What do you do when you find a knife in your back?
That was the subject a couple of weeks ago (“Dealing with Ugly,” KJR, 10/22/2018), which also dealt with two other closely related situations, being scapegoated and thrown under the bus.
Several commenters pointed out that I hadn’t pointed out the importance of documenting everything about the situation.
They’re right. I didn’t, for two reasons. One was the column’s focus, which was on prevention. Documentation won’t help you prevent this sort of situation, for the simple reason that evidence and logic rarely help you in any situation.
Seriously — try to formulate a plausible scenario in which you explain to Someone Who Matters that the company’s CBO (Chief Backstabbing Officer) has turned his attention to you. So … you inform that Someone that it’s going on and you have documentation regarding the facts of the matter. Think she’ll actually read your documentation?
It won’t happen. More likely, the Someone Who Matters will conclude you’re just another whiner who needs to grow up and solve his own problems.
Or, you can complain to Human Resources. They’ll ask for a copy of your documentation, which they’ll helpfully add to your personnel file, where nobody will ever look at it again.
So far as prevention is concerned, about the only value documentation might have is if you’re on a project team and the project manager is preparing to make you the scapegoat for the project’s rapid deterioration. But even if you’re in this situation, documentation will be of limited value. More important is keeping your administrative manager informed, early and often, as to what’s really going on in the project.
After all, it’s your administrative manager who decides on whether to retain you as an employee, let alone what sorts of raises and bonuses you deserve.
To be clear, keeping your manager in the loop won’t prevent backstabbing or scapegoating. What it might prevent is your manager falling for it along with everyone else.
Conclusion: Documentation is close to useless for preventing backstabbing, under-the-bus throwing, or scapegoating.
Is it of more use after you’ve been victimized by the CBO or one of his protégés? You face the same gedankenexperiment (“thought experiment if you aren’t among the cognoscenti but are impressed by vocabulary-builders like gedankenexperiment and cognoscenti): Formulate a scenario where you have an opportunity to put your carefully crafted documentation to use.
Let’s see now … there’s your annual performance appraisal. Your manager downgrades your rating because she fell for the tales about you spread by the knife-wielder. You can provide all the documentation you want and you expect your manager to do what, exactly? Say, “Gee, I guess I was misinformed. It’s a good thing you have all this documentation to set me straight”?
Good luck with that.
Fortunately, the appraisal process includes an opportunity for you to challenge your manager’s assessment. By all means do so, so that your version of events is included in your personnel file, right alongside your manager’s comments. Guess how many people will have the time and interest to read what you had to say?
Answer: No people, but we might imagine that in twenty years or so your company decides to point its newly implemented Watson AI HR module at the past few decades’ worth of performance appraisal data. In our fantasy, it runs across your manager’s appraisal and your challenge to it, applies its neural-network heuristics, and concludes you were poorly treated.
Unfortunately for you, the Watson AI system truly is intelligent … intelligent enough to recognize that nobody in our solar system gives an infinitesimal damn. Applying this overriding insight it recalibrates its analytics window to only review the past five years of performance appraisal data, leaving you fifteen years too early to get any justice.
We’ve all seen enough courtroom dramas on television to imagine ourselves verbally skewering our nemeses as they quiver pathetically on the witness stand of some imagined tribunal.
It’s a satisfying daydream, but that’s all it is.
So document away, if you have time for it. But before you do, ask yourself whether it might make more sense to invest the same time strengthening one or more of your working relationships.
Because that’s the ounce of prevention that’s worth far more than documentation’s pound of placebo.