You Might Need a Witness

Often having witnesses to emotionally charged conversations with superiors, peers, or subordinates is a mistake, but when the stakes are extremely high, it is a piece of insurance that you might not want to forego.

One time it is virtually always wise to have a witness, for example, is when you're delivering a termination.

Job terminations are stressful for both the "firee" and the "firer."  Emotions run high on both sides -- anger, desperation, depression on one hand, guilt, anxiety, and sympathy on the other -- and because of the charged atmosphere it is easy for the conversation to get out of hand.  I've found this to be true even when a termination is fully justified by  misconduct on the part of the employee, and doubly so when the cause is simply an economic contraction.

The presence of a witness tends to anchor the emotions of the person delivering the termination.  A credible witness is an objective third party that is present physically in the room with you.  That person can give you a nudge if you start to drift off of your planned script for the event (and you should have a planned script -- preferably with written notes -- for reasons that will shortly become apparent).  I've found the presence of a real human being to be much more effective in tempering my words and emotions than a tape recorder, or even a video camera.  Live people provide feedback, even if it is subtle, that a piece of electronics simply can't match.

Thinking back to a termination I conducted long ago, the employee pushed me hard for a "reason" for the decision to let him go.  I was younger and less experienced at that time, and was tempted to give him what he asked for -- the reasoning and rationale behind my conclusion.  (As a footnote, bear in mind that there is absolutely no answer you can provide to this question that will help you, and there will likely be several things you might say that can get you in trouble.)

At that time I was in a right to work state,  which meant that as long as there was no prohibited reason for the termination (such as an illegal, discriminatory one), continuing employment was at will, and I had absolutely no obligation to offer any reasons whatsoever.  Yet I was tempted to provide my rationale for the termination which I felt justified my decision.  Objectively, I realized this might provide fodder for a future lawsuit, and providing my reasoning certainly wasn't going to help me, but I still felt a strong emotional pull to do so.  The presence of a witness, in this case the HR director, helped me keep my thoughts to myself.

Perhaps an even more important reason to have a witness present, however, is that a witness remembers what was said and what wasn't.  Sometimes the recipient of the termination action is "listening" for soundbites they might be able to use later, often out of context, and frequently in a lawsuit.  I've seen this happen more than once, and in a cruel twist, the strategy seems to work best on the sympathetic supervisor who is forced into performing an action they both hate and regret.  When an opportunistic employee meets an empathetic boss, there is a good chance the manager will be lured into saying something that will later come back to bite them.

And sometimes, even if there is no fire, there can still be some fabricated smoke.  On several occasions, I've been aware of terminated employees that outright lied about what was said during their firing.

A witness can protect you in both of these situations.  The witness can testify about the state of mind of both parties, the context of the meeting, and the exact meaning of what was said during the proceedings.  The witness will have a level of objectivity that neither individual involved in the situation can possibly claim.  A witness provides a level of credibility and interpretation that is beyond even a recording.  In short, a witness can be your "secret weapon" if you are later accused of something that just plain didn't happen.

I once had an employee claim I treated him "cruelly and unprofessionally" over a joke that lasted a total of ten seconds.  Of course, this claim came to light many months later, shortly after his termination.  Fortunately, I had a witness that could describe exactly what had happened, the context, and the severity of the situation.  This countered the over-exaggerated picture the plaintiff was trying to paint.  While the encounter was still damaging, in the bigger scheme of things the witness kept it in the proper perspective, neutralizing some of the of the potential damage.

Having a witness in that situation was just luck.  However, in the next incident, the witness was present by design.

In this situation, an employee claimed that one of my managers said he was fired because he was "too old."  Besides running completely against all our training, and being totally out of character for the manager in question, there was a witness that confirmed the manager's account of the termination.  After investigating the situation, I was convinced the comment was a fabrication.  Based on the strength of the witness's account, the complaint was eventually dropped.

While I've previously counseled managers to keep their most emotionally charged conversations private, when it comes to the highest stakes situations it is worthwhile to spend a few minutes thinking about whether having a witness present will work to your advantage.  Bear in mind that your opponent may exaggerate, take comments out of context, or outright lie about what you said.  If you believe any of these scenarios are remotely possible, and if the consequences of such a claim are dire, having a witness in your corner may be a very smart move.  19.5

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Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for $2.99, as are various eVersions of LEVERAGE.

Deliverables is a perfect "how to" for spying on your employer.

Deliverables is a perfect "how to" for spying on your employer.

To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.