Open Secrets

Undiscussable truths and half-truths that employees all know but no one wants to talk about can bring a company to its knees if HR isn't willing and able to address them.

Friday, August 1, 2008
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Every workplace has its open secrets.

Those things everybody knows, but no one is willing to discuss -- at least not with management, or sometimes even HR.

It might be the bullying boss who rules through intimidation, but who is protected by higher-ups. Or, it might be the poor business practice that creates havoc -- like the group of managers that just can't make decisions, or the department that is always (shhh!) far over budget. HR may be the last to know about these "secrets."

Or maybe HR leaders do have inklings, but prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, because they don't know how to begin solving the problem -- or because they fear being seen as unwelcome meddlers.

The problem is, they're closing their ears to open secrets at their own risk, say a number of HR leaders as well as experts who have studied this kind of organizational dysfunction.

"Sooner or later, if you don't deal with these issues, it's going to hurt the company and hurt the people in it," says Jeffrey Hunt, the senior vice president of communications and HR for Sylvania, the Danvers, Mass.-based lighting company. "You may not be responsible for the behavior itself, but you are responsible for identifying the behaviors that have a negative influence on the organization and doing something about them."

If you're an HR leader who doesn't take action, "later on, you're going to be seen as asleep at the switch," says Hunt. "It's 'pay me now or pay me later.' "

Hunt witnessed a classic case of such a secret a few years ago, when a middle-management position opened up in one of Sylvania's manufacturing groups. It was a very attractive job with high visibility and exposure to senior management. "A good launching pad for other things," says Hunt.

"I had expected a lot of high-potential people to be very interested," he recalls. "We only had one."

When the job went vacant, Hunt knew there was a problem. He just didn't know what it was.

He began having informal conversations with managers at the same level as the opening, asking generally about business conditions. "I got a sense of caution, of people not being as forthcoming as they might have been," he says. Hunt also talked with the HR manager involved in the business, and asked, "What are you seeing?"

What eventually emerged was "the unspoken secret": No one wanted to work for the senior manager running the business. Top management didn't know it, but the person was widely considered to be an over-controlling micromanager who couldn't delegate.

Hunt stepped in and did a discreet intervention -- "without the person's boss knowing." The HR manager had some frank conversations with the person about the problem, and there was a 360-degree appraisal that was billed as a team-building exercise. Hunt also brought in an executive coach to help the senior manager work through his issues.

In the course of the six-to-seven-month process, the manager came to realize he could delegate without losing effectiveness, says Hunt. But that kind of success is rare, he acknowledges. "More often, they have to be moved."

One of the characteristics of an open secret -- also known as "the elephant in the room" -- is that it's often the subject of office chatter, though uttered quietly and on the sly.

"Usually, it's around someone's performance," says Bill Noonan, author of Discussing the Undiscussable and a consultant who is based in The Dalles, Ore. "The team members will spend a lot of time talking about it, but never to the person's face."

And open secrets tend to spread to new employees very quickly, he notes. The first day on the job, the employee will go through the company orientation -- but within a few days, he or she will be taken aside by co-workers and told, "This is how it really works. Let me tell you about so-and-so."

Says Noonan, "It's kind of like an informal employee-orientation program." And it often frames how the new employee will view the boss or the workplace from then on, even if the secret has no basis in reality.

This issue may be more critical than ever. Some experts say the growing pressure these days on organizations to perform has put more stress on management -- and has led to an upswing in the kinds of problems that no one wants to discuss openly.

And for HR executives, the challenge is two-fold. They've got to learn where the most harmful open secrets are -- no easy task -- and then deal with them in a way that doesn't sow even more distrust in the workplace.

Breaking it Down

Daniel Oestreich, a consultant and author of Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, says there are three basic types of open secrets: the behavior of a boss or co-worker, a difficult (or cozy) relationship between two people in the workplace, and what he calls "work outcomes" -- some dysfunctional way of doing things that hurts the bottom line, like a department that can't meet its deadlines.

It can be dangerous for employees to point out these problems, says Oestreich, who is based in Redmond, Wash. Their managers "are competing for credibility -- they won't want you telling the truth."

When there are open secrets that hamper an operation -- and that the bosses don't do anything about -- employees tend to feel stuck, says Oestreich.

And, he warns, "When people get stuck, they go to a pretty cynical place in the organization. When you look at a workplace that's cynical, dig down; you'll see powerlessness and fearfulness."

