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When betrayal stinks from the head

5 min read


I have a friend who has a secret for staying young: She makes it her business not to know stuff. In contrast, it’s my job to know stuff and then tell people about it.

We stay in cross-country touch via e-mail these days. And I have to be very careful what I send her. I imagine her sitting in her office peering through splayed fingers at my name in her inbox. What is it today? The latest outrage about her favorite politician? Or giggle-inducing kitten videos?

So what do I do when I know she might lose her job? I tell her, of course. No one else will. Not even her own boss.

It’s looking like defense-industry layoffs are looming for January. And most employers are legally required to give their people two months’ notice under the WARN Act. Here’s the problem: That two-month advance warning coincides with Election Day, a bit of bad news that could be problematic for the  administration. So, multiple federal agencies have told defense-contractor employers that they are not obligated to give their employees that November WARN Act warning. My friend could be one of those people surprised with a pink slip in January.

I pinged her, very carefully wording the e-mail “A job security heads-up.” Her response: “I’m not sure we are a defense contractor,” although upon reflection she allows that their only client is a branch of the military. (See what I mean about not knowing stuff?) Nevertheless, she adds, “We’re like family, our owner even has us over to his house for Christmas parties every year.” (Great, I think. I hope you’ll think to scoop crab puffs into your new Dooney & Bourke handbag for the freezer later. But, of course, I don’t say that part.) So, in conclusion, no worries.

“And, by the way, Martha, you read way too much of the wrong kind of news.” (The river of unsolicited advice flows both ways, I guess.)

When I took my frustrations to Facebook, another friend wrote, “What about the DTRT Act? I voted for that one.” What’s DTRT, I ask? Do The Right Thing, she responds. And this is our subject for today.

Setting aside the WARN Act for just a minute, how about the DTRT Act? As much as the WARN Act exemption holds some serious legal liabilities, there hasn’t been much attention paid to the betrayal by management to their employees should the pending layoffs begin rolling out in January. What do leaders do when caught in the squeeze between doing the business-savvy thing and doing the right thing?

Roughly half a million U.S. jobs are on the line if the defense cuts take effect. That represents a tremendous amount of productivity that can be harnessed for the rest of 2012. From the employer’s perspective, isn’t it much better to keep these folks focused on their jobs, as opposed to laboring under the rising pressure of career freakout? The answer is obvious: Wouldn’t it be better for business to just not tell them until the hammer finally drops? Hence the need for the WARN Act in the first place.

For every employee who doesn’t know that January holds a potential devastating surprise, there is a manager who has chosen not to tell. For every manager who is also unaware of the looming pink slip tsunami, there is a leader who has chosen not to tell. The DTRT Act starts at the top — where it’s beginning to smell.

As a leader you’re entrusted with company secrets. And it’s right that you should honor that trust. But what do you do when the mandate from above puts you between company strategy and Do The Right Thing? Do you somehow drop hints to your people that maybe now’s not the right time to buy that new car or write that private-school tuition check? Do you casually leave a newspaper lying around that’s opened to the pertinent article?

And what about you? Are you confident that you’re also not on the bitter end of your own betrayal food chain? You know what kinds of secrets your company wants you to keep from your employees. But what secrets is your company keeping from you?

If you, as a leader, are being asked to withhold essential information from your employees, you can count on the fact that essential information is being withheld from you, as well.

The secrets that you’re keeping from your people may be nothing in comparison to the secrets your own leadership is keeping from you. If it makes you feel and function better not to dwell on that stuff, that’s your choice. So here’s a tip: Bring an extra large handbag to your company’s party this season.