Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Innocent until proven guilty – this is a key tenet in our American justice system. In spite of the proliferation of cellphone recordings, Twitter and Facebook that show (alleged) bad behavior, we still want to make sure that we have thoroughly investigated before determining the person’s fate.

What about in the workplace? Are leaders innocent until proven guilty? They should be. However, when leaders demonstrate poor behaviors that negatively impact employees and the workplace, quick action should be taken to address them. [For the purposes of this discussion, I am not speaking about obvious discriminatory behaviors or sexual harassment.]

What I am talking about here, are poor leadership behaviors that demotivate, demoralize and crush employees’ self-worth and self-esteem and result in attrition, poor results or worse.

Much like the definition of pornography, we all know poor leadership behaviors when we see or experience them. But sometimes it is hard to describe them adequately to those who can address them.

A typical organization has a real vested interest in maintaining its leadership and it takes a good deal to remove a poor leader. Usually these leaders have other skills and talents that senior management feels are difficult or impossible to replace. Senior management may think, “My interaction with Sam is just fine; I don’t see what the issue is,” or dismiss employee concerns that percolate to the top or to HR as coming from a disgruntled staff member.

If only you had video or a picture of the offending behavior!

As a professional who has conducted dozens of internal investigations into poor or toxic leadership behaviors, I am often surprised at how often senior management would rather keep the poor leader in place and let a string of employees leave. I have been in the position of recommending significant action with a leader following an investigation of alleged bad leadership behavior only to have the decision maker retain the poor leader. The rationale for retaining is often, “…Sam deserves a chance to change…” or “…we really haven’t addressed this with him formally before, so this is really his ‘first offense’…” or “…I just don’t see it (bad behavior) in him; it is just an unhappy employee who is being held accountable…”

What senior management fails to see is the agony the employee who complains is in and the enormous courage it takes to come forward to expose a poor leader. Even with ample policy protection against retaliation, this is a huge risk. If things get bad enough to come forward and nothing significant changes, the employee is unlikely to ever take the risk again when things continue or get even worse. This is especially so if multiple employees complain about the leader.

As the investigator in the situation, I ask senior management: How many employee casualties are enough? How many employees have to leave and how many have to bring serious complaints?

Why is it so hard for senior management to see the damage these toxic leaders do to the organization?

The documentation of the stories, feelings, and impacts of poor leadership on employees is the equivalent to the video or picture snapped with a cell phone. Because we do rightly believe in “innocent until proven guilty”, an impartial investigator needs to dig further into the picture and not assume the picture shows all the facts.

A single employee complaint about a manager who has no previous history of poor behavior is not likely to result in the leader’s termination (unless, of course, it is discriminatory behavior that can be validated), but it may result in some type of corrective action. However, when employee after employee comes forward with similar stories of abusive language, poor treatment and lack of respect between the employee and the leader, senior management must consider their options very carefully.

While giving leaders an opportunity to improve and change is something we want to do in most cases, the leader’s previously demonstrated willingness to change and respond in a positive way to feedback should be taken into account. The feedback and opportunity to change behaviors should be documented along the way so there is a record to which to refer and bring forward.

Senior management must understand that the costs of a poor leader over time outweigh the investment and the law of diminishing returns takes hold. Toxic leaders ruin the organizational culture. Senior leaders that do not recognize the damage and take action are destined to be part of the problem.