Lynne Curry: A decade of badmouthing doesn't pardon ethical lapse

Lynne Curry

Q. Our small business relies on its reputation. For years, we've contracted to provide services to a large Alaska company. When we needed information technology services, "Bob," one of this company's employees, let us know he could help us "on the side."

Although we realized Bob's company had a "no moonlighting policy" and Bob helped us out during the workday -- when he was supposedly working full-time for his employer -- we used him because we really needed his skills. We talked with Bob about this and he talked us out of worrying about it.

A year later, we hired a new IT provider and canceled Bob's retainer. Bob retaliated, filing an ethics complaint against us with his employer.

They investigated and cleared us of wrongdoing. In the process, we told them Bob probably filed the complaint because we ended his retainer. After we showed them the year's worth of canceled checks written to Bob, they suspended and demoted him.

Bob got another job but still works with many of our customers and bad-mouths our firm every chance he gets. We've tried to ignore Bob but Anchorage is a small town and our reputation is suffering. We recently called him and told him that when he slanders us people let us know, giving us a chance to explain the whole situation. We said, "Ten years is too long for a grudge; how about a truce." He ranted at us and hung up.

A. You "bloodied Bob's nose 10 years ago and like a bulldog holding on to your pants leg, he refuses to let go," says litigator-turned-HR-consultant Rick Birdsall. "Likely he's a bully, and when bad things happen to bullies, they blame their misfortune on others. Heaven forbid Bob accept personal responsibility for his demotion."

According to Birdsall, telling Bob some of the mud he tosses at you splashes back on him won't work: "Because bullies focus on harming their intended target, you can't expect one to think strategically." Instead, Bob may have derived pleasure from your call and request for a truce -- it showed him he'd gotten to you and you wanted to cave instead of standing up to him.

Birdsall suggests you "go for the knockout. Even if you don't succeed, let Bob know he's in for a fight if he continues taking you on, so he thinks twice about doing so."

While ignoring Bob's bad-mouthing may seem safer, it won't give you what you want. He's slandered you for a decade. His accusations have undoubtedly harmed your business reputation with some of those who've listened to him, particularly the ones who haven't let you know what they've heard.

If you continue the ignoring route, Birdsall suggests you hand a "professionally written press release to anyone who tells you they've heard Bob's accusations. This gives you the ability to rapidly respond and might even turn the 'opportunities' Bob gives you into positive public relations," Birdsall says. If you decide on this, have legal counsel help you write the statement. Anything written can come back to bite you should Bob accuse you of slander.

Finally, Bob clearly saw your outing him as retaliation -- even if he initially filed the complaint. Meanwhile, your hands weren't clean. You did business with someone you recognized had poor ethics. According to you, Bob cheated his employer and you colluded with him even though they were one of your customers. Whenever you turn a blind eye to someone who cheats another person, you take a huge risk. One day they may turn on you, as Bob did.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at


Lynne Curry