American View: Once Upon a Time Near Mexico

You can always trust a boss to be true to his or her essential nature. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert warns that it’s prudent to take pre-emptive action to protect yourself against a verminous boss’s sudden but inevitable betrayal.

I loathe the word ‘proactive’. I forbade its use in my office and growl at anyone who uses it in conversation. I’ve taught my people, ‘proactive’ is a nonsense word: a person can either take action in response to an event after it happens (react), as it happens (act) or before they expect it to happen (pre-empt). That last word is the correct term; humans can’t accurately predict the future. We can only guess what’s going to happen, and even then we can only guess with reasonable accuracy when we have evidence to support our predictions. We can never be absolutely sure. That’s why the act of pre-emption carries with it the risk of misunderstanding the totality of factors in play, thereby risking failure by taking action before something manifests. That’s key: pre-emptive action is often necessary, prudent and wise… but it can also be disastrous if you guess wrong about how events will unfold.

I have several stories to share about how people took very reasonable pre-emptive actions based on the very best of intentions and made an absolute hash of things. This isn’t one of those stories. This story is about how a little preemptive defensive action saved a fellow’s career.

Back in 2014, I wrote about my mate Unlucky Bob and the kerfuffle that he found himself in thanks to his unpopular industrial health and safety (H&S) program. I argued that being legally right about a situation is insufficient; truth and virtue offer only limited protection for an office worker when staring down all-powerful executives and their cadre of attack lawyers. That’s why I wanted to share another story about Unlucky Bob, [1] and how a sly bureaucratic manoeuver saved his bacon.

In bureaucracy as it is in sword-play: often the best defense is an aggressive starting offense.
In bureaucracy as it is in sword-play: often the best defense is an aggressive starting offense.

At the time, Bob was a part-time advisor for a Texas-based company that I’d occasionally done business with. One day the company made Bob an interesting offer: even though he already had a full-time gig elsewhere, the company’s Top Men were willing to pay Bob a full-time salary and benefits package if he’d come work for them for a year and clean up their huge backlog of H&S work. The bosses said that they’d allow Bob to keep working at his regular job, effectively doubling his salary. It meant double the labour, but Bob didn’t mind putting in 80-hour weeks. He didn’t have kids or hobbies to distract him, and he genuinely loved his work.

Bob called me when he got the offer. He was chuffed, and why shouldn’t he be? This was a golden opportunity to put several things right that had been dragging on for way too long within a company that he felt great affection for. Bob had been chipping away at their casework for years, but he’d never made much progress because there had been no one on the full-time staff to close his cases for him. Bob had argued with upper management that he could bring things up to par if only the executives could see their way to pay him for additional billable hours. Then, one day, they did… the company extended him an unprecedented offer, and Bob had his chance.

What Bob didn’t appreciate was that he was going to be working on some very contentious material. Yes, there was a backlog that needed to be dealt with and yes, his remediation efforts would be greatly appreciated. In the abstract, everyone in management wanted the stacks reduced. The trouble was, Bob would eventually start processing cases that were… messy. As a part-time associate, Bob wasn’t usually exposed to the controversial cases (those were saved for people that were more subject to… executive influence). Once Bob grappled with a highly-sensitive issue, his status would whipsaw from ‘hero’ to ‘villain’ because any discussion of embarrassing activities might put the company (and, by extension, the senior decision makers) in a bad light. Bob didn’t realize that once that happened, one or more of the executives would turn on him – viciously. I’d seen it happen.

I reminded Bob that I’d been around his company longer than he had. I tried reasoning with him through allusion, suggesting that his situation resembled the last film in Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, ­­the protagonist is offered a too-good-to-be-true shot at revenge on an old foe. All of the other characters in the story are fiends with evil agendas; the hero is just a disposable pawn. Taking the one-year contract, I said, would be the exact same storyline, only with Bob playing the role of El Burócrata.

office politics
Beset on all sides by twitchy psychopaths, just like in the movie, only with memoranda instead of firearms.

I told Bob that he couldn’t afford to gamble with his career. These people weren’t trustworthy. I advised bob that it would be prudent to take some basic pre-emptive steps to protect himself against future bureaucratic attacks. Bob was so entranced by the prospect of ‘saving the company’ that he couldn’t believe that the executives would ever turn on him. He told me (in a brotherly fashion) that I was full of crap. We finished our pints and went our separate ways.

