It landed on Carol’s desk with the muffled thump of a dead body wrapped in a heavy, wet flannel blanket.
A neat but heavy package, it was a nine-by-twelve-inch envelope no less than four inches thick. FedEx had delivered it that morning, and the receptionist casually swung it by after her lunch break. How could she have known that within this package lay the next six months of utter and complete hell? Hell in a FedEx Overnight envelope.
When she opened it, it didn’t hiss. Smoke didn’t slowly escape from its hellish guts. It wasn’t hot or even warm to the touch. But when she pulled the neatly stacked, stapled, stitched, and clipped papers from the envelope and got the first view of its contents…it STUNG. And stung mightily, and repeatedly.
There they were, the crisp, clean white pages, staring at her, the stinging words—the important words—flying off the page and stinging her directly in the eyeballs:
IN THE MATTER OF…DEFENDANT…PURSUANT TO…You are hereby NOTIFIED…
And the numbers…The numbers cascading down the left margin of what would be more than a hundred pages seemed to never end.
- And the pages of text that would follow, as the numbers droned on and on, and the text droned on and on,
- were carefully double-spaced as if designed to ensure that she was subjected to the maximum
- amount of pain with each and every word, each and every sentence. Drip, drip, drip . . .
The PTSD of her divorce came screaming back and filled her with dread. What was this? What had gone wrong? What did she miss? It had been five years; how could this not have been resolved? Once her head stopped spinning and the blur of the words and numbers and the vibration of the white space on the paper ceased, she was able to take a closer look.
Wrongful termination? Of whom? She quickly surmised that with fewer than a hundred employees in her company, surely, she would know if someone had been wrongfully terminated. Surely, she would know if there had been an “unpleasant departure,” as they say in the business. But nothing came to mind. She read on:
James, Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo? Nope. Who is James Smith? Who the hell is (or was) James Smith, and when did he work here, who did he report to, and why is he suing us for wrongful termination?
She snatched the org chart off of her bulletin board. Inspecting box after box, in every branch office—BOOM!—she finally found a small box in the lower left corner of the PowerPoint-generated org chart: James Smith, receptionist, Los Angeles branch. We had a receptionist in the LA office? This was news to her. It was either in the “news” or detailed-information-she-didn’t-care-about-until-now category. It would require a call to the LA branch manager to put her finger on it.
He reminded her that James had been hired last summer, so he was with the company just over a year. He missed the company’s annual meeting due to an illness, and he missed the company’s summer picnic because he was getting married the same weekend. Totally valid excuses. The LA branch manager explained that he’d made the decision to hire a receptionist even though other branches didn’t have receptionists because he thought it would look good to visitors. There wasn’t much for the person to do in a three-person office, but that was no matter. So, the detailed-information-she-didn’t-care-about-until- now opened up a new category of information: activities-that her own management team was engaging in and not telling her about.
And there she sat—totally exposed. Without even reading the rest of the lawsuit, she felt totally blindsided, and the air was knocked clean out of her. She had no idea who this person was, why he had been hired, what he had been hired to do, and why—really—he had been fired. She was at the mercy of a branch manager that had gone rogue, but she didn’t know what kind of rogue.
What had gone wrong? And what would happen next?
LET’S GET REAL
Any parent instinctively knows that if you have more than fifteen seconds of silence from toddlers—who aren’t sleeping soundly—in another room, you’ve got big trouble. Fifteen seconds of silence could be a jellybean up a nose. Thirty seconds of silence could be a permanent-marker masterpiece on the kitchen wall. A full minute of silence could be a full-blown journey into the uppermost shelves of an open refrigerator.
But silence in the workplace can go on much longer than a minute. It can be days, weeks, months, even years. If a leader isn’t listening or doesn’t have the proper controls in place for communication and accountability from those who should be listening, things can go horribly wrong. By the time they are clued in, and everything is brought to light, it’s too late.
Carol’s company was growing, and she was stepping back from the day-to-day. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to personally know each and every employee. She’d gotten pretty good at dealing with that awkward moment of meeting someone for the first time after they had been working at her company for six months. Carol felt like she had a solid leadership team in place, and she did—right up until she didn’t. She liked giving them the space and autonomy to make decisions on their own. She didn’t want to be “the meddler.”
But her branch manager made a series of fatal errors that ended in a lawsuit, and they all were born out of silence. He made a hire into a new, untested role and told no one above him. He hired a qualified person but didn’t communicate the nature, goals, or career path of the role. He didn’t train or onboard the hire with any kind of structure or rigor. He didn’t help assimilate the person into the company. He hired a phone answerer, plunked him down at a desk with a phone, and walked away.
The details of James’s termination and the outcome of the lawsuit are best saved for another chapter titled “How Not to Not Settle a Lawsuit,” but the moral of the story thus far is: Great companies and great people can fail in silence.
All companies are people companies, and people are always a company’s greatest assets. When we don’t communicate or put in controls and rigor for collaboration and communication, the rails bend, and things can head in unintended directions.