. If the email, note or picture is taken out of context, you’ll likely no longer have your copy of the event that would put it back into context. With a guilty until proven innocent mindset, that means someone can quite easily become a casualty even if they never actually did anything wrong, and we aren’t even talking about how much allowed behavior has changed over the last 30 or 40 years.
Looking forward, this is going to get worse as a trend because increasingly, everything we do is captured and digitized. Often, we are doing it ourselves with Twitter and Facebook posts. That snarky political remark that your current employer has no issue with now has the potential of keeping you out of a job or getting you fired from a job decades later at a different company.
We likely should have regular reminders that what we say that is fine today, may not be considered fine tomorrow and that our opinions, given publicly, could damage our employability even if those opinions changed with everyone else’s over time. We may change but what we record is locked into history and that history is showing a nasty tendency to come back to bite us.
Wrapping Up: It’s a Different Time Now
While I think the current level of activity will burn itself out, this will now be a recurring event and we need to consider protecting ourselves. This means avoiding companies, managers and executives who behave inappropriately, not only because they could behave inappropriately with you but because you could become part of the collateral damage when they are taken down.
In the end, I think it is well past time we not only took a hard look at our behavior and what we have been tolerating but at our firm’s culture, and rethink what we accept in behavior by those who lead. This has gone beyond just trying to be happy at work, and into being able to continue working, and that suggests we become far more observant and proactive than we have been.
Or put simply, if you are a manager or executive and don’t want to fire someone, get fired, or find yourself in a PR or social media storm, you should make sure you and your people are on their very best behavior through the holidays. And, considering social media, maybe for the rest of our lives.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+