That cynicism can do even more damage to an organization, the experts say, when workers start complaining about the open secrets to clients and even customers.

In theory, employees should be able to take their complaints to HR.

But at some organizations, HR is perceived as being too closely aligned with management -- and employees fear HR will side with even a bad boss.

"People will say, 'If I take my observations to HR, it will come back to me,' " says Oestreich. "This is the most common concern I've heard about HR."

It's not hard for HR professionals to tell when people aren't coming forward. A good tipoff, he says: "It's precisely if you're not hearing anything."

It gets even more complicated when the problem is within HR itself.

A former HR executive for a multinational company, who asked not to be named, recalls an incident in which the problem was in the human resource department itself. One particular HR vice president was "by the book to the extreme," such that everyone ended up going around HR. "He was one of those people who would say, 'You can't do it, now let me go figure out why you can't do it," says the former HR leader. "So people would say, 'Don't get HR involved; they're going to keep you from doing things.' HR was seen as a roadblock."

Like just about everyone else in the company, the chief human resource officer, who was the boss of both individuals, knew about the problem -- and, in fact, was one of the people who privately complained about the vice president -- but nothing was ever done.

This went on for 10 years. And old habits die hard. When the former HR executive became the vice president's boss, he recalls, he took the man out of his job -- and promptly got flack for it from his HR peers and even the CHRO -- though they had all been complainers.

"All of a sudden, the vice president was being called an integral part of the company," says the former HR executive. "HR people are very happy to complain that a person's terrible, but when it comes to taking action, they get weak-kneed."

A variety of problems can arise when HR investigates itself, and some HR leaders believe it's generally not a good idea.

Libby Sartain, the former chief human resource officer at both Yahoo! and Southwest Airlines, describes the potential conflict of interest: "If I investigated somebody who works for me, and if I found no wrongdoing, someone might question whether I was being fair defending a person on my team."

Sartain recommends bringing in a third party, such as a lawyer who isn't involved in the situation, or an outside mediator.

Open secrets can also arise when there's a lack of communication from top management.

Rob Croner, a longtime HR executive who is now with HResults Inc., a Philadelphia-based HR consultancy, recalls that, at one company he worked for, everyone had heard a merger was coming, but management "went totally dark," and wouldn't say a word about it. Employees were worried about what might happen to their jobs, and were made even more nervous by management's silence.

"If you were walking down a hallway, that's what everyone was talking about," says Croner, whose past positions include executive vice president of HR for The Radian Group, a large mortgage insurance firm, and vice president of human resources at Independence Blue Cross, both based in Philadelphia. "We had retention and productivity issues. There would have been a more engaged workforce had the leaders been more open."

Says Oestreich, "When there are a lot of undiscussables in a workplace, typically people lose motivation. They do things like hiding mistakes and failing to create warnings they won't meet goals."

In addition, he says, there's less innovation when people are afraid to take risks, "so managers and supervisors have to spend more time coming up with ideas, and they wonder why everyone is so passive."

There may also be a heavy price to pay when a bad boss is quietly tolerated by upper management because he or she is particularly valuable to the organization -- something HR leaders and experts on open secrets say they see quite often.

When Sartain saw this kind of open secret, she would tell her own boss, "This is going to cost us more if we don't address it," she says. She would warn that the company's reputation and culture could be damaged, employees might leave and lawsuits could be filed.

An example that Sartain saw "over and over" was when her company would purchase a smaller company, and its entrepreneur-owner was put in charge of some combined operations. They tended to be brilliant and passionate people, but often didn't know much about managing others.

Sometimes, they were bullies, she says. "They want success, and they don't care if they leave dead bodies in their path."

Typically, Sartain would learn of the problem by unexpectedly high turnover, and through exit interviews. Often, people would just come right out and tell her what was going on.

She was not about to let the situation continue unchecked. On several occasions, Sartain personally coached the former owner or used an outside coach.

Another technique was to bring in a "co-person" to handle people issues, "someone who didn't go into the cubicles and scream at people."

Nipping It in the Bud

Sooner or later, open secrets tend to reveal themselves; employee resentment eventually bubbles to the surface. By the time that happens, though, serious damage may already have been done. Which means that, if HR leaders are to be proactive, they must address open secrets they have no idea even exist.

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"If people aren't going to talk about it, how will you know?" says Sylvania's Hunt. "There aren't any best practices that I know of to drill a hole in someone's head."

