PROFESSIONALISM
  • Treating others with respect and courtesy, being honest and responsible at all times
  • Adhering to high standards of integrity and ethics without wavering
  • Dressing, communicating, and conducting myself in a manner appropriate to the setting
COMMENTARY
One evening after work, I went to the parking lot, got in my car and hit the ignition button, and then – nothing. No radio, no lights, the engine didn’t even attempt to turn over. I popped the hood and looked at a battery that was showing signs of corrosion, and then with what would have probably made a humorously captioned picture, there were quickly five E-rate consultants looking under the hood of a car.
After the “how many E-rate consultants does it take…” jokes ceased, and the jumper cables were attached, someone quipped, you don’t really think about the car battery until it doesn’t work
 
I imagine we think of professionalism in the same way we think of a car battery. Of all the daily duties, customers to track, and regulations to remember, professionalism probably operates somewhat on auto-pilot until something goes wrong. When bad news happens and it must be communicated, it is important to push ego aside, and demonstrate professionalism in deciding who is the appropriate audience, who is the best person to deliver the news, and finally how and when the news is delivered. 
 
Determine the Appropriate Audience
Of all the advice that my mother gave me when I was growing up, this has stuck with me the longest - If you’re going to be dumb, don’t be stupid too. This came after I made a mistake, but then made the mistake worse by not telling anyone that could have easily fixed it. What could have been corrected quickly and simply, became a bigger issue because I didn’t share the information with the appropriate parties.
 
When bad news comes, or mistakes are made, think of who you should bring into the conversation and avoid making it worse by holding the information to yourself. Think of the parties that are potentially impacted by the news and then think like them. It most likely impacts your company, so if you were a part of management would you want to know?  If it impacts your client base, consider, would you want to know if you were an outside stakeholder? In both cases, the answer should be yes.
 
Conversely, the expression of “run it up a flagpole” is rarely expressed in the opposite manner. There are potential pitfalls with conversing about these types of issues with peers. Your peer may have some insight into the issue, but if not, you’re probably fostering a culture of gossip disguised as concern for the bad news. If you feel that there is a legitimate need-to-know between you and your peer share it, but remember that it cannot end there. The conversation and gained information needs to be escalated to a higher authority within the organization. 
 
Determine Who Should Address the Issue
Early in my professional career, I worked in a vice-president capacity under the president and CEO at the organization I worked for at the time. The president and CEO were often unaware of the others work, so they would meet semi-regularly with other senior staff to catch-up and see what was going on within the organization. Despite my role, I was not a regular attendee of these meetings, but when I was, it was for one reason only – I was always designated as the deliverer of bad news.
 
I hated being that guy. I would be invited a few minutes before the start of the meeting and given one or two agenda items that I may have not known was even an issue a few minutes prior. Aside from being constantly seen as the person that only had bad news, I was rarely prepared to answer the onslaught of questions that then came from the CEO. I may have appeared confident in what I did know, and comfortable enough to admit what I didn’t, but on the inside, I felt like I was drowning in a pool full of sharks and it was a rare occasion when the president would offer a lifeline.
 
My ability to calmly deliver bad news didn’t mean that I was the appropriate person to do so. I was rarely privy to the details and instead of reporting to the CEO with the appropriate information and putting them in a position to help, it often caused more confusion and wasted valuable time.
 
When bad news must be delivered, it is important to consider who should do the delivering, ultimately who is going to accept accountability. There are many things that can be delivered by a client manager, but there are others that are better served coming from those in higher positions of authority and that have a greater understanding of the issue.
 
When considering the appropriate party to deliver bad news, view it as a three-tiered pyramid. The top, smallest tier is information that should come from c-level and executive positions in the company, e.g. data breaches. The middle tier is information that should come from senior management and department heads, e.g. an error was made on your account and this is how we are going to fix it. The last and largest tier on the pyramid represent notification that can be handled by most anyone that works in that department, e.g. your delivery has been delayed.  When bad news comes, determine which tier it falls in (if you don’t have a protocol that assists in making the decision already) and have the appropriate party address it with the client.
 
A word of caution about bad-news-pyramid-tiers - delivery can sometimes move up the pyramid (e.g. a senior manager can notify a client about a shipping delay), but would you expect a call from the president of the company to let you know that your delivery is delayed a day? In most cases, probably not. I think it would cause more concern if I got a call from Jeff Bezos each time the USPS was slow with delivering a book. But what if the delivery was for something that was time sensitive like an organ for transplant? What if it was for $2 million worth of widgets? Consider the specific variables when assigning a problem to a specific tier.
 
On the other hand, issues determined to fall into a higher tier should not be handled by someone lower on the pyramid (e.g. client representative should not be the one notifying a client of a massive data breach). Avoid the temptation to kick bad news delivery down the line to the point it comes from someone unable and unqualified to speak on the issue. Nobody likes delivering bad news, but it can only get worse if it looks like you are skirting around responsibility.  
 
Determine How and When the News is Delivered
Once you decide who should be notified and who should be doing the notifying, determine the method and timing of the notification.
Most states and agencies have regulations regarding the timing and requirements for notification for things such as data breaches, but for other bad news, the methodology is left up to the company. There are too many variables to set hard and fast rules on how to deliver all bad news, so once again I would encourage the empathetic approach. How would you like to receive the news if you were the customer? Is an email enough, or would a call be better? Is this something that can go out as an alert in a newsletter, or does the risk of the client missing the email potentially cause more problems? Is it time sensitive? Do they need this information immediately to protect other accounts, or is there time to start corrective actions prior to the notification?  When determining the “how” of news delivery consider the client, and which tier you would consider the issue.
 
Regardless of what timing you decide, be honest, take responsibility, and demonstrate proactiveness. If you say you are doing XYZ to fix the issue so that it wont happen again, your better be employing XYZ across the board so that it doesn’t happen again.
 
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Nobody likes bad news – delivering or receiving it – but it is an unfortunate reality that often cannot be avoided. When the time comes for that delivery, strive for professionalism and choose the correct audience, correct method, and correct timing.
 
Click here, for more tips and discussion on how to professionally and effectively deliver bad news.
 
Key Words and Phrases
Exhibiting courteous behavior; Conscientious manners; Technical prowess; Expert; Ethical standards; Trained; Experienced; Authority.
 
Opposite Terms
Amateur; Inexperienced; Dabbler; Non-expert.
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