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You Can Speak Truth To Power, But What If It Won’t Listen?

You Can Speak Truth To Power, But What If It Won’t Listen?

Have you noticed that "I didn't know" has become the excuse of choice for leaders on the Capitol Hill hot seat? Here I have to quote DOJ head Eric Holder: “I can’t be expected to keep up with” all the many programs going on in his agency – like gunwalking and the murder of one of our own.   “I didn’t read the memo,”  “I didn’t read the report,” are two lame excuses for not knowing what was going on, therefore not being responsible for what was going on.  At least theoretically.

Can you really hold a busy person responsible for not doing his/her own homework and not paying attention to what’s important?  As an HR leader, I wonder if you are up against that same frustration when trying to get your own boss to pay attention to critical issues before the fan picks up speed. As I ran this theme by my CHRO pals they all said, “I can’t count the many times I’ve put critical issues in front of my boss, only to have them completely ignored.”  Are you one of them?

What do you do to get your busy boss to focus on critical issues coming out of HR? Who do you owe your allegiance to?  How can you be most effective in protecting what matters?

Every time I heard “I didn’t read the report” by one of the political appointees, one thought repeatedly came to mind: There is a team of career professionals desperately committed to the agency's mission,  who worked really hard on that report that their boss is now so industriously ignoring. And they're desperately wishing that the Secretary (or at least his lieutenant) would read the friggin’ memo! They know better than anyone in the world what's really at stake. They signed up to serve the nation, not cover some political operative's butt. That part just goes with the territory, unfortunately. So more often than not, they clamp down in frustrated silence.

Maybe it’s my lifelong DC upbringing, where I was raised among the government families who stayed, as presidents and their administrations came and went.  Or maybe it’s the fact that my father – the CIA case officer who discovered the Cuban Missile Crisis – tried desperately to get the obstinate Kennedy administration to “read the report” before we all evaporated into a mushroom cloud. The only reason why we’re all alive to read about it now in history books is because my dad took desperate action to get the attention of the nation’s CEO, ultimately the nation itself.  (I’ll tell you about it in a second.)

So I’m sensitive to the fact that there are worker bees deep inside every organization throwing heart, soul and sleepless nights into the mission – only to run up against the hard wall of high-level politics that are running at cross purposes with the official objective. Or distraction as the CEO is trying to manage a firehose of critical issues. Or just garden-variety denial.

What do you do when you need urgent attention on a critical matter?  Especially from a boss who thinks that “I didn’t read the report” is a good enough excuse?  You know what? Beats the hell out of me.

But I can tell you what my father did when the Kennedy administration ignored repeated entreaties from the Miami CIA station to pay attention to the accumulation of burlap-wrapped objects coming in from the USSR that weren’t no palm trees.  With his own boss’s permission, he took it to the media.  He called his cousin, who happened to be a White House Correspondent for a small New York paper. And Dad showed Cuz everything he needed to know to write a series of articles. The articles landed on the appropriate Congressman’s desk. Congressman raises holy hell on the House of Representatives Floor.  And thus the Kennedy hand is forced. There will be no more ignoring. (And…..cue the Oliver Stone movie at this point.)

You can tell I’m proud of this story. Thanks for indulging me.  Now getting back to the present:  How many people deep inside these government agencies have been knowing that horrible things are going on? And they’re can't get the necessary attention to make the difference or even change the course of history?

How many people deep inside your organization (like yourself) know what’s going on but can't get the attention you need?  Will your stakeholders suffer?  Are millions of dollars at stake? Are lives at stake?  Or is it your career that's at stake?

Is the critical issue critical enough to be worth going rogue to force your boss to pay attention?  Who are you ultimately answerable to? The boss that keeps you employed? Your employees? Or your customers? Or the nation? Or the face in the mirror?

Question:  What do you do to get your busy boss to focus on critical issues coming out of HR?

About Martha Finney

Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at Martha@marthafinney.com.

6 Comments


  1. Martha:

    Very good article. I wish I knew the magic answer to your question other than to never give up like your father. I also find equally frustrating is when top leadership is made aware of a critical issue and they elect not to do anything. I am absolutely amazed at the degree I find top leadership spending an incredible amount of time in the quagmire of detail of their operation instead of spending time leading the organization and addressing critical issues.

