Losing My Corporate Innocence
When did you lose your corporate innocence? I lost mine on a Tuesday afternoon in October, over a decade ago. I recall the day vividly. That morning, I put on my favourite navy-blue suit, and made a mental note to lodge a complaint with my dry cleaner. This isn’t the first time I put on an outfit, only to find the waistband was tighter than usual. The hips as well, if I were to be honest. I was convinced they must be shrinking my clothes.
It was 2 PM on a particularly stressful day. The Corporation I worked for at the time announced that it was laying off 15% of its staff, which included six people from my team. By 2 PM that afternoon, anyone whose jobs had been eliminated throughout the organization had left the building. They had been given the news by their manager. They had cleared their desks, and returned their laptops and pass cards. The senior team would now meet with each department to impart some key corporate messages. They would share some context for these layoffs, as well as provide support and encouragement after what would have been an emotionally charged day, even for those who were fortunate to keep their jobs. The leader who was coming to speak to my team was someone I had a good relationship with, spanning several years. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I considered him a mentor. I trusted him.
I realize many people would find it naïve that I would ever trust a “corporate executive”. I could hear one of my good friends wryly saying, well trusting him was your first mistake. I understand that sentiment. Many corporate executives have worked hard throughout their careers to give us ample reason to distrust them. At that point in time, I was not yet a jaded corporate citizen. That would come later. (And, I am happy to say that after a stint of jaded cynicism lasting several years, I’m back to my default optimism.)
At the risk of sounding even more gullible, I’ll add that trusting your leader or manager should be the norm. That’s why I wrote this book. The fact that it’s not is a sad testament to crisis of trust in our corporate world today.
Let’s go back to 2 PM on that transformational Tuesday. For the next events of that afternoon to make sense to you, I need to backtrack for a moment, and provide you with some additional context.
Two months earlier….
Two months before that fateful Tuesday, there was some turmoil in the organization as it was heavily fined by its regulator for not following the required due diligence with a very large client, who had since filed for bankruptcy. Subsequent to the bankruptcy filing, many of the business’ unscrupulous practices were uncovered, including activities that would have, and should have, been prevented if proper due diligence had been completed by our company. Other organizations were also implicated, however our organization played the largest role and accordingly, we incurred the largest fine.
This scandal dominated the media for a couple of weeks as details unfolded. The fine would have an impact on our financial results.
Fast forward to that Tuesday afternoon at 2 PM.
The leader arrived on our floor in an impeccable navy blue suit; clearly he got my memo that navy blue was the colour for the day. My team gathered in the center of the floor, and he acknowledged that it was a difficult day for everyone as colleagues left the organization. He shared it was challenging for him as well.
The moment of untruth
Then it happened. I know he was just following the carefully crafted script from the corporate communications team. He explained to my team that many people may speculate that these layoffs are a direct result of the regulatory fine the organization had to pay, and that this was an effort to cut costs to offset the cash outlay. He adamantly tried to assure us all that the two events were unrelated. These layoffs were a routine and prudent exercise that all organizations complete in order to right size (“right size” was a popular term during this era).
All I could think was, “are you kidding me?”
Analysts were speculating about what the organization would do to regain shareholder confidence. This was on the news, in the newspapers, on the business news networks. I saw and heard it with my own eyes and ears, and I suspected that other people in the room did too. This took place prior to our current “fake news” era, when most things you read and heard in the media was well researched and had creditability.
I felt that during this Corporate pep talk, I was being asked to conveniently remove my brain from my head, put it in my desk drawer, and accept everything being said to me at face value.
I was surprised. I was insulted. I was confused, and disappointed.
Whose brain child was this?
My mind began to wander, trying to make sense of things. I thought about the top floor of the skyscraper we called “head office.” I wondered who was the mastermind behind this idea to try and dupe everyone. Who said, “here’s an idea, let’s just say this has nothing to do with the regulatory fine. We’ll then cascade this simple message throughout the organization from the executive team. If it comes from the executive team, everyone will believe it, right?”
Based on my knowledge of how large corporations work, I am confident a small army of communications specialists and lawyers would have pored over every word, comma, semi-colon and font choice. It would have needed the endorsement of the top-level leaders. I guess this was an example of group think in action. So, every single one of those individuals thought this was a good idea, and no one considered for a moment that this may possibly be one of the worst ideas ever? They were deploying a transparent lie. Upon reflection, I realized that due to the likely endorsement from key influencers and momentum that can happen in meetings, if someone had raised a dissenting opinion, it could have been a career limiting move for them.
In an instant, it was crystal clear to me that I couldn’t trust anything being said by this man I respected. Not because he’s a bad person; I’m confident he’s a fine human being. I’m sure he returns his grocery cart to the receptacle in the parking lot, brakes for squirrels crossing the road and drinks eight glasses of water each day. But I could no longer trust him because he was allowing the Corporation to dictate what he had to say, even if it means stretching the truth to the point that what he was saying was in a different area code from the truth.
That’s the day I lost my corporate innocence.
I’m not innocent in this story. I had my own speaking notes as well, which I would use to reinforce the leader’s message and tow the line. I imagine some of my team members had a similar feeling about me after this event. In fact, it may have been the point when they stopped trusting me.
This represented one of many moments in my corporate life where I felt like I was a polka dot in an industry of stripes. I felt my strong reaction to what I saw as utter bullshit was evidence that I wasn’t corporate material. If I was, this would have been routine for me. I figured that I wasn’t shrewd or sophisticated enough to know that this is just how things roll in big business sometimes. Expediency to get everyone back to work and sweep this ugliness away was the priority. Shut up and suck it up, or leave.
My team was a customer-facing team, so there was an additional layer to this farce for us. Client-facing teams were given additional speaking notes to use if a client asked questions about the layoffs, which had also received wide media coverage. Sure enough, a client questioned one of my team members about the layoffs. After carefully relaying the key messages to the client that the layoffs had nothing to do with the regulator fines and were rather, a routine exercise in “right-sizing,” the client burst into laughter and said, compassionately, “I know they make you say that.” Awesome.
I will never know who the brainiac was behind this communication plan.
Not only did the leadership team erode the trust of employees, but the trust of clients as well. They also reinforced the widely accepted belief that is prevalent today—you can’t trust corporations.