Encountering, and Managing, Undeniable Privilege
Setting the Stage
During my 1:1 Inclusion Coaching with Dr. Anita I mentioned that I had an upcoming performance review with a white male employee, Chad. To give some context to this conversation, this employee is Betty’s son, who is the administrative assistant to the President, CEO, and 4th generation owner of the company. Betty, a white female, is a 40-year employee, and before being the current CEO’s administration assistant, she was the admin for his father.
Chad’s performance had been sub-par, which disqualified him for consideration of the President’s Club, and Betty called me to plead his case. She insisted that everything about his performance had been out of his control and others were responsible for him being on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan). As a Black male, who happens to be a VP of Sales, and Chad’s manager, I recognized the gravity of the situation for Chad and for myself.
I struggled with how to get Chad to see his performance shortfalls through his own eyes resulting in an accurate self-assessment. Dr. Anita explained the premise of empowering questions and helped me understand that asking who, what, where, when, and why questions allowed me to "listen to understand" vs. impose my viewpoint of Chad’s performance on him.
After having planned my questions, I conducted my performance review with Chad. I started the conversation by asking him to grade his performance for the past year. Without much thought, he graded his performance as A- to a B+. I asked, "Chad, why did you give yourself that grade?” He responded by saying he worked hard, had some account success, and closed a few new deals. I then asked Chad, "How do you view your results with SalesForce adoption, utilization of VE (Value Engagement), and working at all levels within your customer base?” Chad gave himself a C- rating. I then asked him, "Why were you put on a PIP by your former manager?” Chad was told he lacked some skills in SalesForce usage, returning calls promptly to customers, and not driving net new business goals. I then asked Chad to give himself a grade at that point. He said, "Well, when you look at it that way, I would give myself a D.” I was pleased that Chad came to this conclusion by himself. To get someone to give himself an accurate rating without any push-back about the contributing factors in terms of poor performance, was less contentious than I had anticipated when I used empowering questions.
My next interaction was with Chad’s mother, Betty, when she called and asked me to make an exception for Chad to join President’s Club. I explained that Chad could not join President’s Club because the rules explicitly state, "If you are on a PIP at any time during the year, you are automatically disqualified for President’s Club” which, after 40 years as the President’s administrative assistant, she certainly knew. When I mentioned this to Betty, her response was that Chad had worked so hard for this, and without saying it outright, she wanted me to look the other way and let Chad become a President Club member. I told Betty that I treat all my employees the same, and that I don't condone giving anyone special treatment. I also told her that "If Chad was not your son, we would not be having this conversation, and if it were me or anyone else, termination would be swift and immediate considering he has been placed on a PIP twice in two years.”
Shortly thereafter, I called Chad regarding his disqualification for President's Club. I used the same technique of guided self-discovery using empowering questions as before. To give this call some context, Chad, by the numbers, did qualify for President’s Club but was disqualified because of the Performance Improvement Plan.
I started the call by asking Chad, "Do you know the qualifying rules for President’s Club"? His response was "I need to beat the budget for the fiscal year.” I also asked him what the other criteria were and asked him to pull up the document from our shared drive. He pulled up the copy, and I asked him to read it aloud to me. Once he read the Performance Improvement Plan clause, he stopped reading and took a minute to digest it. Once he did, he said he did not know being on a PIP disqualified him.
Despite having read the qualifying criteria to me himself, Chad still pleaded for me to take into consideration his numerical results. At that point, I told him his mother called me to appeal on his behalf for induction into President's Club. I asked Chad what the other sales reps would think about him getting into President’s Club if they found out he was on a PIP and how he would be perceived in the organization after receiving a highly coveted award without earning it. He said he wanted to gain respect on his own merit and not because of his mother’s influence. I then asked, "Chad, what do you think would have happened if I were on a PIP? Do you honestly think that I would have even been considered for President's Club?” After a pause, he told me he understood my decision and committed to working so hard this year to get into the President's Club that there would be no question as to whether he earned it or whether he benefitted from the privilege of having his mother advocate for him.
Most importantly, I had the full backing of the CEO to stand by the rules and disregard the privilege I knew had been considered as standard operating procedure at the company prior to my arrival. The willingness on the part of the CEO to do the right thing reinforced my confidence that his stated commitment to Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging was being demonstrated in his support of my decision to ensure that all recipients of the President’s Club award would be bestowed based upon hard work, not privilege.