My soon to be former boss has been ousted from the company.
His position is not being filled immediately and His team (of which I am a member) is very bitter and openly hostile towards the President, who is now our direct boss and with whom I’ve established a good working relationship (the only one of the team). Needless to say, I am being viewed by my ex-boss and colleagues as a traitor while I’m just trying to keep doing my job.
A coworker and friend has told me that the boss and she will be starting a competing company. I feel I need to tell my new boss about this information since it will directly impact the company but I also feel I would be betraying a friend. What should I do?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
Dear Divided Loyalties,
“Well, ya got trouble, right here I say trouble right here in River City,” as Professor Harold Hill says in the Music Man famous play. OK, you caught us, one of us IS playing the lead in the theatrical performance (!), but the line fits because whichever choice you make you COULD have “lots and lots a trouble,” because no matter what you decide, SOMEbody could perceive you as a “traitor.” Unless you take steps to prevent that outcome through tips we share in our book and here. But first, some perspective that might help….
A KEY DETERMINANT IN WHO IS “RIGHT.”
Because you’ve given no detail about the circumstances surrounding the ousting of your former boss (a phenomenon that happens frequently in today’s volatile corporate world in which politics and power dynamics create such a top management revolving door), we have no way of knowing whether the current President who is disliked by so many really just had to make a tough call against your former boss who needed to be fired due to performance or ethical issues, OR your former boss got the raw end of a stick from the President who himself is an overly political player threatened by your former boss’ increasing political stock, power, and obvious positive results. Who knows?
REASONABLE PEOPLE MIGHT RESOLVE YOUR DILEMMA EITHER WAY.
We hope that a second “aha” piece of insight might be the realization that whichever side of this ethical dilemma you land need not make you a bad person, unethical, nor a “traitor.” We invite you to self-censor the Self-Talk labels “traitor” or “betrayal” out of your brain and implore others to reframe your action and decision accordingly. Because two reasonable people taking a different side of this issue might EACH be right, just with a particular rationale and different place where they draw the “ethical line in the sand.” After all, that’s why they call it an ethical dilemma, because there IS a grey zone, versus a zero tolerance, such as would be the case if your former boss were embezzling, cheating, or endangering the physical safety of your colleagues remaining. Abraham Lincoln once cautioned that we don’t learn to deal with ethical dilemmas by avoiding them. So here’s to your character and integrity for caring enough to soul search, but there are many “gray zone” examples on the corporate landscape.
~ Some years back a top manager left American Express and virtually wiped clean the entire Amex department by taking all of the people with him in a virtual scorched earth maneuver that prompted a law suit that still lingers. So that was an extremely questionable play, but is your former boss’s move unethical or so extreme in a world of free enterprise such that it must be reported?
~ During the 80’s talent war within the high tech industry, Texas Instruments had a reputation of literally pirating away engineers from National Semiconductor by actually going into the Silicon Valley headquarter to court and woo away talent. So was it “unethical” when National Semi retaliated by placing a huge 1-800 recruiting billboard right across the street from TI’s Texas headquarters? You see, different people might draw the “foul line” in different places depending upon the exact situation.
So please liberate yourself from the mindset that your former boss is a traitor or that you are a traitor. It’s a free country and everyone has a right to pursue and protect a livelihood. We see professional sports team head coaches leave one team and take assistant coaches when they depart since it’s sensible to want loyal deputies who understand how they want to do business. Unless it’s done in an under-handed manner and sabotage is going on, you could easily tell yourself and your boss that nothing illegal was going on and you prefer to keep your eye on the ball (the stellar job you intend to do) rather than being sucked into distracting politics, rumors, and grapevine gossip. So we’re “realists” rather than “moralists.” If you need to speak with your minister, reverend, pastor, priest, or rabbi, we urge you to do so, but you simply will not find an absolutist answer from us regarding the true “righteous” path to take since we don’t have the details. And unless illegal, clearly unethical activity is involved, you’d be justified with whatever decision you make.
NOW, WHAT’S THE RIVER CITY BOYS’ BAND ANSWER?
Ah, another reference to the “Music Man.” He suggests organizing a kids’ band to keep kids off of the streets so that they avoid being seduced into the evils of the new pool table that’s in town. So what is YOUR way of avoiding the “serious trouble” you’re facing??
Throw Away the Guilt Trip.
Was your mother a travel agent for guilt trips? Hope not! So whatever you decide, you can tell we’d probably support you given the limited scenario you’ve painted. And we suspect our perspective may help you to justify your decision to yourself and others who question your choice. Maintain and invite the healthy mindset described above.
Weigh the Consequences.
You have a right to keep your job, so do your best to assess the possible fall-out from either action you take (telling or not telling the current President). Especially if you don’t know if you’d end up being invited to the new company even by maintaining secrecy, consider that either choice could leave you quite vulnerable. If you tell, it’s sure more likely your former boss and your “friend” will consider you out of their inner circle and block you from their company. But are they considering you anyway? If you do keep your mouth shut, is there any guarantee you’re being considered for a position at the new start-up? If you TELL what you know, does that even guarantee your job stability? If your President IS an overly political trigger-happy maverick power tyrant, are you sure that YOU won’t wind up being the famous “Greek messenger bearing bad news?” Could he end up irrationally taking out his displaced anger on YOU, for not telling him sooner, for not convincing others to remain loyal, or for any other ridiculous matter? Factor in how RISK oriented versus REWARD oriented you might be. The upsides of either rewards of either choice might outweigh the downside RISKS or vice versa, but this depends partly on the circumstances and partly on the type of personality you hold.
Contain the Potential “Fall-Out”
Your “friend” has really put you in a classic double bind tension conflict since no matter what you do there are risks and potential negative consequences for you. It’s time to aim some of the guilt you may have been turning on yourself toward HER, by explaining the tenuous tight-rope she’s created for you. Appeal to her relationship and caring for you, if it’s sound, and psych out whether you trust her to keep this sharing of confidential information between the two of you. Let her know how sabotaged and angry you’d feel if she tells anyone else that you already know what’s going on. If others already know she’s clued you in, try to get to them and explain the danger, how you want to keep your job, etc. If they really hate the President as much as you say, this might be easy since they may “frame” it as helping you pull one over on the President (even though we’d just figure you’re keeping yourself safe). Let all know that if the trail later leads back to you, you’ll deny all knowledge or at least show some sort of documentation that you tried to discourage the move. You might even talk with your friend about your needing to write her a note and photocopying it to this nature, so that you can whip it out should your President confront you regarding your handling of the dilemma.
Make Yourself Indispensable.
Whatever you decide, take your “loyalty” off the table as an issue by going above and beyond the norm to prove your competence, worth, results, and dedication to the current company. Make sure others know your aims in doing so simply involve keeping the job if you like it or don’t have the lifestyle freedom or economic freedom to risk losing it now.
Please let us know your reactions and outcomes of this sticky, seemingly short letter scenario that we’ve now perhaps made complicated into even greater confusion!
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.