Q: I feel specifically threatened by a memo that our organization’s CEO sent over the weekend. He clearly wants to squash dissent, and I believe it’s because of an interview I gave to the media.
Here’s a paraphrase of what he wrote: Given the financial challenges facing our company, our owner board and I are making difficult decisions. We ask that all mid-level managers and supervisors understand that any communications on these topics must respect our owners’ right to make these high-level decisions. To ensure this, please route any potential communication you might make to an external individual or group to me and in advance.
What made him think he could send this and can he get away with it? Also, the fact that I’ve sent you this question by letter is due to my fear that my email might be traced. I’m not the only one who now keeps his mouth shut out of fear.
A: The National Labor Relations Act gives employees, including managers and supervisors, the right to voice their thoughts about any area of working conditions. That said, the employment at will doctrine gives employers the right to fire an individual for any or no reason. If you’re fired because of a dissenting communication you’ve made or make, you would be able to claim the firing violates your NLRA rights. Your employer would then need to counter your claim with a legitimate business reason for firing you, such as your problematic work performance or the need to eliminate your job in a necessary reorganization. If they can’t, or if their reasons appear to be a pretext for firing you because you’ve voiced concerns, they might face legal consequences.
Here’s what might have led your CEO to send this memo. Organizations already in the public eye rarely benefit by having their dirty laundry aired, and you mentioned giving a media interview. Many organizations facing the limelight funnel all media interviews through one or two public spokespersons for this reason. Further, managers, employees and power groups in a large, complex organization may push their own agenda during crisis times regardless of what benefits the overall organization.
The executive who wrote this memo might have thought he said all the right words, particularly when he rested his request on the phrase “respect the board.” At the same time, he would have benefited had he re-read his memo from the vantage point of someone who felt it aimed at squashing his rights or who wanted to voice his thoughts without asking for permission. Further, your CEO’s “shot across the bow” memo may negatively impact your organization in two significant areas, the need for truth and the need for true rather than fake unity.
An organization’s board and senior executive needs to listen to individuals willing to say the emperor has no clothes. Although this memo focuses on communications to external entities, it conveys a “don’t even think about” voicing negative concerns message to you and potentially others. If they’re to make the right decisions, your board urgently needs to hear from all internal stakeholder groups.
Further, and particularly in challenging times, organizations absolutely need all hands on deck. Executives rarely gain this “everyone rowing in alignment” by fiat. Your reaction and potentially others’ reaction shows how a memo such as this can rip a hole in your organization’s internal culture. If your CEO’s desire was to present an image of a tight ship, he needs to realize the memo he sent actually harms the healthy organization vibe he undoubtedly wants to portray — and it might even inspire mutiny.