The View from HR

Employers, be honest about management mistakes

December 1, 2012 

Workplaces and laws are complex. When management mistakes are made, the temptation to freeze up or avoid a problem is strong. Fear of liability from these complexities can make well-meaning managers feel like a politician caught with a bag of cash.

In almost every case, avoidance and “no comment”-style responses are the wrong choice. Whether the audience is one employee, the workforce in general or the public, people know when the truth is withheld.

Assumptions about the real story may be much worse than the truth, with the public believing you had discriminatory or other bad motives.

Take the example of a commitment made to an employee that can no longer be kept. Whether it was a promotion, a pay raise, a solution or another promise, conditions have changed and honesty is the best message. Rather than “I’m sorry,” or “They said we cannot do that” – or no explanation at all – try the truth. Even ifembarrassing, it beats a lie or half-truth to a valued employee.

“I know we said we would promote you when Joe retired, but the truth is our expectations have changed for the role. We do not believe you are ready in these areas, but we have a plan to get you ready in the future.”

The truth is even more important where managers were less-than-honest in the past: “Your work in key areas is not strong enough to support your promotion. I am sorry we have not discussed these problems in the detail we should have over the last few years.”

Honesty is not a sure cure for the problem, but a preferred tool to keep the problem from getting worse. Think twice before “letting them down easy” by avoiding the truth: It is likely to magnify the problem rather than put it on the road to resolution.

Honesty and humanity are the best courses where honesty and humanity are reasonably expected. If you want to look at it in legal liability terms, would a juror rather see a clear and clean response wrapped around a difficult circumstance, or the bobbing and weaving expected of a politician holding that bag of cash?

Whether the issue is workplace injuries, layoffs, emotional carnage caused by poor managers, changed financial circumstances, loss of a customer or plain old mistakes, acknowledge, listen, explain and tell the truth. Of course, speculating and bringing every fact to the table are not good either. The point is, what you do say should be true.

Employers concerned about admitting liability where none exists can limit their comments to concern, empathy and support. Injured customers or family members deserve that empathy, even if the injury was their own fault. Insurance companies used to advise against any comment, but the good ones now understand the purpose and power of humanity following an incident. You can be sorry about an injury without apologizing for causing the harm.

Employers are not politicians and employees are not anonymous voters. The next time a difficult circumstance comes along, choose honesty over the easier choice.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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