RICHARDSON: Taking heat for doing the right thing

A FEW YEARS into my first job as a

dean, I had to make a personnel decision that I knew was not going to be well received by the general public. It was not a hard decision to make, as the person had done some pretty bad stuff. Suffice it to say, the university attorney and president agreed that the action had to be taken. We were not firing the individual, but were removing supervisory authority.

I expected, however, that once the word got out, I would be vilified in the community. How dare I take this action? Why would I do such a thing to this person? The individual was such a resource. And on and on.

I talked with my boss about how to minimize the reaction. The person in question had a close relationship to my business school’s advisory board chairman. I ended up calling the chairman, who was CEO of a large banking organization. He was a huge presence in the community. The conversation went something like this:

“Chair, some issues have arisen in my unit that make it imperative that we remove X’s supervisory authority,” I said, “I know you are close to him, so expect you will hear from him about this. I wanted to give you a heads-up. As you are aware, I cannot discuss personnel actions with you, but did want you to know that this decision was made after much consideration.

“Lynne, I appreciate you preparing me,” the chairman said. “I would not appreciate you trying to advise me on how to run my bank, so I’m not going to question decisions you make in your school.”

“Thank you, Chair,” I said. “I don’t expect you’ll hear from X about what really happened. Perhaps you can be a voice of reason when he contacts you.”

“I will definitely try,” the chairman said.

Sure enough, while there was no big announcement made, the word got out. Several people in the community questioned why we did it. My response was always, “This was the best decision for the organization. As it’s a personnel matter, I cannot say anything further.” While many didn’t like this response, most accepted it.

So, did the advisory board chairman receive a call? Of course he did. Later, the chairman shared the conversation with me. The person whose authority I removed threw me under the bus. He said I was evil and had no idea what I was doing, among other things. And then the chairman stopped the person and said, “I know Lynne. She is not evil, she does know what she’s doing. I’m guessing there is more to this story than you are telling me. I don’t need nor want to know what really happened, but it would be in your best interest to not say these things to me or anyone else in the community. All this does is negatively reflect on you.”

Thankfully, the person listened to the chairman. The decision became a non-issue within a week or so, as reasonable people realized there must be a fire, as we would not have made the decision unless we had smelled the smoke.

Of course, the story could have been quite different. Had the person not taken the chairman’s advice, I would have heard about it from many community stakeholders. And my response could have been nothing other than what I shared before: “This was the best decision for the organization. As it’s a personnel matter, I cannot say anything further.”

Anyone who has had to make these kinds of decisions knows that folks are not going to be happy when their gal or guy has this happen to them. But organizations, at least good ones, know they cannot disclose the reasons behind the decision to the public. It’s just not appropriate. So we keep our mouths shut and take the heat.

This is one of the examples I give when talking with people about becoming supervisors. Is a person comfortable making tough decisions that might cause indigestion among stakeholders? It’s part of the role. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen, but those in authority must be prepared to make decisions that are perhaps controversial and unpopular. Then, they need to be able to sleep at night.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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