Shocked By Bad Report Of My Work!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about low evaluation:

I was recently hired at a technology company that specializes in outsourcing people to client sites. Everything is going great within the company and my role is reported to various senior managers and company founders. I was assigned an important role within the organization that is visible and effects the reputation of many people. Having said that, the company initiated a first project at a client site, and I participated in the learning process. I met with senior managers of the client and everything was going very well until I actually began working with the lower chain of employees. In front of me they were cheerful, and we seemed to get along great. The work was going on for about a month, and I have completed my task in its entirety. After the task was completed, I contacted various people who are involved at the client site to make sure things are ok and if there are any problems. I received no reply.

Then the news comes in a shocking surprise. I walk in the office on Monday to be called in a meeting with a few senior people in our organization. Turns out the people I worked with complained to their VP that I talked too much with the client, made sexist comments (we were discussing the CEO of HP which I look up to – and that was somehow manipulated to reflect sexism), lacked professionalism and even jokes we had at lunch were reported.

None of this was talked about when I was at the client site and came after my role was (successfully) complete.In terms of professionalism, while working at the client’s site the employees there often socialized with me and we have joked here and there – but nonetheless the concentration was on completing the work. The result now is a damaged relationship between two companies and I want to know how I can avoid a repeat of this situation. Thanks and I really like the service you guys provide.

Signed, Surprised and Disappointed

Dear Surprised and Disappointed:

I am well aware that the situation you described can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful. You asked what you could do to prevent a similar situation in the future. Let me expand my answer to two more issues, because they will help you as you consider how you want to approach things next time. Let me share some thoughts about why this happened, what you can do now and what you can do in the future.

1. Why did this happen in the first place? I am going to trust your word that you did not say or do anything that would warrant a complaint about inappropriateness, sexism or excessive in any area. Your writing style indicates a thoughtful, focused person. The comments you made about the situation indicated that you like to have a comfortable, personal approach to the people with whom you interact. How could it be then, that someone would complain? You didn’t say if you were shown letters indicating complaints or if everything was word-of-mouth and passed along through various levels.

You also didn’t indicate if there were examples given of what was considered inappropriate or if it was very general. You did mention your comments about the CEO of Hewlett Packard being interpreted as sexist. (I don’t know your gender, so I don’t know which gender you would have been sexist about or which gender complained.)

I’m going to assume that the complaints were general with a few specifics, and passed along through various levels. Given that, consider these possible scenarios:*99% of the people with whom you worked had no complaints at all, but 1% did and they got the ear of someone who could pass the complaint along. The person passing it along may not have given much credence to it, but may have felt obligated to say something because of liability concerns. Your company is very sensitive to PR issues as well as liability issues and felt obligated to chide you about the matter. You didn’t indicate the nature of the conversation with your bosses–whether it was harsh or mild or whether it was a one-way or two-way conservation between you and them. That might give you an indicator of how severe the complaint was. Also remember that even if it was investigated, the 99% who had no complaints likely didn’t feel strongly enough to jump to your defense and may not have realized the serious repercussions that might result for you.

*No one actually complained about you. Instead they discussed your visit, commented on your conversations and might have noted that you had a strong personality and some strong opinions. They may have exaggerated some of your remarks to make a good story from their viewpoint. When these were related to someone in the management team they said, “That could be considered inappropriate!” And the complaint was result of that. The person quoting you may regret that it went so far, but can’t very well back down now.

*One or many employees complained, not because they genuinely were upset, but because they didn’t like the idea of the project in the first place, resented someone from the outside coming in and wanted to say, in essence, “See? We tried to tell you this wasn’t a good idea.” Being adept in current work environments they saw, in your remarks, some potential weapons. Not tools to make things better, just weapons to get revenge on the outsider as well as on the inside people who arranged for it all. Some people resent anyone in authority and actively seek reasons to get them in trouble. A consultant friend said he thought those he came on-site to interview as part of a morale-determining project viewed him as a hero. They seemed so friendly, so supportive, so willing to express their feelings. He said he had congratulated himself mentally for having won their trust. Afterwards one woman complained that he seemed overly familiar to her, another employee said he treated him in a demeaning way and one said he felt he was being pumped for negative opinions just to get him in trouble and he resented it! My friend was heart-sick over it–then he got angry! Eventually he accepted the reality that some people find satisfaction in tearing others down. And he said, he may have let their apparent good feelings lead him to saying things that they did not process as he intended.

I do not agree with the adage, “It doesn’t matter what was intended, all that matters is what was perceived.” When that is said, it nearly always makes the assumption that the person complaining actually did perceive something in an offensive way and that may not be the case. I have investigated situations in which people strategized their conversations to elicit things that could be complained about. One person kept lists of quotes by his boss, and then reviewed them with co-workers to see which might have potential for getting the boss in trouble. I am not cynical about these things without reason! I know that there are improprieties and I would be the first to want to stop those. But I also know human nature when it comes to self-righteous complaining.

