When Trust is Broken – Lessons Learned

by  Jonena Relth  |  Team Dynamics

When it comes to people working for my company, I made a promise when I first started to be true to myself and my values and to model “loving and kind” actions in dealing with my staff.  We became the company of “loving and kind” people.  And no, we’re not a bunch of “touchy feelys.”  We simply believe in the value of every individual and in honoring what they bring to our company. We don’t all think alike nor do we have the same skills or knowledge, but it takes a well-rounded, cohesive team to succeed.

So what does this mean?

Your employees are watching… They see what you do every day.  They read your emails, corporate memos and hear your hallway, bathroom, and lunchroom conversations with others.  They listen intently to see if what they were told is the same “line” being told to everyone. People yearn for truth and want to trust their peers and leaders.  And just as important, they want to trust that “what they see is what they get.”  I’ve always told my employees that “I’m not that deep.  Take what I say at face value and know that you can bank on it.” After all, life is way too long and my memory is way too short to remember different tales of the same incident. Better to be transparent and honest all the time!

This sounds good, huh?

Well, there was a short time in our company history where I was deceived by a leader who was keeping up appearances but wasn’t modeling the loving and kind behavior defined in our core values.  All had been going well.  Business was clicking along, and I thought we were winning on the “happy employees” scale. Unfortunately with growth comes hiring new people – and sometimes they just don’t fit with your culture.

We had hired a new instructional design manager – let’s call her Mary.  She was uber qualified with degrees, experience, and a smile in the interviews that drew me in.  She knew the right words to fill my trust meter. I believed what she told me was truthful and that what she was saying to me was the same as she was telling/instructing her direct reports – our talented, committed employees and contractors.

Here’s how it played out:

Mary was business-like and very organized. After only a short time, she attended our 1-on-1 meetings prepared with all the appropriate paperwork completed and ready to bring me up to speed on the projects in her area.  She said all the right words that led me to believe that everything was fine with the projects and our people. I’m a type A, get to the bottom-line kinda gal, so I was feeling very comfortable with how our meetings were going.

Unfortunately, after a few months went by, the unspeakable happened.  I realized that I had stopped walking among the troupes to keep communication open among us! I was just listening to Mary.  Luckily, on the Friday of Mary’s last day of PTO, her direct reports felt “safe” to come and speak with me.  Whew – glad they still believed in me!  Yep, NOT just one, but EVERYONE from the instructional design department lined up in the hallway next to my office waiting for their turn to tell me how the “real Mary” was nothing like I thought. In their own words, they explained that Mary was verbally abusive, unforgiving of mistakes, rude, and just plain mean. She didn’t have a sense of humor and simply didn’t fit in with our cultural morals.

A person of action, I immediately called an emergency meeting of all employees.  I knew everyone in that meeting well.  They were honest, hard-working professionals that liked working in our “loving and kind” company.  They would not have chosen such a dramatic way to get my attention had they not tried to solve the issues on their own. Yep, they had talked with Mary, pleaded and even cried in her office, but Mary was just a tough nut to crack that didn’t believe in “loving and kind.”

Our HR Director and I took care of her firing – with Mary screaming and threatening us as we walked her out of the building. Let’s just say she showed me her true colors – enough that I called the authorities to make sure my employees were safe!

Don’t ding us for this quick fire…

  • It was the right decision for keeping our company healthy.
  • We ALWAYS play by the rules and it was a legal fire.
  • We’re a small, limber company that is fair to a fault.
  • It would have done more harm to keep Mary around.
  • We could have given her time to try and change her ways, but we have lost many of our esteemed colleagues as they would not work for her any longer.
  • Mary’s management style just didn’t fit.
  • She was simply a bad hire.

The moral of this story:

Stay true to your values and trust your employees.  Keep your doors open and keep communication two-way with as many people in your company as possible. Provide an environment that PROVES it’s safe to speak up. If you model the behavior you want, your people will thrive and help you keep your corporate values alive and well!

Jonena, TBD Consulting

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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Very fitting post in light of the events with the Rutgers head coach in today’s news. If you do anything you’d rather not be seen by others, it’s probably not a good thing. When we act and lead from who we truly are, there’s nothing to hide. Thanks for the great post! Mike…

Jonena Relth  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Mike, you are on target that we MUST act and lead from whom we truly are. By doing so, we can consistently show the same face to everyone: our friends, family, professional peers, employees and customers. It makes life easier all the way around!

