By Amy L. Lieberman, Esq.
C- Level and senior executive conflicts are a different animal. Significant amounts of money and even entire businesses can be at stake. Personalities can be larger than life.
Conflict at this level of any company requires both a pragmatic and diplomatic approach. Individual and even corporate reputations can be ravaged, and thus the goal is to resolve conflict as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Executive conflicts can be prevented, reduced and resolved by following the “D-List for C-level Conflict.”
Long-term incumbency at exalted levels of the same company can give leaders – especially founders — a feeling that the rules don’t apply to them. When senior leaders violate prohibitions against discrimination and harassment, play fast and loose with inappropriate banter, or act in an overly hostile manner, it is difficult for a company to assert that the executive’s behavior was not sanctioned.
Employees often refrain from voicing claims, for fear of losing their jobs or suffering other negative consequences. By the time complaints are formally raised, the allegations may be so significant that it is too late to salvage the executive’s role at the company.
No matter how informal the workplace may seem, C-level and senior executives must conduct themselves at all times with decorum. Executives who cannot conduct themselves with the requisite degree of professionalism often generate significant claims of misconduct that endanger the company’s public image, morale, and attractiveness to investors.
Senior executives are attractive targets for claims because they are in positions of power and authority. A commonly occurring situation involves romantic relationships between an executive and an employee. Trouble in the relationship frequently leads to a claim that the senior executive’s power was applied to unfairly entice, coerce, or punish that employee, and a sexual harassment charge is brought. Substantial sums are sometimes spent to settle those claims.
While these risks can be decreased by requiring the parties to sign an acknowledgement that the relationship is consensual, that consent can change. A better approach is to designate a neutral third party, to serve as the “go to” person should either party believe the relationship has ceased to be consensual, and that harassment may be occurring. The neutral third party can investigate any claim, and assist in working out a confidential resolution.
Executives are expected to respect and support each other’s dominions. Clashes can occur around spheres of influence, perceived lack of respect and support. Frequently, ‘turf wars’ create tension and prevent the organization from accomplishing its objectives.
When executives must work closely together, attention should be paid to the role each leader will play. Responsibilities should be clearly defined, so that goals, expectations, and realistic deadlines can be set. Guidelines for behavior should be established, to ensure respectful communication during and outside of meetings.
All members of the team must feel that their contribution is valued, that they are respected, and that their peer leaders are not working to undermine their interests.
Executives bristle when a colleague infringes on “their” area of responsibility. Objections are raised about “micro-management”. Conflict arises from a lack of understanding or communication. Confrontation typically generates a defensive response, such as hostility or avoidance. While those reactions may be expected, they are not acceptable at a senior level. The entire organization can become dysfunctional because of divisiveness within its senior leadership.
Leaders are frequently unaware that their method or style of communication may be offensive to others. Often it is not what we say, but how we say it, that influences another’s perceptions and escalates conflict. Raising awareness of one’s communication style is a key tool in preventing serious discord. Address turbulence due to style. Provide coaching for leaders on both conflict management and workplace communication skills. Offer mediation as a way to communicate concerns, and to explore and resolve conflict.
With today’s technology, it’s easy to forget the value of in-person discussions and meetings.
Employee morale is directly affected by communication. No matter how senior your position, the employees you supervise want to connect with you at some level. If they have no “face time” with you, they may not feel accepted, respected, or valued. They may conclude you are too aloof. Worse, they can raise a “hostile work environment” complaint. If enough complaints about interpersonal interaction are made, the executive could be out of a job.
Remember that rapport with direct reports is essential to being a successful leader. Time spent “connecting” benefits the company – employees who feel valued, liked and respected are less likely to bring claims, cause dissension, or leave the company.
The law requires a “prompt, thorough and impartial” investigation of harassment, discrimination or hostile work environment claims. It is critical to handle complaints against senior executives in the same manner as claims against any other employee. Instead, companies frequently try to delay, ignore or only perform a cursory investigation of the complaint. Doing so often worsens the company’s exposure to liability.
Companies should act quickly to investigate allegations of misconduct against senior executives. It is important to recognize the impact on employee morale of perceptions that the executive is treated more favorably and is “protected” by an incomplete, biased or non-existent investigation.
An employee with a claim against a C-level executive is likely to assert that no internal investigator is truly neutral. Delegate the investigation to an outside professional. Doing so complies with your legal obligation of to perform an impartial investigation, allows for unbiased analysis, and greatly increases the likelihood of a good outcome.
Employees at all levels, including senior executives, are frequently terminated for being untruthful in an investigation. This is true even if the underlying behavior would have warranted less severe punishment. Too often, senior leaders are overly defensive or even deceptive when confronted with allegations of misconduct. There may be substantial compensation at risk if the findings are adverse.
Accountability is key. Defensiveness or deception about events, coupled with allegations of inappropriate behavior, can cause decision-makers to believe the organization is exposed to potential future claims and to limit risk by terminating an executive’s contract. The wise choice is to be truthful, despite grave concerns about the outcome.
When resolving claims by, against or between senior executives, it is best to use a forum which provides for diplomacy and dignity. Given the high stakes involved, address executive conflict through confidential mediation, rather than in the glare of court proceedings or board meetings.
An organization has a much greater likelihood of resolving a dispute if it can be dealt with in a setting that provides dignity, allows for agreement about disclosure, and minimizes negative impact to the executive’s and/or the company’s reputation.
A final word: mediate early, to prevent both the conflict, and the costs, from escalating out of control.
Amy Lieberman, Esq. is a seasoned employment mediator and problem-solver, Executive Director of Insight Employment Mediation in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a distinguished neutral with the Agency for Dispute Resolution — the exclusive alliance partner to corporate counsel nationwide. She routinely trains, works with, and resolves C-Level and Executive-level conflict in the workplace and for companies in litigation. Amy recently published the book “MEDIATION SUCCESS: GET IT OUT, GET IT OVER, and GET BACK TO BUSINESS.”
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