Managing betrayal in the workplace

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As an optimistic leader, it surprises me that I’m often asked what disenchants me the most about my professional life. But the answer is clear: the rare circumstance when my faith in my fellow man is betrayed.

Nothing is more rewarding than the warm response I get from employees and executives as they grow, fulfilling their promises to our organization and, more important, to the people we serve, all the while bettering themselves. Contrarily, nothing cuts deeper than investing, believing and trusting in individuals who decide that their self-interest is the only factor in their decisions. On a broader scale, the implications of the pandemic have driven such disengagements to a fever pitch.

Such scenarios may surface as:

  • A brand-new senior hire capriciously takes a “better offer,” without any discussion.
  • A former employee blatantly violates a noncompete, nonsolicit agreement.
  • A trusted associate is found pilfering intellectual property.
  • A former employee anonymously and erroneously discredits the reputation of the organization.

To inspire those around me, I frequently share the methodology behind my relentlessness and determination. However, sharing can beget vulnerability, which can result in emotional wounds and short-term defeats. These transient feelings can be manifested by disappointment, duplicity, disloyalty and even heartbreak.

To avoid such scenarios, I suggest:

  • Putting all terms, conditions and expectations of employment offers or contracts on paper and have them reviewed by an employment attorney.
  • Explaining the ethical and legal ramifications of violating agreements, prior to any conflicts.
  • Having candid, proactive discussions about integrity and transparency.
  • Intuiting past behavior as a predictor of future behavior in hiring.
  • Evaluating and preparing for worst-case conflict scenarios from all clients, partners and vendors.

Betrayal can cause emotional pain. As there is little distinction between my work and family life — being a 24/7 leader actually reduces stress in my life — I tend to react to such scenarios quickly. However, a fine balance must be struck between dealing with betrayal immediately and taking time to consider the long-term consequences. When betrayed in a professional setting, consider the following options.

  • Observe and acknowledge what happened. Healing begins with awareness and understanding individuals’ motivations.
  • Allow feelings to surface. You cannot make sense of all human behavior.
  • Acknowledge that other stakeholders with their own motivations were likely involved in the situation.
  • Give connected employees support.
  • Reframe the experience to think about it broadly.
  • Take responsibility for your contribution to the scenario.
  • Forgive. Move on from the battle and win the war.
  • Remember, the scenario is the exception, not the rule.

As leaders, we have a right and obligation to hold constituents accountable for clearly inappropriate behavior. At times, legal actions, disciplinary courses and frank conversations are the best choices. But taking a pause is appropriate. Thoroughly consider your options and the ramifications of each. Digesting emotions in the short term so you can plan objectively typically yields a better result than impulsivity. Focus on what really matters. Negative energy never yields a positive result. ●

Dr. Gordon Vanscoy, Pharm.D., MBA, is chairman & CEO of RareMed Solutions

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