Inevitably, in every company, some overly-ambitious schemer will try to ’take out’ the boss. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests ways to deal with these ill-conceived character assassination attempts.
On 9th November, I suggested that a rational actor would consider conducting an abhorrent anti-personnel action against a peer in the workplace if he or she believed that they had no other palatable options available. I argued that even though character assassination shouldn’t be morally acceptable in the modern workplace, it’s still practiced with depressing frequency. This isn’t because people are inherently evil, but because it’s sometimes an employee’s only effective method of competing with peers that enjoys special protected status with the powers that be. The classic example of this is being a member of a majority-hated minority group in a bigoted workgroup: if a person knows that their good work and sterling character will never be considered grounds to advance, then eliminating the competitions may the only practical way to move up.
As I said on the 9th, I’m not advocating for this practice. I believe that it’s insanely disruptive to good order and discipline within the office and that it has an ungodly probability of backfiring, even when the attacker is successful at ‘whacking’ a rival. I’m against the practice. That said, being opposed to it doesn’t mean I foolishly refuse to accept that it exists. When- and wherever management creates and actively maintains an inherently unfair workplace, workers will do whatever they feel they need to do in order to survive.
When discussing character assassination, there’s another type to consider: usurpation attempts. In addition to wholly-rational attempts to cripple office rivals, there are many, many more irrational attempts made by underlings to undermine or to replace their superiors. Unlike the neutralization of a rival, an attempt to overthrow a boss is wildly ambitious, and is almost always outrageously ill-conceived. These are not rational actions made by people in desperate circumstances: these are ambitious and irrational attempts to subvert and replace the established order. They’re also often bumbling, cartoonish disruptions that cause pandemonium in the office, but rarely ever inflict lasting harm on their target(s). Many times, a would-be attacker makes such a hash of things that he or she hurts her own brand far more than he or she hurts the person in power.
I’ve worked in offices where a single embarrassing event would be enough to end a person’s career. I’ve watched desperate people manoeuver in the shadows, desperate to engineer a public spectacle that would (metaphorically) cripple or kill off a superior. Some of these strikes were darned near art in their planning and execution.  Others attempts were crude and amateurish. It’s a very high-risk game, because once the target realizes that he or she has been attacked retaliation is certain. A person holding power cannot afford to allow a usurper to remain active in the ranks after they’re unsheathed their metaphorical blade. If they attacker isn’t terminated from service, they have to be given the worst possible jobs as public punishment – often in order to drive them to resign. No matter what, a usurper can never be trusted enough to get another opportunity to take out the boss.
This sort of antisocial behaviour fascinates me, largely because it often seems to grow out of the attacker’s bizarrely inconsistent worldview. Like any major crime, it’s one thing to believe that your cause is just; it’s quite another to think that you can succeed against all odds. Further, it’s a bit daft to believe that people will sit idly by while you betray your leader(s). That sort of inherently contradictory logic ought to trigger cognitive dissonance in the attacker. Many of the would-be usurpers that I’ve observed seemed stunned after-the-fact that their actions weren’t applauded and respected by their peers. They couldn’t conceive that they might be… wrong.
I heard an example of this sort of botched character assassination after my last column went up. A young man shared a story with me about a restaurant where he worked. It seemed that one member of the kitchen staff felt that his shift manager was treating him unfairly or cruelly. Since the employee resented his manager and couldn’t afford to quit, he devised a dastardly plan to eliminate his ‘oppressor’… and to seize the manager’s billet for himself. Supposedly, the fellow thought, he’d be hailed as a saviour by the rest of the proletariat.
First, the employee concocted a semi-believable story: he’d noticed that his manager behaved slightly differently towards a particular girl on the kitchen staff – the man was noticeably more friendly with one lass than he was towards the rest of the crew. Since the girl was under 18, and since the manager was an adult, an accusation that the manager was carrying on a sexual relationship with the girl would surely be devastating to both his current station and to his future career prospects. A substantiated accusation would be considered statutory rape under state law. A prosecution would cause the accused to become a registered sex offender for life. It would then become extraordinarily difficult for the manager to find work. He might also lose access to his own children, might be disowned by his family and friends, and be thrown out of his flat. The employee’s line of attack was engineered to destroy the manager’s life, not just to remove him from his position of power.
Over the course of several weeks, the employee subtly drew other workers’ attention to actual encounters between the manager and the underage girl in the kitchen. The employee would point out how atypically friendly the manager was acting (which was often true). The employee then insinuated that the manager seemed to be showing the girl special favouritism (which was believable) the same way that a romantically-inclined man might act towards the object of his fancy. The employee’s intent was to plant the idea in observers’ minds before he dropped his formal accusation. That way, people would be more inclined to believe the charge – after all, they’d already ‘seen’ plausible supporting evidence.
Finally, once he felt that the timing was optimal, the employee leveled a charge of sexual misconduct against the manager to the owner. He claimed that he knew that the two were canoodling  outside of work. Both workers vehemently denied the charge, (since it wasn’t true). Unfortunately for both of them, popular opinion seemed to suggest that there might be some merit to the accusation since the manager had been acting a bit too friendly towards the girl. Tensions flared. Workplace productivity plummeted. The owner was grudgingly forced to investigate the charges.
