You can’t handle the truth !!

One of the toughest things in HR is that we are called upon to keep so many things confidential.  It’s difficult because we can’t even tell others that may think we’re “lying” when we’re actually keeping the peace.  When I was just starting my career in HR, I came face-to-face to the power of what confidentiality means.

I worked for a small entrepreneurial company and the owner felt that is was time to start his succession plan and name a new President and he would move into the role of CEO so he could focus on externally growing the Company.  He was going to rely on the new President to run the internal day-to-day operations.  He had an engineering background, so to him everything was pretty black and white.  Not a lot of gray.

I hadn’t worked with him much, but now I was put into a position of working with this new executive every day. One of the first things, let’s call him Barry, did was dive into salaries.  He hadn’t had access to what others made in the organization, but it was the first thing he asked for from HR. Imagine that !!  I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t going to go well.

At his first management meeting, he thought he’d “set the stage” for his reign by saying, “I’d like to go off the agenda.”

We worked in an open office with no walls from the 1st to 3rd floor, so everyone who worked in the office could hear everything – literally.  Barry states, “I’ve been reviewing the salaries and I think Steve makes too much as our HR Manager.”

You can guess what my face looked like.  And, you can also guess that I was having “fond” feelings about this change !! Everyone was silent. No one knew how to react.

Just then, the CEO said, “Really?  Steve, how much do you make?” (Remember EVERYONE can hear what we said at these meetings and you could hear crickets chirping waiting for my response.)

“Uh, do I have to say?” I said. The CEO said, “If you want to keep your job, tell everyone your salary.”

I gulped and said, ” I make $46,000 per year.”  No reaction from the managers. You see I made the least. “So, how much does our Plant Manager make?” (he’s at the table too !!) “He makes $55,000 per year.” The plant manager, my best friend, gave me the look of death.  The CEO went around the table and made me state every manager’s salary.  When it came to the President, the CEO said, “And Barry? How much does he make now that I’ve promoted him?”

I couldn’t believe I had to do this. I looked down at the table and said, “Barry makes $110,000 per year.” I could feel the daggers coming at me from Barry. “Steve, what about me? What do I make?,” said the CEO. I felt as if I was going to throw up in front of everyone.  You see, Barry didn’t know how much the CEO made. I said, “You make $185,000 per year.”  Barry turned ashen. He wasn’t as close to the top as he thought.

The CEO said, “You see, that’s why Steve’s in HR and you’re not Barry. He can handle confidential information. Now either grow up, or step down. Salaries are just numbers and now that we have the air cleared, can we get back to the agenda?”

I respected the CEO even more and any credibility Barry thought he had by wielding power had evaporated.

What we do in HR is tough.  Hang in there because we can handle the truth !!

11 thoughts on “You can’t handle the truth !!”

  1. Steve, what a great story! One wonders why the CEO promoted the asshole in the first place but at least he stepped in when it counted. “Grow up or step down” love it!

    It can be very tough in HR, but thats what i like about it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Steve

    I loved reading this post – just jaw-dropping….! I can only imagine how mortified you must have been at the start of the conversation and what a huge turn-around it was by the end. Definitely the kind of sharing that is best avoided, if you can help it 😉

    Great post!

  3. Steve-
    Wow, what a great story.In a creepy this-should-never-happen-to-anyone kind of way. I’ve been in a situation where salary numbers leaked, and it was messy. It was a lesson in how things can happen and we live to tell about it.
    Thanks for sharing,

  4. Just because you asked . . .

    “Barry” didn’t step down. He kept his job and remained President. It was a big learning for him, and for all of us. The company didn’t fair well under his leadership and it actually went out of business. It was a shame because it was a great entrepeneurial environment and opportunity when I was there !!

  5. That is a CRAZY story! It sounds like a movie … only in my version, you would have been named president and gone on to lead a multi-billion dollar company that valued people first and foremost 🙂

  6. I love this story. IT DOES sound like something out of a movie script. The CEO very quickly stepped in and de-railed the new President’s inappropriate agenda, plus he showed everyone that he was still ultimately in charge. A beautiful move on his part.

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