I watched the James Comey Senate testimony along with the rest of the country and it hit a chord. Like a lot of you, I’ve worked for people that have misbehaved and had trouble telling the truth. Several were impressively abusive. One would have fit most of our definitions of a crook. Comey’s approach of documenting the engagements works if you’ll get a fair hearing, but unless you are funded to go to court or can get someone like Gloria Allred to take your case pro bono, you’ll likely never be able to use that documentation. And should you share that documentation with anyone and that gets back to future employers, you may become unemployable.
Within the Comey testimony are lessons from what he did, how he did it, and what he didn’t do that could apply to problems you have with a current or future boss.
Keeping Tapes and Records
I have wished that I had a tape of a conversation that a superior later said didn’t happen. It could be that they gave a direction, made a promise, or behaved inappropriately, but relying on anyone to incriminate themselves is just stupid, and if the only evidence you have against your boss is your own memory, you are likely screwed before you even start. So why don’t more people carry tape recorders or, now that we actually have apps for that, turn their phone into a recording device? Largely because we think of this after the fact, but there is also the fact that in many states doing this is in itself illegal without the permission of the person you are recording.
However, Comey’s practice of taking detailed notes, while generally far safer than taping and far more effective than just using your memory, comes with its own risks. Should someone read those notes or should you share them with someone who in turn notifies your boss, you could be terminated and face reputation assassination long before your words are ever heard. What I’m saying is that detailed notes are an effective weapon but only if you use them according to your own agenda. If you lose control of them, they can create a result that you might not recover from, so keep the notes and the fact that you’re taking them very private (don’t share with anyone) until you are ready to use them.
But, having those notes when you need them can be devastatingly powerful.
Always have in mind an endgame. Your job isn’t to fire your superior; that’s your boss’ boss’ job. You might actually like to remain employable and employees who take out their boss tend to find it difficult getting that next job as a result. Once you realize life isn’t fair, or get over that fact really, then it is about survival and advancement. I’ve generally found that the sooner you exit a position that is untenable, the better off you are, and that if you reach a point where you feel you need to take notes, like Comey did, your best path personally is to look for a job where that isn’t necessary.
Realize that in any fight with a superior, you are at a massive disadvantage in terms of position and trust with the folks who will rule internally on your complaint. So, decide early on what you want out of this. If it is to get your boss fired, decide if that goal is worth your own career and income. I’d argue it isn’t.
Comey’s goal appears to be to protect his reputation. I think, for the most part, he did that, but he got a forum that you and I don’t have. It may be that the best way to protect our reputations is to exit before they are ever at risk.
Rehearse and Rehearse Again
Comey came across as better rehearsed than most of those who were questioning him. The thing is, you’ll likely have a limited window to make your case to HR or upline and the less sure you look, the less consistent you are, and the more nervous you appear, the worse the odds are that things will go in your favor. Given that the deck is already stacked against you, every meeting you have on whatever has you at risk should be thought through and your answers rehearsed and checked for consistency. When you get to the point where you are having to actually testify, then having a friend, significant other, or even attorney work with you to make sure you are believable is effort well spent. But don’t be defensive. If you asked them to help and give feedback, listen to that feedback. If you disagree with their recommendation, well, it is your butt on the line, but if you don’t listen, the effort is wasted.
Comey’s rehearsal paid off in spades and there were a number of folks who were on the other side of those questions who clearly didn’t fare as well (and most knew better).
Wrapping Up: Aim for a Scenario You Can Live With
Working for someone you don’t trust or who is abusive is a no-win scenario. Your best path is to get out of the situation as soon as you can. If this progresses to the point where you have to report and testify, having confidential notes that are consistent and current will help a lot, as will practicing for consistency, maturity and focus. But you need to be clear about what you want to accomplish and assure that those goals are consistent with your long-term plans. There are a lot of bad bosses in the world; not becoming one of them is likely a more realistic long-term goal than getting any of them fired.
I will add one more thing. If you see someone else being abused or treated badly, go to your boss and see if the both of you can help them out. As a person not aligned with the problem, you can have an incredibly powerful voice, and by doing this, you set an example that may eventually help you or someone you care about. But don’t do this alone or you’ll likely put your boss in a difficult situation and have an enemy you can’t easily defend against. I’ve run against Senior VPs and won, but not without someone of equal rank who had my back.
I have a lot of sympathy for Comey, but I have no desire to be where he is. Assuring you don’t ever have to take detailed notes on your boss is, in my opinion, a far better life goal than developing great note taking and testimony skills.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+