“This is the last time I am going to ask you. Where the hell is Ian?”
A friend of mine had a tough decision to make: continue to hide bad news or come clean. We were recruiting on campus at Purdue University. My co-worker and I helped with an event and needed to arrive early to greet candidates who would interview our boss in the morning.
Our evening session went well. We filled a panel of ten candidates for the following day, and our schedule was set. Then we headed out for beers at some of my old haunts (probably why my boss chose me for this trip). I was only two years removed from college, and we ran into more than a few people I know.
A few beers turned into a few shots. You can see where this is going.
With a full schedule of interviews the next day, our boss was first to call it a night. Before leaving, he reminded us that the first interview would start at 8:00, and we needed to be there early to set up.
“Of course, Bob. We’ll be there.”
Rather than ask for permission, we figured we could always ask for forgiveness. We closed out the bar and then headed to an after-party with a few friends who were clearly not working the next morning like me.
I am not sure what time I got home, but I remember waking up to my hotel room phone ringing sound.
Piecing Together A Story
“Ian, what are you doing?”
“What time is it?”
“It’s 10:00! You need to get down here!”
I slept through the alarm, John banging on my door, and multiple calls to my hotel room phone. What an idiot!
I showered, got dressed, and sprinted downstairs. John was waiting for me while our boss was interviewing his third candidate.
“We need to get on the same page. I tried banging on your door at 8 AM and figured you were already down here.”
“When did Bob get down here?”
“Bob got here just before his first interview. I told him that you went to get a newspaper and were down here with me from the beginning.”
John told me that after his first interview, Bob again asked where I was. He covered for me a second time and told him I left to get some coffee. Bob didn’t have time to ask more questions as his second candidate was waiting for him.
When our boss got out of his second interview and noticed I still wasn’t there, he was livid.
“Where the hell is Ian?”
“Bob, he has been down here with me the whole time. He went to the bathroom.”
My head was spinning from the night before, and I struggled to remember the sequence of John’s excuses. I was humbled that John put his neck on the line to hide my bad news.
“OK, we were down here at 8. I went to get a paper before Bob got here, then some coffee, and I was in the bathroom the last time he came out. Got it.”
“Stick to the story.”
“John, thanks, man. I’m sorry.”
The Moment Of Truth
Bob finishes his 10:00 interview a little early. He shakes the candidate’s hand and makes eye contact with me.
“Ian, come in here. Close the door.”
To this point, I had yet to see my manager mad. He was a fiery Irish guy who was fiercely loyal to his team, and the kind of manager anyone would want to work for. He was the last person I wanted to disappoint.
Bob was six inches shorter than me. He got right up in my face, looking up at me and making me shrink in stature. My eyes were bloodshot, and I smelled like I brushed my teeth with bourbon.
“You are getting one shot at this. When did you come down from your room this morning? Think hard before you answer.”
This was a loaded question. He knew damn well that John was hiding bad news. This was a test.
“I just got here, Bob. I slept through my alarm. John has been trying to wake me up all morning. He is the only reason I am even here now.”
“So, should I fire you for acting like a moron or John for lying about it?”
Then he said something that really stuck with me.
“Don’t ever put someone on your team in a position like that again.”
More than missing the bell, he was disappointed that I put a co-worker in a no-win situation. Next, he called John into the room and gave him an earful for good measure.
John came out with a look on his face like, “Why the hell did I spend three hours covering for you if you were going to confess right away?”
After the smoke cleared, Bob told us that he didn’t mind what John did. In a strange way, he saw a silver lining in John lying to cover for me.
Bob was all about strong teams, and he respected that John was willing to take a bullet for me. This is what made him an exceptional leader.
You Can’t Hide Bad News
As for me, I could see that the inquisition was not going to end. This problem would only get worse with time.
Bob would keep asking around until he got the full story, and hiding the bad news would make it worse. My only chance was to own the mistake, separate from my friend the mess, and deal with the consequences.
Bad news does not improve with time. Managers expect you to make mistakes, and they didn’t promote you with the expectation you would be perfect. If you see something trending badly, bring the issue up before it spirals.
But unfortunately, hiding bad news is a reflex in most organizations. Most of this stems from a company’s general response to failures. Those who are quick to reprimand are typically last to know. But regardless of how your manager responds to bad news, it won’t get easier by waiting.
Your manager would much rather know early when they can still help you resolve it. This is much better than learning about bad news when it is impossible to hide (and also impossible to fix).
Also, I recommend passing on whiskey shots the night before a work function.
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