Damage control: How managers can recover from common mistakes

Managers and executives will occasionally do something thoughtless or accidental.

Some mistakes are easy to bounce back from. But other missteps may harm their reputation, jeopardize their jobs or subject their company to legal troubles if they don’t make amends and avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Revealing an employee’s sensitive information

Sharing an employee’s sensitive information — such as salary — with someone at the organization who has no legitimate business need to know may be viewed as a breach of trust and privacy.

“It can upset the employee and make others think they can’t trust you,” said Alison Green, author of “Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work.”

Unless your organization is transparent about pay, talking about a direct report’s paycheck to another team member can just raise uncomfortable questions and breed resentment, Green said.

If you realize your blunder before the employee finds out, admit your mistake to the person you told and urge that person to keep what you said in confidence. And leave it at that, Green said.

But if you learn the employee found out, apologize before he comes to you about it.

Revealing the health status of an employee is often not illegal — unless it violates a provision under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But an employee can still bring a common-law invasion of privacy claim, said Jonathan Segal, partner and managing principal at Duane Morris LLP.

Segal’s advice to avoid getting into trouble: Don’t disclose anything that might be perceived as disrespectful unless there’s a legitimate business need to do so.

That way, he said, “you don’t get close to the line of what’s legal.”

Hitting ‘send’ to the wrong person

Darcey McAllister, principal consultant of HRT Northwest, which helps businesses with HR functions, has seen her share of manager mishaps over the years.

With layoffs on tap but not yet announced, one manager McAllister knew sent an updated org chart to an assistant, who noticed her name was no longer on it.

The manager wouldn’t cop to the error, so the assistant called HR to find out what was going on. HR had to inform her of the upcoming layoffs. They then had to up the date of her departure to that afternoon and, to buy her silence, offered her a bigger severance than planned, McAllister said.

At another company, a president mistakenly sent documents related to an executive’s upcoming layoff to that executive’s printer.

He ran to her office to pick up the paperwork before she could see it, McAllister said. But because the executive was at her desk, she was curious why he came charging in. After quickly consulting with HR, he told her the situation and apologized to her for letting her know in such a ham-fisted way.

“As soon as you make a blunder, take immediate steps to correct it. It always works best when you start off by apologizing to the employee and admitting you did something wrong,” McAllister said.

Spilling a company secret

As a manager, you’re usually expected to keep company plans under wraps until the company makes them public. Revealing them may be a fireable offense.

But shy of that, spilling the beans can have unwelcome consequences.

Take layoffs. Their size and timing can be moving targets. They may even be canceled. So talking about them before anything is public could cause valuable employees to take other jobs even though the layoffs may not come to fruition.

That said, there are clearly judgment calls that managers make in emotionally tough situations — say, when a team member is going to be let go and is in the process of buying a home.

McAllister was in just this situation. To balance the company’s needs with those of the employee — and with HR’s blessing — she told the employee that the organization may be restructuring and that could affect his role. But she kept it vague.

“An organizational restructure could mean all kinds of things,” McAllister said.

Green says in many instances, if a manager asks, HR may tell them not to say anything just to be safe. “So I’d just use your own judgment as a manager,” she said.

But tread carefully.

If you do choose to say something, make sure it’s nonspecific, non-alarmist and fact-based.

Saying exactly the wrong thing when firing someone

Under federal law, employers may not discriminate on the basis of age, race, sex, color, national origin, religion or disability. And some states have laws that also ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

So when managers say anything that can be construed as discriminatory in a firing situation, that may create a lot of legal headaches even when a company has every legitimate reason to let someone go.

“Managers often feel bad about firing someone. So they will come up with a cover story that seems nicer,” Green said.

They may tell an employee they’re being let go because of budget problems. But then they immediately hire someone else for the job. Or they say it’s because the person violated a certain policy, when in reality many employees violate that policy.

So the person who is let go now suspects the company is hiding the real reason for their dismissal and may seek a lawyer’s advice.

Managers also have to avoid saying anything that could be perceived as demeaning or abusive to the employee being let go.

“It’s often not the illegality but the emotional hurt that pushes an employee to go to a lawyer,” Segal said.

Segal, who typically represents employers, said one of his first cases involved a manager who told the employee being fired, “Someday you’ll thank me for this.”

“He was thanked … with a lawsuit,” Segal said.