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A Case of Mistaken Intentions

Setting the Stage

A client that was recently undertaking their journey toward Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging had a situation arise with a supervisor notorious for mistreating her staff. In this instance, the best way to handle the inevitable termination from the company was being discussed between the CEO, who is a white male, and the SVP of Sales, who is a Black male, concerning the exit interview process with the supervisor, a white female.

Background Information

Upon learning of the last and most egregious incident with the supervisor, the SVP of Sales was speaking with the supervisor’s manger, a white male who was a VP, about details of the incident for clarity during the exit interview, which was traditionally conducted by the SVP and the employee in question. During the call between the SVP and the VP, it was discovered that the supervisor refused to have her exit interview with the SVP, per policy, and had instead made an appointment with the CEO.

The Challenge

On the surface, it appeared to the SVP, a Black male, that the offending supervisor, a white female, was being allowed to exercise privilege as a white female by circumventing the system and scheduling her exit interview with the CEO, a white male. Per longstanding policy, the exit interviewed is conducted between the SVP and the separating employee. When the SVP requested time, via email, to discuss the situation with the CEO, a few days had passed without a response, which was unusual, especially considering the seriousness of the circumstances and considering a new level of trust being cultivated among the leadership team. The delayed response to his email from the CEO led the SVP to the conclusion that the offending supervisor was being shown preference as a white female to disregard the process.

The Approach

When asked by the SVP during his weekly 1:1 Inclusion Coaching session how to engage in a discussion with the CEO, several factors were revealed:

  1. The assumption that the CEO was making excuses for the supervisor’s behavior

  2. The interpretation of the supervisor’s behavior being colored with non-existent “good intentions”

  3. The limiting belief that the supervisor was grappling with a change in the corporate culture that no longer allowed for repeat, toxic behaviors when interacting with staff

Upon further discussion, the SVP shared that he didn’t expect anything different from the CEO based on pre-existent cultural norms prior to his arrival; the supervisor’s well known track record for mistreatment of staff members that had been allowed to continue; the fact that she simply did not like, or plan to adhere to, the new style of leadership being expected by her new SVP and VP which upheld the corporate value of treating all employees like the family members they were considered to be by the CEO.

What was most troubling for my client was the fact that his leader, the CEO, seemed to show little concern for scheduling a meeting to decide who would conduct the exit interview. And, that if the CEO decided to conduct the exit interview himself, it was a result of extending privilege to a white female employee.

When the opportunity presented itself, I asked my client three questions that encouraged him to assume best intent:

  1. How likely is it that the CEO isn’t sure about how to respond to you?

  2. How likely is it that the CEO wants to spare you the discomfort of the exit process?

  3. How likely is it that this is just a poor judgement call by the CEO that results in circumventing the process?

Within two days, I was meeting with the CEO for his 1:1 Inclusion Coaching and the first item he wanted to address was the same situation I discussed with his SVP. Having the benefit of understanding the CEO’s heart over several weeks, my questions to the SVP two days earlier were spot on. The CEO explained that his delay in responding to the SVP was because he genuinely wanted to do the right thing, particularly considering all the work we had been putting in to cultivating a deeper level of trust among the leadership team. He just wasn’t sure what the right thing was in this instance. His primary concern was for a mutually satisfying resolution for all parties involved: the departing supervisor, his SVP, and himself as the CEO and Champion for Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging.

The CEO confided that he had struggled with his SVP conclusions. However, having tried to see things from the perspective of a Black man to the best of his ability, he could certainly understand how his SVP arrived at those conclusions. After a little more discussion, I asked him three questions:

  1. What do you think the unintended message was when you didn’t respond in your usually timely manner?

  2. What do you think the unintended message was when you didn’t acknowledge the inference of white privilege?

  3. What do you think the unintended message was when you eliminated your SVP from the exit interview process?

The Outcomes

Within the next few days, the CEO and SVP had a discussion and agreed that the SVP would conduct the exit interview with the departing supervisor because that was the standard operating procedure. The original intention of the CEO was to conduct the exit interview and ensure the employee would leave feeling a sense of loyalty to the CEO that would avoid negative chatter about the incident, since their industry was a very tight knit community. However, that intention disregarded the chain-of-command which would have inadvertently undermined the authority of the SVP.

In the end, both men realized the importance of assuming best intent of others and managing their own intent with the impact that intent may have on others. With the intention of interrupting white privilege, the SVP’s assumption that the CEO was catering to white privilege temporarily impacted both his newfound trust in their relationship, and the confidence that the CEO would be forthright in supporting the grounds for dismissal. With the intention of ensuring a healthy experience for a separating employee, the CEO’s initial decision to conduct the exit interview temporarily impacted both the authority that he had entrusted to the SVP as the head of the Sales organization, and the confidence that the SVP would be objective and considerate. In reinforcing the understood value of assuming best intent, this was an impactful lesson learned for both parties.

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