Hunt believes in the shoe-leather approach. "Be visible and check out the scene yourself," he says. "It's the old managing mantra: 'managing by walking around.' "

He adds, "You'll be able to tell when people are energized or when they're stressed out -- a possible sign that an open secret is hiding somewhere," he says.

HR might not be able to find a smoking gun, but it can spot certain tell-tales, such as when key jobs aren't being filled, or when people are looking to get out of a particular unit, says Hunt.

If an HR leader suspects the problem might be with a certain manager, he or she can sit down with other managers and ask, "Have you observed things about Mr. X or Ms. Y?"

Says Hunt, "They might say they have observed those things, but didn't think they had [seen] enough to take it seriously."

Or, they may just have been hoping the problem would go away.

With some people, says Hunt, "there's a built-in resistance to uncovering issues, because it requires more work. The more actively you turn over stones, the more time and effort it takes."

Open secrets can be minimized if they're caught quickly, and some companies have a variety of early warning systems in place.

KPMG, the New York-based audit, tax and advisory firm, keeps its ear to the ground through methods such as a confidential complaint hotline for employees and yearly surveys, given to all 23,000 U.S. workers, that can detect whether problems are showing up in certain offices or among certain groups of employees, says Bruce Pfau, the firm's vice chairman of human resources.

KPMG also runs focus groups and has a professional-practices ombudsman.

In addition, the firm has an "upward-feedback" program in which every one of a supervisor's direct reports, as well as others, fill out a confidential online survey about the supervisor, says Pfau.

The survey is reviewed by an outside consultant. The supervisor then meets with his or her direct reports in a group meeting to deal with any issues that might have emerged. If the situation is particularly volatile, HR can step in to help mediate, he says. The supervisor also meets with his or her boss.

Problems that are detected through these and other sources -- such as complaints made directly to HR -- are registered in the firm's "Enterprise Incident Manager."

This program allows human resource practitioners to put together separate incidents arising over time, which may reveal a pattern that needs looking into, says Pfau.

In any company, there's the danger that a boss will retaliate against an employee who has complained, and KPMG has a separate computer program to detect whether that might be happening. If a person has a history of high merit raises or exceptional ratings, and they diminish after he or she makes a complaint, the computer will pick it up, says Pfau.

"It's not impossible to keep a dirty secret in our firm," he says, "but it is increasingly difficult."

Sometimes, with open secrets, the trickiest part comes when they're brought to the surface. Noonan, the author, says HR is often told by experts and consultants that employees should have "courageous conversations" with a difficult manager -- that the best approach is to air out any problems.

But, he adds, "there's a good reason why these things are undiscussable. They're emotionally charged assessments of a person's behavior. If you bring it up, it's going to blow up."

Oestreich recalls that, early in his consulting career, he told a police commander that his officers complained he tried to lead through intimidation.

The commander politely thanked him for the information, then called his squad together and said to one officer, " 'Bill, when have I ever intimidated you?' "

According to Noonan, some consultants or human resource practitioners will invite the boss and his or her employees into a meeting, and ask the workers to write on slips of paper the problems they think can't be discussed. The slips are put in a paper bag, and then taken out and read one-by-one. It doesn't take long for such meetings to get out of hand, with people yelling at each other, says Noonan.

A better approach, he says, is to meet with the complaining employee one on one, giving the person a chance to vent in a safe environment. Noonan says he looks for two things: whether the person has shared his or her complaints with the offending boss -- and if not, why not -- and whether the person has ever considered that he or she may be contributing to the problem.

This last point is crucial, says Noonan, because even large groups of employees can sometimes have misperceptions about a boss.

Noonan says the next step is to meet with the boss, who he has found will often present himself or herself as the victim, saying something like, "I was hired to whip people into shape, and now I'm getting crap for trying too hard."

Open secrets often hide very complex situations, and HR has to do more than just bring the secrets to the surface and referee as a neutral party, says Noonan.

"The HR executive has to be a puzzle master," he says. "How do the different parts of the puzzle fit together to make the whole? How are the parties interacting to create a situation that no one would desire or intend?"

This is particularly important when the open secret is within HR, says Chuck Nielson, a former vice president of human resources for Dallas-based Texas Instruments. HR, he says, needs to model the kinds of behavior it expects from other parts of the company.

"HR lives in a glass house," says Nielson. "It has a tendency to be really good about advising other organizations, but its credibility will be significantly weakened if it doesn't deal with the problems in its own shop."

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