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The title of today’s Monday Moment might well need sound effects. Perhaps we need a dastardly laugh like “Mwah haha” and a cartoon of an evil wrong doer, to convey the mood of this discussion and the potential answer. As this month’s podcasts focus on leaders being loyal to their ethics, we must also consider the ethical agreements implied in employment and how your employees are interpreting them. Whether the discussion is about non-compete agreements, personal gain arrangements, or outright theft of confidential client data, perhaps the larger question to consider as a leader, is not “are they betraying you?” but “will they betray you?” and if so, to what extent and what impact? But, before you panic, let’s look at the areas in which employee betrayal of you, the leader, or the leadership of your larger organization, are most common.
According to Wikipedia, a non-compete agreement or clause (often NCC), or covenant not to compete (CNC), is a clause under which one party (usually an employee) agrees not to enter into or start a similar profession or trade in competition against another party (usually the employer). In layman’s terms, this clause or document is intended to dissuade an employee from taking the information or training or pricing they have learned from one employer, over to a new position of working with a competitor in the same market. Often these agreements extend for a finite period of time and even more often they are found to be completely unenforceable in a court of law. Now, before you run to legal counsel at your office and tell them they’re doing it wrong and before you leave your current position thinking no matter what you’ve signed, no one will try to enforce a non-compete you may have signed, let’s look at the ethics involved. An employee or leader with a personal set of ethics that say “I don’t steal” would not likely need this document to follow his or her own set of standards. An employee with an even stronger belief that says “I will get even with those who have wronged me” may find an internal struggle upon leaving your organization if they have resentment that is bigger than their concern over the consequences of violating a non-compete agreement. An entirely different population of employees, while much smaller, will be prone to break rules and laws that don’t suit their desires, as a regular course of business. So, here’s the issue. If leaders believe a non-compete forces loyalty, it is the very concept of loyalty that eludes them. To prevent your intel from getting to a competitor via a disgruntled former employee, consider the impact of the type of leadership you provided them with they were a part of the team you have the privilege of leading. Did you go above and beyond to accommodate them? Did you abide by your own set of ethics to treat them with fairness and equitable distribution of rewards and compensation? Not all who leave and betray these agreements can be traced back to a fault within the leader, but more can than is likely being currently considered. Don’t want employees to betray you here? Give them much less to be resentful of or disgruntled about.
Personal Gain Arrangements
At a senior level of leadership, those you lead are likely to have their own signing authority. It is possible the leaders you lead can enter into contracts up to a certain point, without your input or sometimes awareness. Even in cases where the agreement is small, personal gain stands to come into consideration. Let’s say one senior leader who doesn’t even drink coffee, enters into an agreement with a large coffee vendor for the many breakrooms in your multi-state organization. Because he or she isn’t a coffee drinker, there is no realization that the coffee is swill and not worth drinking, but what was appealing was the fifteen percent kick back given to the leader who made sure to sign the agreement. Complaints are consistent from employees nationwide about the awful coffee, but little is done to change it for the employees because of the leader’s personal gain arrangement. Some call this business. Some see the conflict in priorities. Does a leader do what is best for the company or best for the employees? Does the issue of how bad the coffee is in the breakrooms even rank in the top ten of issues worth addressing? Perhaps. What if other vendors were cheaper and better? What if this were the beginning of a pattern and the next decision for which personal gain was possible, was for sub-par employee health care or benefits? Leaders may betray even the savviest of senior leaders, based on a differing set of ethics and in areas with many shades of gray. How important is coffee, really? Or, how important is this pattern of betray to the very employees this leader has the privilege and responsibility of leading and serving? Are you able to make decisions that serve the workforce and maybe serve your own personal interest less than other options? Is there an unwritten rule that back door or personal gain arrangements are acceptable if you can get away with them? Even at the front-line level, discounts are given at a register as a customer negotiates or gives a clerk whatever they have to offer. Make clear your guiding principles in this area of personal gain or you may be untangling some agreements, legal and otherwise, that at a high level become quite tricky to identify and in which to intervene.
Confidential Data Theft
Data breaches are no longer headline news, they happen with such frequency. However, these are typically breaches by a hacker seated in a foreign country or their mother’s basement. When the thief of client data is an internal employee, the betrayal feels much more personal and most leaders find the behavior completely unacceptable, even expressing surprise that someone would consider taking such action. Do not be surprised. This happens often. In fact, it is such a common occurrence that some large companies keep terminations or reorganizations very, very quiet until the moment of the announcement, at which time security personnel is standing in your doorway ready to escort you out with only your personal belongings. Confidential data theft is as real as shoplifting in teenage girl jewelry stores. Without an internal set of ethics that say “I don’t steal”, the temptation is real. With a termination and the feeling of being “wronged”, the access to intel feels less like theft and more like entitled payback. But, how do you prevent it without micromanaging every bit of information accessed. One method is to avoid giving one employee access to all parts of the data. Give one division access to name and address; one with access to emails and names, and one with socials and street addresses or some such system. Another method is to make known the ability to access all company laptops and trace every keystroke of what employees have saved, printed, or accessed. A leader could go complete “big brother” on this one or… a leader could look for ways to uncover the ethics and hot buttons of team members long before they offer him or her a position.
Consider asking existing team members and those you are considering giving a job offer, “What are your commandments?”. Readily identifiable as rules written on a stone tablet, this question is often easier to answer than questions around ethics. Give candidates and team members word problems such as those in third grade math class, that reveal how one might truly address ethical situations. On a large scale, corporations do these things, but the number of people being hired and the lack of personal attention paid to each candidate make the “rigorous” seeming system easily gamed. The frustration of online applications alone could give someone justification to lie on their application just because of the time they wasted having to talk to a computer. Be different. Give the attention even on the team you’ve already hired. Ask them the questions. Have this discussion. Lead not by fear of the consequences you’ll wield if they do betray you, but by being the kind of boss that creates loyalty, clarity, and a feeling of never wanting to have their actions, no matter the justification, come back to hurt you, even when they’re angry with the organization.
For your Become a Better Leader Challenge this week, make ethics and these three areas a topic of conversation in your next staff meeting.
I’m Monica Wofford and that’s your Monday Moment. Have a great week and of course, stay Contagious!
Monica Wofford, CSP develops leaders. CEO of Contagious Companies, her firm designs and delivers leadership training for those managers who’ve been promoted, but not prepared. Author of Contagious Leadership and Make Difficult People Disappear, Monica may be reached at www.ContagiousCompanies.com, www.MonicaWofford.com or by calling 1-866-382-0121.