I learned this from my mother growing up. She had zero tolerance for any of her four children behaving in a secretive way, not telling the whole truth, or simply telling a “white lie” to get out of a jam. It was ALWAYS better for me to stay transparent and tell the whole truth the first time. After all, I swear that my mom had extra eyes and ears in the back of her head and I’d get caught of any misdoings anyhow.

Don Shapiro  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Leading from character is not always easy as you learned through this experience. You did the right thing because you were protecting the values and culture of your company which are the key to the results you produce for clients. Your company is an extension of your own character and through that you have striven to attract employees who embody the same character.

This reminds me of something I experienced first hand in my first job out of college. I joined Lawry’s Restaurants famous for Lawry’s The Prime Rib as a management trainee later moving up to assistant manager and general restaurant manager. At the time, they operated eleven restaurants with eight different names and concepts. Just prior to my being hired, they had hired an individual to act as the Vice President of Operations over all restaurants. He reported to Art Wynne Sr., The Senior VP of Operations who had worked for the company for 30 years and was hired by Lawry’s co-founder Lawrence Frank.

At the end of my first year at Lawry’s, the company fired this new VP because his approach in dealing with managers was counter to the philosophies and values of Lawry’s. All the general managers complained to Art Wynne about what he was doing and that was it. The real key to Lawry’s success was it’s employee relations which were built on a foundation of respect and treating everyone as a professional from dishwashers on up.

On my first day at Lawry’s The Prime Rib, the general manager introduced me to all the employees. When he walked me into the dishwasher room, I had a shock that taught me a lot about the company I was working for and why they were successful. He introduced me to the two dishwashers working that night. Both showed me their gold watches signifying 25 years of service to Lawry’s. Where else would you see someone working as a dishwasher for 25 years let alone two of them?

Art Wynne understand the critical importance of maintaining Lawry’s values concerning employee relations and knew the company could not afford to have someone in a key position like a VP whose character was not from the same page as everyone else. This was the right decision for Lawry’s just as your decision was the right one for your firm. Look forward to your growing success as a character-based company!

Jonena Relth  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Don, Thanks for the sharing the excellent example of how Lawry’s lives their values requiring all employees to be treated with respect. In my years of consulting, I haven’t heard of many situations where senior leaders are fired for treating their managers poorly. We all know companies that should clean house; but unfortunately, profits are often valued more than employees – their most important asset.

Isn’t it amazing that in the year 2013 with communication traveling at a speed of the Internet those leaders still don’t get it? It’s common knowledge that employees who are treated well, which includes a fair wage and benefits, tend to stay at their jobs much longer than those who are treated poorly by their boss.

Of course we have to hire new employees. It’s part of doing business. But, don’t we all want competent professionals working for us that advance from within? They are the ones with all the majority of “head knowledge and skills” that we build our brand upon. Keeping a valued employee is better than hiring two new “wet behind the ears” recruits that will fit into our culture, are loyal, trainable, and want to work as hard as our existing folks.

Helen Harrison  |  08 Apr 2013  |  Reply

What a great example of living your values within an organisation. Thanks for sharing it. I am certainly aware that being consistent isn’t necessarily as easy as I thought it would be! Trust is my usual example – I trust my husband with the big things, but when he has a strimmer in hand, I frequently ‘remind’ him to leave certain plants unstrimmed! Fortunately he generally is very understanding about this particular foible.

In addition, I recognise that it isn’t appropriate in some circumstances to demonstrate a value all the time. For instance, one person I coached had a core value of frankness. Through developing a metaphor for this value, she really appreciated that the timing of frankness is importance (and the delivery).

Jonena Relth  |  09 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Hi Karen, Thanks for sharing the good example of when a good thing might not be good all the time. It can sometime be a fine line between acting honestly and just being rude. Yikes, I’ve known people that were always frank and their comments cut to the bone.

While frankness is a virtuous quality when asked for, it can be totally destructive to trust, friendship and team cohesiveness. I prefer “loving and kind” communication which is honest but is respectful of the recipients hearing your words.

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