What to do about a bad leader

May 24, 2009

Q: I am the HR director at a small company. I have been asked by the CEO to counsel my boss, who is the company President, about his tendency for insulting employees and making racist comments in e-mail messages. The same President has made derogatory comments about me, and retaliated against some employees (including firing) who have brought his defects to light. Morale is extremely low, from district managers to the corporate office, yet our company has never done better financially. As a result, our company's directors don't want to change Presidents. How do I handle his request for me to counsel my own boss?
—Over My CEO but on My Plate, vice President of human resources, real estate, Coral Gables, Florida

A: Dear Over Your CEO:

It’s good that your company is doing well financially, because it appears that in the near future they are going to need those funds to defend the EEOC, Sexual Harassment, and/or Discrimination law suits that typically follow engulf such a leader. In addition it speaks volumes to the blindness of the directors as well.

Before tackling this assignment, have a serious sit-down with the company CEO. And although it would be difficult you must insist the CEO get the Board together without the President so you can make your case to them as well. Be prepared not only from the pain caused by this guy but how the law reads and the legal and financial ramifications and how the long arm of a defense attorney will easily sweep all parties into the fray. This might wake them up.

Two questions jump out immediately: 1) Why is the CEO of the company accepting the President’s dysfunctional behavior and 2) Why is he not the one leading the counseling session? We can speculate on the motives, and again two stand out: 1) Your top leader is confrontation-averse and 2) He and the President are buddies.

Other question comes to mind: What is your relationship with the company CEO? Do you have enough experience to judge his integrity? This is vital as you must obtain substantive assurance (perhaps in writing) that the company CEO (or the board of directors) will give you protection from any retaliatory behavior by the President.(Is the company CEO aware of how far this President has taken retaliation when feeling threatened?

The company CEO and company board must understand that employee discontent with treatment from a specific manager or supervisor is the biggest cause of employees leaving a company. That is, profits probably won’t stay up if morale stays low and people eventually change ships, which is what they will likely do once the economic climate starts to improve.
Finally, I would obtain buy-in from the company CEO for some executive, communications, or diversity coaching for the President.

Assuming you get satisfactory assurance (and if you don’t then I would think twice about meeting with the President alone; I might opt instead for a three-way meeting with the President and the company CEO) then consider these steps:
Challenge and reassure the President. If possible, have the President meet in your office. Psychologically this will be self-empowering. Let the President know that the CEO of the company strongly suggested the meeting.

Then inform the President that you and the company CEO (there is strength in numbers) values his contributions to the company success (note specific strengths). Also, share that you appreciate how, as a leader, he wants to hold people accountable, and you understand his frustration when people do not meet company performance expectations.

However, you and the company CEO both are concerned that some of the President’s actions are hurting his status as leader and potentially are hurting the overall position of the company.
Be specific. Ask the President if he recalls imparting any insulting or racist comments in e-mails? If he denies the deed, if at all possible be prepared to present such e-mails or have some documentation at hand. (I would not bring up your experience with the President in this meeting.

Don’t give the President ammo to question your objectivity.) Let the President know he is putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy with such insults and racist comments.
Ask for feedback and have a plan. How does the President respond to your constructive confrontation? If he is defensive or in denial, then you have to let him know that you will be reporting this fact back to the company CEO. If he is open to your comments, solicit his ideas on how he can express his frustrations or concerns with people or business operations in a more constructive and substantive manner. I would also let the President know that the company is prepared to provide voluntary executive/communication/diversity coaching (and will make it mandatory) if problems persist.

Follow up on the meeting. I would schedule a three-way meeting with the President and company CEO to make sure everyone is on the same page, after you’ve had a report back with the company CEO. And then have a follow-up meeting in two to four weeks with you and the President to monitor progress.

If you follow these steps, I believe you will demonstrate your professionalism and will determine whether the President’s behaviors are amenable to change. And if the President resists this intervention, then the ball is in the company CEO and/or company board’s court, where it belonged all along. And if all of this occurs in a negative light, I would sadly encourage you to update your resume.

Hopefully, this will be a safe and happy family Memorial Day.
George F. Mancuso