    There are 4 jobs in every organization. People who do things, run areas, manage and lead. These are not clearly delineated jobs but core responsibilities. Unfortunately I find far too many in top leadership managing and running versus leading. When they say to me they are simply too busy to focus on other important areas, that tells me there is a serious role alignment issue and they are not effectively leading their organizations. Effective leaders will always know the critical issues going on in their organizations.

    Leadership must lead and today I find that to be seriously lacking in many organizations including in our Nations Capitol.


  2. Cute. Comparing your father’s efforts to prevent nuclear devices from being stationed 120 miles from Miami to getting someone’s attention at work is a bit of a stretch.
    Part of the problem is that most HR people do not recognize a critical issue when they see on and those that do simply want to report the matter as opposed to doing something about it. For example, if a senior manager is sleeping with a fellow employee, what is the reaction of most HR folks. Are they going to accept responsibility for the matter or simply report it?
    HR has to become connected to the business and not be perceived as Peter calling wolf. Just because there is some exposure to liability does not make a matter a critical issue. Operations, finance, and other functions deal with risks and manage them effectively on a daily basis. If the issue is truly critical then other senior people of influence will be concerned as well and together they and HR can make the case to the CEO. If that won’t work, then either the HR person’s judgment is not what it should be or the lack of response from the corner office is actually a clear message that you may need to move on.


  3. “Part of the problem is that most HR people do not recognize a critical issue when they see on and those that do simply want to report the matter as opposed to doing something about it. For example, if a senior manager is sleeping with a fellow employee, what is the reaction of most HR folks. Are they going to accept responsibility for the matter or simply report it?”

    While I have seen this behavior too many times, I must somewhat disagree with the suggestion that most HR people would do this. In my experience most HR people would be having a coronary and demanding someone be disciplined because what they were doing is in violation of company policy or “illegal.”

    “HR has to become connected to the business and not be perceived as Peter calling wolf. Just because there is some exposure to liability does not make a matter a critical issue. ” How true. Nor can it be seen as the risk averse function that is always siding with employees instead of truly partnering with the business.

    The level of dissatisfaction I have learned, from some CEO’s and other C-staff, regarding overly sensitive HR people regarding perceptions of laws and risk aversion, can be pretty extreme and appears consistent across multiple industries. All too often HR is viewed as the company cop, or the Peter calling Wolf that Michael references. HR has to learn that the ability to “find a way” is sometimes more important than the ability to spout the words “that’s illegal.”


  4. Don and Michael, you raised valid points about HR. Perhaps, CEOs in C suites need to ask how come they are so incompetent in hiring a HR leader who can’t fit int the culture or how things are done around here political environment.

    Yes, the HR should first check with the CEO if it’s OK to proceed with violations, unethical and indiscipline matters. HR should be very cautious when handling with very “indispensible” persons in the company, especally if they are in top heirachy. HR should adopt “selective” discipline practice, just like how they behaved at Enron, Satyam, and recently Walmart Mexico.

    The only reason HR is hated at the C suite is because HR pricks and kindles the conscience on unethical, illegal, indiscipline and undesirable behaviours, irrespective of who it is.

    Yes, I agree. To help the business grow and survive, HR should look the other way and apple polish the top gun to become an indispensable Management’s stooge, at the expense of dysfunctional performance.

    I guess, the biggest mistake lies with HR not doing enough research to find out what sort of leadership culture prevails before accepting the job. Either that or, not having the detrmination to resist the job, despite knowing almost 90% of the organisations are led by loser who underappreciate the value of HR business partnership role.

    I am in HR. If you hire me, I can roll over to perform tricks in whichever way that suits the bosses.


  5. It is none of HR business to monitor who sleeps with whom or what happens outside work. But, the moment it is reported by any parties as an ‘offence” infringing on their right at work (sexual harrasments) or misuse of office premisis to further their sexual activities, then it becomes HR’s job to check.

    There is no need to report, just a gentle warning will suffice and if fails to bring the desired results, beat the hell out of the offenders!

    There, would that be in allignment with


  6. There, would that be in allignment with HR becoming connected with the business and not Peter calling Wolf.

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