Early in my career, I served as a department head in a firm with just under 100 employees; this was a division of a larger organization based in another city. Shortly after a new manager was assigned to our firm, rumors began to circulate among staff members that our division was for sale. In response, the new manager held a general staff meeting to assure employees that such rumors were totally unfounded. I, however, knew otherwise: a friend at headquarters had confided that legal considerations required our division to be sold within a prescribed time. Thus, my dilemma began.
Driving back to the office, I weighed the options. Must I alert the manager that his credibility has been compromised? Or should I do nothing and allow the inevitable story to circulate? I could ask my staff members for their silence, but asking them to support misinformation without any certainty the episode could be contained seemed wrong. I considered that if I did nothing and the matter surfaced, I might respond, “You assured us the division was not for sale, thus I assumed the tycoon had simply heard the rumor and was joking,” but that also seemed unethical.
By the time I reached the office, I had decided the only ethical path was to inform the manager, even though the chemistry between us had not been very good. Unsurprisingly, he was visibly upset. A few hours later, he called a general staff meeting to acknowledge the facility was for sale. He placed severe restrictions on employees’ attendance and announced that any employee who left before a sale took place would forfeit severance payments.
In the months that followed, I questioned the wisdom of my decision. Instead of bestowing his thanks, the angry manager made my life difficult by sending multiple memoranda, on nearly a daily basis, critical of me and my department.
I survived the sale, appreciating the challenge of balancing ethics and self-interest, having learned it is best to avoid being the bearer of bad news. Yet, while unpleasant at the time, this experience helped make me a better manager. It taught me the danger of using misinformation as a management tool, irrespective of ethical considerations; and it made me see the value of maintaining a work environment where employees are comfortable coming forward with important information, even when it is unfavorable to me or the organization.