A few weeks later, Bob called and told me he’d decided to take the company’s offer. I sighed and told him that he was definitely going to get shivved; it was inevitable. I knew these people, and I knew their tactics. We argued about the risks for a long time. Eventually, Bob relented and took my advice.

Before Bob accepted the second job, I drafted him a formal ‘statement of expectations’ memo and advised him to take it to his new boss for her formal endorsement. I told Bob that it was essential that he document his job performance standards immediately, before he committed to perform any work or accept any compensation. I knew that the company was awful at putting employee expectations in writing, so I suspected (rightly) that if Bob showed up with a ready-made set of written standards, his executive would probably sign the order without reading it closely. This contract-within-a-contract would then allow Bob to work in the way that he intended to perform it.

The document that I drafted for him clearly defined his performance standards: Bob would work a minimum of 40 hours per week, but when and where he saw fit. He could work from home, and the company would provide him with sanctioned computers and software to telecommute. Bob would dutifully log all of his hours and cases worked. He would submit weekly written progress reports to his boss. His boss could change his conditions at any time by giving Bob new instructions in writing. Bob could either accept the new conditions or close out his contract without penalty. No matter what, Bob would still work at his new firm whenever they scheduled him to work, and that job took precedence in his scheduling. Everything about the arrangement was transparent and above board.

In fairness, it’s the exact same tactic that restauranteurs use to convince diners to select the overpriced ‘special du jour’ … they over-share details until the client tunes out what’s being said and agrees to whatever is being presented just to make the exposition stop.
In fairness, it’s the exact same tactic that restauranteurs use to convince diners to select the overpriced ‘special du jour’… they over-share details until the client tunes out what’s being said and agrees to whatever is being presented just to make the exposition stop.

Bob’s boss signed it, exactly as I’d expected. Bob insisted that I was being paranoid. The executives all told him that they were cool with his arrangements. I shook my head and advised Bob to make multiple copies of the expectations memo and to file them in different locations. Bob doubted me, but he followed my advice. Turned out to be a very good thing he did.

Nine months later, Bob stumbled onto some irregularities in some cases. He caught a file clerk masquerading as a physician. He also found a bunch of falsified medical records. Bob realized that the company could be found liable for negligence to the tune of millions of pounds in damages… and possibly even face criminal charges. Bob did his duty and reported his findings to his boss, assuming that corrective action would swiftly follow. Instead of a swift investigation with appropriate sanctions, the boss’s office went silent. The offenders were allowed to carry as normal. Bob got stonewalled… and then the organisation turned on him.

Within a week of reporting his discovery, some ‘anonymous complaints’ were filed with HR that accused Bob of defrauding the company. Bob’s anonymous critic alleged that he’d billed hours that he hadn’t worked, and that he hadn’t shown up for work as required by the standard employee contract. While it was true that Bob hadn’t been physically in the office on the dates mentioned, he had completed his work during the billable period exactly as his personal contract had stipulated.

From my perspective, this was a clear attempt to discredit the whistleblower in order to distract observers from the actual substance of the whistleblower’s charges. Bob’s critics had been patiently keeping track of his administrative transgressions in order to eviscerate him should he ever cry foul on their shenanigans. No one had challenged Bob on his work habits; they’d documented his work performance as a form of administrative ammunition and waited for the right time to strike.

Bureaucratic skirmishes resemble military actions, in that logistical preparations made before the clash are often more influential than tactics executed during the heat of battle.
Bureaucratic skirmishes resemble military actions, in that logistical preparations made before the clash are often more influential than tactics executed during the heat of battle.

Bob called me in a deep and roiling panic a week after the ‘anonymous complaint’ was announced. He’d been told that he’d be fired for all sorts of chicanery. He said that he could see his professional life unraveling; all for having done the right thing by reporting gross misconduct. Bob couldn’t believe that the company or his bosses would treat him this way.

Please don’t think that I’m so dignified a gentlemen to refrain from saying, ‘I *&$& told you so.’ I didn’t. I recall quite clearly yelling those words at Bob over my mobile. Then I reminded Bob that he’d be fine. All he had to do was to report to his termination hearing with a copy of his ‘Get Out of Hell Free’ memo and printouts of every status report that he’d ever submitted to his boss.

