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Dear Workforce How Do I Counsel My Companys Morale-Killing CEO (and Not Get Fired)

I am the HR director at a small company. I have been asked by the head of our small company to counsel my boss, who is the company CEO, about his tendency for insulting employees and making racist comments in e-mail messages. The same CEO has made derogatory comments about me, and retaliated against some employees (including firing) who have brought his defects to light. Morale is extremely low, from district managers to the corporate office, yet our company has never done better financially. As a result, our company's directors don't want to change CEOs. How do I handle his request for me to counsel my own boss?
May 19, 2009
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Related Topics: Career Development, The HR Profession, Employee Career Development, Termination, Dear Workforce
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Dear Over Your Head:
Before tackling this assignment, have a serious sit-down with the company head.
Two questions jump out immediately: 1) Why is the head of the company accepting the CEO's dysfunctional behavior and 2) Why is he not the one leading the counseling session? We can speculate on the motives, and again two stand out: 1) Your top leader is confrontation-averse and 2) He and the CEO are buddies.
Another question comes to mind: What is your relationship with the company head? Do you have enough experience to judge his integrity? This is vital as you must obtain substantive assurance (perhaps in writing) that the company head (or the board of directors) will give you protection from any retaliatory behavior by the CEO. (Is the company head aware of how far this CEO has taken retaliation when feeling threatened?)
The company head and company board must understand that employee discontent with treatment from a specific manager or supervisor is the biggest cause of employees leaving a company. That is, profits probably won't stay up if morale stays low and people eventually change ships, which is what they will likely do once the economic climate starts to improve.
Finally, I would obtain buy-in from the company head for some executive/communications/diversity coaching for the CEO.
Assuming you get satisfactory assurance (and if you don't then I would think twice about meeting with the CEO alone; I might opt instead for a three-way meeting with the CEO and the company head) then consider these steps:
Challenge and reassure the CEO. If possible, have the CEO meet in your office. Psychologically this will be self-empowering. Let the CEO know that the head of the company strongly suggested the meeting. Then inform the CEO that you and the company head (there is strength in numbers) value his contributions to the company success (note specific strengths). Also, share that you appreciate how, as a leader, he wants to hold people accountable, and you understand his frustration when people do not meet company performance expectations.
However, you and the company head both are concerned that some of the CEO's actions are hurting his status as leader and potentially are hurting the overall position of the company.
Be specific. Ask the CEO if he recalls imparting any insulting or racist comments in e-mails? If he denies the deed, if at all possible be prepared to present such e-mails or have some documentation at hand. (I would not bring up your experience with the CEO in this meeting. Don't give the CEO ammo to question your objectivity.) Let the CEO know he is putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy with such insults and racist comments.
Ask for feedback and have a plan. How does the CEO respond to your constructive confrontation? If he is defensive or in denial, then you have to let him know that you will be reporting this fact back to the company head. If he is open to your comments, solicit his ideas on how he can express his frustrations or concerns with people or business operations in a more constructive and substantive manner. I would also let the CEO know that the company is prepared to provide voluntary executive/communication/diversity coaching (and will make it mandatory) if problems persist.
Follow up on the meeting. I would schedule a three-way meeting with the CEO and company head to make sure everyone is on the same page, after you've had a report back with the company head. And then have a follow-up meeting in two to four weeks with you and the CEO to monitor progress.
If you follow these steps, I believe you will demonstrate your professionalism and will determine whether the CEO's behaviors are amenable to change. And if the CEO resists this intervention, then the ball is in the company head/company board's court, where it belonged all along.
SOURCE: Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc," Washington, April 29, 2009
 
LEARN MORE: "HR Feedback for Your Boss" contains additional advice.
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.
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