Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fact or Fiction?

A manager has a problem. He was fired and replaced by his trusted lieutenant. The lieutenant in question was a personal friend; he had been invited to his boss's house; they had traveled together.

All the while the lieutenant was scheming to get rid of his boss. Eventually, it did happen. Alas, the lieutenant's victory was pyrrhic. After a short time he too was fired. Now he has emailed his former boss to ask for a reference he can use on his job hunt.

The manager himself is about to start a new job. His problem is: should he write a reference for his back-stabbing ex-friend?

The debate is taking place on the website of the Financial Times. Convened by Lucy Kellaway it reads like a cross between a seminar discussion and a business meeting. Examining the varied view
points will show us how to analyze an ethical dilemma. Link here.

The first, and easiest reaction, assumes that it is not a problem. Since the ex-friend stabbed him in the back, he should ignore the request. Or else, he can avenge himself by writing a reference that is sure to keep the man unemployed.

Of course, ignoring the request is a hostile act. If the lieutenant, in his job search, cannot offer a reference from his former boss, it will surely count against him.

But if the manager uses the occasion to avenge himself this would make him look petty and vindictive.
Besides, what if the lieutenant was an honest and effective executive? What if that man's good character is well known in their industry? The manager must consider what his action will be saying about him.

And then, what would happen if the lieutenant hears about the bad reference or is called upon to explain why there is no reference? Will he not need to defend himself, by explaining why the manager was dismissed? Surely, he will spin the events to make the manager look less than competent.

If, on the other hand, the manager writes a favorable reference, the lieutenant cannot bad mouth him without looking bad himself.

Several of Kallaway's readers are not so quick to accept the manager's version of events. Quite correctly. The manager feels that his lieutenant led a cabal that had him replaced. But is this a true version of the facts or is it a congealed myth designed to cover up the manager's failure?

Anyone who is counseling the manager must first do his own due diligence. He will need to engage the manager in a discussion through which he will be able to learn whether the manager's version is fact of fiction?

Obviously, a one paragraph presentation of the problem obscures too many facts.

Other readers would ask the manager other pertinent questions. Have these two men maintained contact? If not, whose decision was it?

I suspect that they have not. Otherwise the email asking for a reference would not have come as a surprise. This also suggests that they have never sat down to talk over what happened.

As one reader pointed out, such a clearing of the air would have provided the lieutenant an opportunity to apologize, if such is in order, or to make amends. It may even allow him to explain the events in a way that shows that he did not initiate a coup, but had been drawn into the process by higher-ups who had already decided to replace the manager.

We do not even know whether the lieutenant was fired because he did a bad job, because his bad character made him an ineffective boss, or because the financial crisis undermined their business?

On the other hand, let us say that the manager wants to rise above the psychodrama and write a good reference. This will only reflect well on him if the lieutenant is fundamentally competent and honorable. If a new firm discovers that the reference has overlooked salient details, it will reflect badly on the manager.

I cannot answer these questions, for lack of relevant information. I want merely to outline the correct approach to making a decision.

If a man comes to consult with you and offers a heartfelt, emotion-laden narrative of events, your first reaction should be to think that if it makes for a good story it is probably untrue. Real life never fits neatly into myth.

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