photo of man at desk in article by Heather Bussing titled It's not just information, it's evidence

“Everything, especially everything at work, is on the record. It’s not just information, it’s evidence.”

Tracking Employee and Company Secrets

Dealing with Unexpected Truth: Everything, especially everything at work, is on the record. Video records your actions in the world, Google Maps has records of where you went and how long it took you to get there. Your email, voicemail, who you called, and text messages are all tracked and store. Every webpage you visit, how long you spent there, and what you looked at is tracked. And that’s not counting the NSA, government and private satellites, and every person you encounter during the day who has multiple recording devices in their pockets.

It’s not just information, it’s evidence.

So what do you do when uncomfortable truth comes to light? What if what your employee told you was wrong, and there’s a big problem? What if  a senior executive is sexually harassing someone or having an affair? You may need to monitor your spouse’s text messages. What happens if misrepresentations were made to the public or regulators?  What if there was a public gaffe or someone said or did something hurtful or offensive?

In the olden days (a few years ago), the conventional wisdom was to contain the situation as much as possible, release as little information as you could get away with, saying an investigation was underway. Then you called legal to manage the risk of liability.

Today, that approach will destroy you and your company. See 30 of the Most Epic Social Media Fails Ever.

Potential liability in a courtroom several years from now is not the priority. The court of the internet moves swiftly. Misinformation spreads faster than it can be countered. Containment is impossible. Because Twitter.

So here’s what to do and why you should do it.

1.     If you made a mistake admit it.

Legal used to always tell you to avoid admissions that could result in liability. This is the basis for the ubiquitous “no comment” or “we are investigating” response. But companies no longer control the information or the story. Being evasive is worse than admitting you screwed up. Sounding like a weasel will also cause people to dig further and keep the scandal alive longer than you want or it deserves.

So figure out what happened as quickly as possible and own the mistakes or embarassments.  

Practical Reason: The truth will come out anyway, dealing with it sooner prevents damage from looking evasive.

Ethical Reason: Admitting mistakes shows integrity and concern for the truth..

Legal Reason: Taking responsibility will dramatically reduce the chance of punitive damages if it ever goes that far.

A great example of this was DiGiorno Pizza’s flub following the Ray Rice domestic violence discussion on Twitter. Women were describing their own experience with violence and abuse using the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft.  DiGiorno offered “for the pizza” as a good reason to stay, not realizing the context for the hashtag. But their response was perfect. They admitted the mistake, demonstrated that they understood why it was offensive and wrote personal and genuine apologies.

2.     Don’t just apologize, say what you are doing to fix or prevent it.

“I’m sorry I upset you” or “I’m sorry if you were offended” are weasel words. They avoid responsibility for your actions and imply that the person’s response to your action is the problem. Don’t do this. Ever.

Instead, get clear on what you did wrong, and explain what you are doing about it. Don’t make excuses or give long explanations about why you were justified or anyone should understand your perspective. Don’t explain why you didn’t think it was going to be a problem. Just admit you screwed up and figure out how to fix it. Make it good. Pay for damage — yes, all of it.

Sometimes you can’t fix it. But letting people know that you understand why your actions were wrong goes a long way toward helping them believe that you won’t do it again.

Practical Reason:  Paying for damage and finding a way to make up for it are essential to resolving problems and mistakes. Paying now saves legal fees.

Ethical Reason: Fixing your mistakes shows you care and that you take responsibility for your actions.

Legal Reason: If you fix it now, you won’t have a lawsuit to deal with later because there will be no damages. And damages always get higher with time and lawyers.

3.     Always make your words and actions match.

I don’t judge people based on what they say. I judge them based on what they do. And when someone’s actions and words don’t match, I know they are not trustworthy. Maybe they’re a weasel, maybe a sociopath. Either way, it’s good to know and to get far away.

So make sure what you say in response to unexpected truth is consistent with what you do.

Practical Reason: You will have done what you can to resolve the situation and there won’t be anything to keep the drama and discussion going. The world will move on and everyone can get back to work.

Ethical Reason: Doing what you say is a sign of honesty and integrity

Legal Reason: It will probably prevent a lawsuit, and even if it doesn’t you will come out of it far better than if you look sneaky.

Dealing with uncomfortable truths is part of business and life. Own your part in them. Do what you can to fix and prevent them. And make your word count.

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