Bob dutifully went to his disciplinary hearing with an innocent little boy’s demeanor. When the accusations of fraud and misconduct were read, Bob cheerfully (as I’d instructed him) admitted to everything. Yes, he did work from home sometimes. No, he wasn’t always in the office. Yes, he did work early mornings, nights, weekends and holidays. Yes, he did leave the office to go work cases at his other job whenever they’d call with an emergency. Yep! Sure did. That was all true.

Right as the top executive was about to render his final judgment, Bob nonchalantly slid his signed ‘statement of performance expectations’ across the table and laconically drawled: ‘But I did everything that you told me to, exactly as you told me to do it. You never once told me to change how, where, or when I did my work. I’ve submitted 50 weekly performance reports detailing how, where and when I was working. Here’s where I told you when and where I was working and what I had done for each week. And here are the corresponding responses that I received telling me “good work” and “carry on”, so I’ve had no reason to change my approach. If you’d like to change our arrangement, I’d be happy to accommodate you, effective tomorrow.’

It’s always imprudent to pick a fight with someone that can ignore your strongest punch and hit back harder.
It’s always imprudent to pick a fight with someone that can ignore your strongest punch and hit back harder.

Bob told me that the chamber went deadly silent as they read his memo. Bob simply smiled and waited until the stunned executives could recover their wits. Bob was politely invited to go on about his business. They said that they’d be in touch. Bob thanked everyone for their time and support, left the chamber, and whistled all the way down to the car park.

Bob’s contract was terminated immediately. The irregularities that he had discovered were quickly and efficiently swept under the rug. No one was ever charged with misconduct. The compromised case files were made to disappear – exactly as I’d expected. Bob, however, was never formally disciplined. He was, however, forever after spoken of in the company as an ‘unreliable resource’. The powers-that-were kept him on as a part-time adjunct for years afterwards, but never trusted him.

Bob escaped what should have been certain career death because he’d faithfully followed his written instructions – to the letter – and because his boss had never bothered to give him countermanding instructions in writing. I had coached Bob to make absolutely sure that he ended each of his status reports with this crucial sentence: ‘If you have any questions about this week’s activities or if you wish to make any changes for next week’s arrangements, please notify me.’ That’s what saved him: he had been transparent about his activities. He’d exceeded all of his performance targets. Best of all, he’d regularly requested performance feedback… feedback which he never received because his boss simply couldn’t be bothered to actively manage him. [2]

As I explained to Bob after the echoes of his drama-blast faded, I’ve always been deeply suspicious about purely-verbal performance contracts. When it comes to a ‘he said/she said’ disagreement, the person in the low-power position is always going to lose; it doesn’t matter what the truth is. That’s why wicked leaders are loathe to ever put things in writing. Evidence isn’t all-powerful, but it usually trumps arbitrary and capricious management overreach. Written contracts and documented communications make it difficult for a vindictive leader to lash out with impunity.

¡Su movimiento, bichos!
¡Su movimiento, bichos!

Some leaders are born vermin. They’ll deliberately betray a subordinate in order to protect their own position. These sorts of leaders cannot be trusted. If you have to work for someone that you suspect has no moral qualms about turning on you frog-and-scorpion style, then it’s prudent to take steps early on to defend yourself against the possibility that the other person will turn on you. So long as you’re subject other authority, you’re vulnerable. I’m not suggesting that you can’t work with verminous people. Not at all. Bob’s story is proof that you can… so long as you take practical steps to pre-emptively protect yourself.

The best pre-emptive defensive action that you can take against the inevitable sting comes at the start of your working relationship. Define your role and responsibilities in writing. Then consistently document that you’re meeting or exceeding your agreed-to performance targets. Cheerfully accept and apply performance feedback from your boss – and document that you’ve complied. It’s like crafting a suit of chain mail one link at a time, but with links made out of e-mails and memoranda instead of loops of metal wire. [3] With enough work, you can armour your vitals enough to survive a metaphorical stinging the way that Bob did. That way, a spat with a vindictive or psychotic boss won’t be a win-or-lose proposition; you can achieve a draw and flee the field with your career intact.


 

[1] They’re all Bobs, in the end. All of my anonymized characters are Bob. It’s safer that way.

[2] Bob later made it up to me with a gift: a 30 year-old bottle of Laphroaig. Bless him.

[3] Just be sure to save two copies of every message – with one copy archived off-site. You can never be too careful.

Title Allusion: Robert Rodriguez, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003 Film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, and Horrible Bosses at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

© Business Reporter 2021

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