As an executive with access to a lot of sensitive information, I was constantly asked questions that would be inappropriate for me to openly answer at the current time. Things like, how are earnings this quarter? Are we doing a layoff? Are we gonna merge with another company?
How you have answered these questions in the past drives people’s assessment of your answers in the future. Here are five 5 things to consider when faced with questions you shouldn’t answer.
1. Be clear on what you will and will not answer
I am a firm believer in setting expectations early and often as written in my post on PLEAD. Too often we (as managers) think we can’t tell people a lot of things but the reality is that we can, and should, answer most questions. I can count on one hand — and still have a few fingers remaining — how many times someone has said, “They communicate too much.” If you think you communicate too much, you don’t. If one employee tells you that you communicate too much, there is a small chance — very small — that you did. But, assume you didn’t.
Ask yourself, “What are the ramifications of giving out this information?” For example, are their financial limitations (e.g. SEC reporting), legal restrictions (e.g. mergers) or morale implications (e.g. layoffs)? I would always tell people, please don’t ask me about company earnings, mergers, or layoffs as I can’t talk about them until they are public. When I can tell you, I will. So, whether we were or were not doing a layoff or merger, my answer was always the same.
2. Be careful with your behavior…you’re in a fishbowl
You may think you’re so sly and others don’t recognize what you are doing. But, people are watching. Employees are smart. In fact, they are much smarter than we think and they know when our behavior changes.
My office door was open most of the time. So when it was closed more frequently throughout the day, people knew something was up. And, if they spent any time looking at who walked into my office, they could likely tell if I was working on an acquisition because the Business Development folks were coming by or if I was involved in a layoff because HR Business Partners were visiting. People are paying attention.
3. Be responsive & proactive
When your restrictions are relaxed and you can talk about certain subjects, then share. In situations like an earnings release, let people know when the earnings will be released and that you will be able to go into more detail at the time. In situations like layoffs or mergers, I would often say, (whether one was or was not going to occur) “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to talk about any potential layoffs or mergers. However, if one of these were to occur, I will make sure you are aware when I am able to publicly talk.” And if you are consistent and follow-up with information in a reasonable and timely manner, you will build trust.
4. Be consistent
Many years ago I was working for a large financial services company. When asked if we were going to acquire a company, our PR Department would always answer, “No.” And, it was true, until….
One day rumors were swirling and a reporter asked, “Are you going to acquire that company?” The response was, ” We don’t comment on rumors.” Well, for many years we had commented on rumors with a “No” and now our answer was “No Comment.” Our non answer was actually an answer. One week later we announced one of the largest acquisitions in the industry with the reporter publicly speculating about it in his column a few days earlier. Be consistent.
5. Be truthful
So the question I posed at the beginning: “When should you lie?” Never. Building trust is like filling a bucket with water. You do it one drop at a time and it takes awhile. Each truthful act adds another drop. But one lie and it’s like tipping the bucket over. It takes a long time to rebuild that trust and refill your bucket.
I was working with a large public institution who was dealing with some credibility issues. Senior members of the leadership team lied about some activities. I don’t think they intentionally wanted to lie but they didn’t know how to answer the questions from stakeholders without revealing non-public information. It was probably easier to be untruthful than to say, “we just can’t comment.” It takes training and preparation from others. Make sure your team is prepared to answer questions they may get from other employees, customers, or stakeholders. And most importantly, don’t lie.
Knowing when to say something and when not to say something is sometimes hard, but if you follow these 5 rules, chances are you will maintain trust and increase credibility.