That’s where the character assassination attempt went off the rails. The instigator felt sure that the owner would be so terrified of potential public reaction to an alleged sex scandal that he’d immediately terminate the manager. Even if the police never investigated the accusation, the immediate damage would be done. Better yet, word would circulate through the local restaurant community, making it darned hard for the manager to get another job locally. The employee also thought (against all logic) that the owner would be so pleased to be rid of a potential criminal that he’s reward the accuser with the accused’s old job.
As anyone with any work experience would expect, things didn’t work out that way.
The accused manager fought back. He called the accuser’s version of events into question and questioned his motives. He demanded positive proof: when had these alleged liaisons taken place? And where? Who were the witnesses? The accuser was caught short, since he didn’t have any actual proof.
Further, the poor lass who’d been caught up in the mess became livid – not distraught. Instead of being cowed into silence like a soap opera character, she stood her ground and angrily refuted the charges. This defiance inspired the protective instincts of some the older lads in the kitchen who considered the younger girls to be their adopted little sisters. Tempers flared. Battle lines were drawn between the pro-manager and pro-accuser camps in the back of the house.
Complicating matters, the restaurant owner was a weak leader. He was afraid of the consequences of a public scandal, but he was also afraid of conflict in the workplace. When both of his subordinates stuck to their guns and demanded that he take punitive action against the other, the owner found himself unable to take a side. He conducted a weak internal inquiry (which revealed nothing condemnatory nor exculpatory), and then attempted to facilitate some guided mediation between the aggrieved parties (which also accomplished nothing). Eventually, the owner threw up his hands and gave up; since there was no proof to act on, there was (he said) nothing that he could do. So, he left all of the workers to sort things out amongst themselves.
That abandonment of his managerial responsibilities indirectly allowed the problem to solve itself: the accused manager happened to be a former U.S. Marine. There happened to be other Marines working in the kitchen who considered an attack on one member of their brotherhood to constitute an attack on all of them. Words were exchanged in the back of the facility after the owner left to have a smoke. The would-be king-slayer was… encouraged to reign in his antisocial activities.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending; the unrighteous git wasn’t sent home in disgrace. The slandered lady wasn’t avenged. The virtuous manager wasn’t vindicated. The smarmy rogue wasn’t given his comeuppance. No one learned a heartwarming lesson right before the end credits rolled. Instead, all of the players continued to work together, saturated with mistrust and hate, for another miserable year. The workplace was contaminated with ill-will and never truly recovered. 
In my experience, that’s generally how these affairs play out in the real world: the would-be character assassin takes a shot and fails to (metaphorically) slay his or her target. Retaliation is guaranteed, but is rarely final. Instead, team morale is gutted and trust between players (or between aligned factions) can never heal. Management is left either crippled or severely degraded for as long as people remember the event. No one ‘wins’.
These things happen. It can happen to you. All it takes is one irrational actor with outsized ambitions and a deficit of common sense. You can’t realistically stop it from happening, either. When one of your nuttier staff members decides that it’s time to try and take you down, all you can do is react decisively once the first shots have been fired.
That being said, there are things that you can do as a leader to significantly bolster your defenses before those first shots are fired:
- First, never show favouritism towards any member of your staff. Favouritism on any grounds can be interpreted as prejudicial conduct, no matter how it might actually have been intended. Treat everyone with a consistent level of personal and professional respect.
- Second, actively identify your most disgruntled employees. Use outsiders to keep tabs on your organisation if you have to. Know who is grumbling about you down in the shops, so that you know who to keep a close eye on.
- Third, take preemptive action to identify, acknowledge, and address popular complaints in your workgroup. Leverage your EO or Internal Affairs staff to take climate surveys, conduct interviews, and otherwise give your people a safe space to vent. Then, once you know what the issues are, make a public attempt to fix the legitimate problems. Really fix them – not just acknowledge that they exist.
- Fourth, never allow a toxic employee to remain in the ranks. Once a worker tries (or even threatens) to take you down, move them along. If you can’t bring appropriate charges against them for ‘bearing false witness’ then find some other HR-approved way to relocate them to another work unit. Don’t give them a second chance to take you down.
- Finally, never give your critics a legitimate reason to have you removed. No matter how tempting it might be to canoodle with your secretary or to conduct some petty expense fraud, don’t do it. Living on the straight-and-narrow is the best way to inoculate yourself from character assassination attempts.
The absolute worst thing that you can do is to pretend that these things don’t happen. They do, an no one is immune – no matter how good a leader you are. Eventually, some overly ambitious jack-wagon is going to try and seize your crown for him- or herself. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to deal with it. It’s an unpleasant and integral part of the leadership game, just like PowerPoint and ‘quality councils’. Accept it as an omnipresent environmental hazard, and take appropriate action to mitigate the potential threat.
 Pun very much intended.
 Feel free to substitute the euphemism of your choice.
 When the restaurant chain had to file for bankruptcy and everyone lost their jobs.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.