*The culture there is hyper-sensitive to a number of issues. You said or did things that were different than the kinds of conversations or interactions to which they are accustomed. They were not particularly offended; they just found it strange and wanted to express their thoughts about it to show their sensitivity to the subject. You’ll note that none of the above situations indicates that you did anything wrong. What they point out is that complaints can be made whether or not you did anything wrong–and the complaints will have to be taken seriously by managers and supervisors. There is also the chance that you allowed yourself to lulled into a false sense of camaraderie and said or did things that the employees viewed as inappropriate for someone who they thought should be more business-like and less personal. What would be considered acceptable for one of their own was not acceptable for someone in your role. Sometimes in the fun of the moment we can got beyond what is seemly for our position or role and not even realize it. It could be that the employees had a very high standard for your conduct. It could also be that the other company officials made only very mild remarks to your bosses–more as a slight concern than a complaint. But, your bosses are so worried about such things that they translated that into a more serious situation. You would know better than I, if that were likely.Obviously some remarks were made that were based in part on conversations you had and comments you made. Whether or not you were quoted accurately or what the motivation was for complaining may never be known. I mention those scenarios to you so that you will realize that such things are not always completely within your control.

2. What can you do now? It’s been a few days, so you may have already responded in some way–or you have decided not to respond at all. However, you and others will likely think about the matter for some time. The less said about it the better, is usually the best advice. I recall the adage, “Never try to chase a lie. If you leave it alone, it will run itself to death.” I could add to that, “If you spend time chasing it, you will only call attention to it.” There is a tremendous temptation to want to confront someone about unfairness–but it would likely only result in awkwardness and denial–and might cause more ill feelings. Whether or not you say anything more about it within your own company will require an evaluation of your work situation. If you have a champion or mentor in your company, express your concern to that person and assure them that you have learned that nothing can be left to chance and you will use that knowledge in the next project. They will likely see to it that others know of your thoughts. If you feel you would benefit by talking to your immediate manager that might be a good idea. Ask them for their advice and swear to yourself that you will simply listen and take it–even if you don’t think you did anything wrong. Regarding the highest level person who is aware of this: Some executives would respond well to being contacted briefly by e-mail or memo to express regret and to assure them that you will apply the lessons learned in the future. Others would only become irritated again and would think of it as manipulative. You know best how such a gesture on your part would be accepted or if you would feel comfortable doing that.Avoid saying or doing anything that would reinforce the truth of the accusations. Far better for those with whom you work to say, “That doesn’t sound like her.” I realize that kind of self-censoring can make you feel on needles and pins much of the time–but perhaps it will also help you monitor your conversation to the point that you eliminate anything that has potential for causing you problems.

A woman in a high government position told me that she discovered, early in her career, that jokes, friendly banter, teasing remarks and clever commentary often led to complaints when someone wanted a reason to complain. She said she worked hard to develop the habit of only saying things could safely be taped and played back on TV. I thought it was sad, because the result was that she was rather dull and had absolutely no interesting small talk! But, she never had complaints made about her remarks, as I have had! There have been times when I have been distressed over the way some comment of mine was taken, and wished I had been dull instead! 3. What can you do in the future? Look back over these events–your comments, the responses, what led you to believe you could feel comfortable with the group, how much time you spent conversing with them, what the reactions were, who seemed to be most open to you and who did not. Make a list of what you would do differently in THAT situation, if you had it to do over again. You might say that you don’t see that you did anything wrong so can’t think of what to change. But you do know what the general complaints are–so how would you adjust for that? How could you use those lessons in the future?

Remember that you could go to some other workplace and the responses would be completely different. However, there are some behaviors that are acceptable in almost any setting. That is what you want to aim for. It’s only for a short amount of time–so simply put yourself in front of an imaginary camera and perform for that time frame! You might also want to consider a very brief evaluation interview, either with all employees or at random, during your time on-site. Maybe three or four questions: Do you feel you are getting the assistance you need? What are some things that could be done differently in the remaining time to ensure that you feel satisfied with the outcome? How can I better help you? What would you find most useful for the way you learn? This is worthwhile anyway–and is a good idea for all consultants and on-site trainers. It would also help you establish positive professional relationships. When you have those, people find it less easy to make an exaggerated complaint. You would also have those as documentation if something occurs. You might want to consider a brief interview with the supervisor over the area in which you are working, at the beginning and then about half way through a project. You could ask: Do you have advice about the group that could help me provide better customer service? Are there sensitive subjects that I should be aware about? Is there a learning culture that would be useful for me to know about? This interview would also let you gauge the style of the person the employees are most used to working with–their supervisor or manager.

Often when I do presentations for organizations I ask for some advance information just like that. Once I was told to not say anything, even jokingly, about the opulence of the executive offices and conference room in which I was speaking. Apparently a speaker the year before had made several joking references to that subject–and the CEO and others were very offended, to the point that the program coordinator got in big trouble afterwards! He said he was almost moved out of his position over it! I likely wouldn’t have done that anyway–but it reminded me that apparently the CEO and others were insensitive enough to take their anger out on the program director–who had nothing to do with their injured dignity. I was careful in my public remarks–and also in my personal conversations with those people. I like to joke and banter–but I didn’t joke with them!

As a final note, consider this approach between now and the next project–and into the next project: If you were going to hire a PR person to sell you and do some damage control as well as represent you at your best–what kinds of things might they do for you and have you do? Would they establish some alliances? Would they have you join a committee or participate in something that is valuable to the organization? Would they encourage you to find a way to show your expertise in some other area–or to be part of a trade group or organization where you can represent your entire company?

Consider what a PR firm would suggest you do–then do it. I hope these thoughts will trigger your thinking as you recover from this experience and build on the lessons you have learned and the observations you have made. You seem to possess inner strength and a strong sense of personal responsibility. That will stand you in good stead as you put this behind you and move on to greater things! If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know how things develop. Think WEGO and act accordingly.

Tina Lewis Rowe