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How to Speak Truth to Power

By: | June 10, 2019 • 8 min read
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.

Let’s face it:  No one wants to be the company scold. No one looks to be the moral arbiter inside the workplace. And who really wants to be the one to tell the CEO what’s what? Especially when the “what” is that the CEO blew it in a big way?

Generally speaking, it’s hard enough in the HR profession to inspire both trust and respect among your peers so that they can relax—maybe even smile—when they see you heading their way. It takes a very special senior leader in a position of power to be willing to take a rebuke from the HR advisor. But, in many cases, if the HR advisor doesn’t speak up—especially on behalf of a disempowered individual lower in the organization—no one else will.  As much as your senior leadership may hate to admit it, they’re depending on you to be the honest culture calibrator. Silence from you means that whatever it is that they’re doing, it’s OK.

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So, that means it’s your duty to speak up—over and over again, even if that means you’ll be the one security will escort out at the end of the day. The risk goes with the gig.

We spoke with three HR executives about how they took that risk—and whether it paid off.

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“I told my boss that I wouldn’t lower the assessment standard to pass the relative of a powerful client.”

Edie Goldberg

President, E.L. Goldberg & Associates

I was working for an assessment company, my first real job out of graduate school. The company president said, “I need you to change the cut score on a test for a particular client.” The test taker was the relative of a senior executive, who was major client of ours. My boss was asking me to temporarily lower the pass score so that this person could pass and qualify to be hired.

My response: “I won’t do that. I won’t be part of that happening. It’s not right, and it’s not ethical. And, by the way, it opens up the firm to a lawsuit. I get who’s asking, but the answer is still no.”

It really rocked me to the core that he would ask me to do something so unethical. I just couldn’t look at the president with any respect anymore after that incident.

Sometimes people give in to power, and they do what other people want them to, even when they know it’s wrong. If I was a different kind of person, I could see how easy it would have been to abdicate responsibility: “He’s my boss, and he asked me to do it.” But we all own the responsibility for our actions. Even if it means losing our job.

I was so emotionally connected to that firm. I loved my colleagues. I wouldn’t have looked for another job had it not been for that incident. But this incident showed me that my nest was no longer comfortable. So, I got the word out that I was open to a new job. And soon, my next opportunity came along, which took me to a new level in my career.

My advice: It’s OK to stand up for what you believe in. You won’t fail if you do what’s right. You won’t crumble; the world won’t fall apart. And you’ll be able to tell the story knowing that you’re on the right side of the situation.

 

“I can think of at least one episode for each one of the decades that I’ve been in HR.”

Marianne Jackson

President, 3g Human Capital Consulting

The first time I took a stand was when I was still in my 20s, and I was an employee-relations representative back then. A member of the leadership team had sexually assaulted his admin, and the CEO was going to do the bare minimum in response. He planned to simply reduce his bonus and give him some kind of warning.

I found the CEO’s planned actions unacceptable. In a meeting with the CEO, my boss and my boss’ boss, I said what I had to say, knowing that it was at the risk of being fired. And the CEO said, “I’ve heard enough from you.”

I lost that battle. The employee was not removed from the company. But I also learned through that experience that the right thing to do is the right thing to do. And it hasn’t stopped me from speaking truth to power ever since. I can pick at least one episode in my 30s, my 40s and my 50s without having to think very hard. It happened again, just the other day.

We in HR have our own kind of Hippocratic oath. If we don’t speak up on behalf of those who don’t have the power, if we don’t courageously advocate for others, who will? You have to know who you are and what you stand for, regardless of the perceived or very real risks.

Which isn’t to suggest that you become reckless. There’s an art to speaking the truth, in such a way that people can hear it without feeling backed into a corner. The point isn’t to yell at them or make grand, meaningless gestures. It’s to impress them, to influence them to do something different.

My advice: There’s room for passion and righteous emotion. But you can’t deliver your message in a punishing, blaming way. Give them a reason to believe that your way is a better one.

 

“There are moments you’ve got to be willing to be fired. Or you’ve got to be willing to resign. There shouldn’t be dozens of those, but there will be a few moments when you develop a backbone and stand up and say, ‘I’m willing to take the personal risk because otherwise I can’t do my job. Or I would be so compromised that I don’t want to do my job.’ ”

Jim Wiggett

CEO, Jackson Hole Group

I was in a new HR role at a global company only three months when it happened. The time had come for a major budget meeting, which included the chairman of the company. The chairman, who was a very old-school, command-and-control kind of guy, decided to use this meeting as the opportunity to give the vice president of marketing a dressing down—in front of his entire management team, whom the marketing vice president had invited to this meeting as a learning opportunity. The chairman went over the leader’s objectives from the previous year and said, “You failed here, right? You failed here, too. You failed here, too.” One objective at a time. It was painful for all of us to watch.

After the third objective, the chairman’s secretary called him out of the meeting to take an important call. I used that opportunity to slip out of the meeting as well and wait outside his office for the phone call to end. Then I went in, closing the door behind me. “Let’s be quick,” the chairman said, taken somewhat aback that I would close his own door.

I said, “You’re effectively now the head of marketing because I guarantee you that the marketing team will make no decisions based on anything the vice president says from now on. You now have a lame duck in the marketing role. If you want me to start processing papers to take him out of the organization, let me know.”

“Are you done?”

I answered, “One more thing. Today’s my last day.”

The chairman returned to the budget meeting and adjourned it. Then he and my boss spoke behind closed doors.  My boss eventually came into my office, where I was collecting boxes, and asked me to stay at least six months. Give the company and the chairman another chance, he said. Should I decide to leave after that time, he would arrange to give me a severance package.

I was ready to go that day, but ended up staying 10 years. During the first couple of years, I was able to influence the chairman to treat people more respectfully. The next chairman and I became fast friends.

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My advice: There will be moments when all of your instincts tell you that you’re in an untenable situation that needs to be challenged. When that happens, challenge it. Don’t pull yourself back and compromise your own value system just because the other person is more politically powerful or higher up on the hierarchy.

But don’t lecture. Never pontificate. When you can, use humor or engage in storytelling. Or just talk it through with the person in a very respectful, empathetic way. When you have the reputation of being grounded, approachable and engaging, those higher up the org chart will welcome you as a thought partner. When you’re consistent in this way, you will be the one to calibrate the behavior that’s appropriate to your company culture for everyone: your peers, the people who report to you, the people above you.

 

This advice around speaking truth to power presumes that A) the powerful wants to hear the truth or B) you’ve got that prerequisite backbone, strengthened by your resolute commitment to the “right thing to do” at all times, regardless, quite literally, of your career prospects at the end of the day. There is no guarantee embedded in this challenge that your experience will be either fun or pleasant. Or successful.

But it will be a career changer, regardless of the outcome. The leader worthy of your commitment will be receptive to your input and advice. But what about the leader who shrugs and says, “That’s your choice,” when you lay your career on the line for the sake of what’s right?

Well, that is your choice, isn’t it?  Maybe it will help to bear in mind that the face you’re looking at across the desk will be in your life only as long as you both work at the company. But you’ll have to look at the face in the mirror every day.

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