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Jan 13, 2021
This article is part of a series called Questioning Authority.

This article is part of TLNT’s new series Questioning Authority, which challenges leading thinking by talking to leading thinkers. The piece below is part of the current QA volume: Fixing Your Workplace Will Not Fix Your Workforce. 

Also be sure to register for our first QA webinar, Can HR Fix People? Questioning Authority With Laurie Ruettimann, on Tuesday, January 19, at 2 p.m. ET.

Late in my HR career, I provided support to a group of IT professionals in our St. Louis office. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it was nice to talk to people who still had jobs, and I tried to be available for employee-related emergencies and advice.

One afternoon, the local office manager called me in distress and asked me to open my email inbox that very moment. It was a level-six personnel emergency, but he didn’t have time to explain the working definition of personnel or level six.

I logged on to my laptop and read a forwarded email from a manager named Bella. While venting to a colleague in her department, she referred to her VP of IT as an assbag.

You read that right — an assbag.

Bella was in a meeting where her boss was being a jerk. In a moment of frustration, she emailed a colleague and expressed her annoyance. Instead of coaching Bella to communicate with respect, the co-worker stabbed her in the back and forwarded her email to several people in the office, including the office manager and the VP.

You can imagine what happened next. People pretended to be appalled, the VP was offended, and the pitchforks were out. 

A Level-Six Assbag Crisis Was Born

The office manager wanted to know if I could hop on a plane to St. Louis and fire Bella. He asked if I could be there by 7 a.m. the next day and perp-walk her out of the building before anybody else heard about it.

I replied, “Hey, can we just show up at her house and throw a rock through her window? Can we knock on her window and startle her in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru before she begins her daily commute?”

He didn’t think it was funny.

I told the office manager that I would fly down and fire Bella, but first he’d have to answer some HR questions for me. How much would it cost to defend the organization from a lawsuit? How much time and energy will we spend managing the gossip and intrigue? And how will other women react when they learn that Bella was ambushed in a parking lot and fired for expressing herself?

The office manager agreed we shouldn’t fire Bella on the spot, but I didn’t trust him not to cause additional drama. So I flew down to St. Louis and met with the leadership team and the VP of IT to defuse the situation. I also pulled Bella into a conference room and asked her, “Assbag? What the hell were you thinking?”

I’m a classy HR leader like that.

Bella couldn’t muster the energy to respond and cried for five straight minutes. She accidentally snot-sobbed onto my Petite Sophisticate blazer and Talbots blouse, ruining it. (Dang, I loved that outfit. I felt so grown-up while wearing it.)

Bella had the potential to be a fabulous manager, but the politics of her job frustrated her. It’s painful to be gossiped about by co-workers and office managers, but some- times people have to learn lessons about restraint the hard way — by making mistakes and getting called out.

Bella had a few options. She could continue to play the victim and get angry with corporate policies and heartless leaders. Or she could follow my advice and mimic great leaders to rebuild her reputation, taking ownership of her career and learning from this mistake.

Once she stopped crying, she chose the latter and said, “I’d like the opportunity to fix this mess.”

The “ACA” Approach

We made a plan to move forward based on three principles that will save just about anybody’s ass at work: accountability, contrition, and action.

Accountability means you take ownership of whatever problem you caused with professionalism and integrity. It was your responsibility to get it right, but you made a mistake and screwed up. You blew it.

Contrition is a two-part process. It’s an expression of a remorseful statement that shows you understand how your behaviors impacted others. But it’s also a commitment to change. Yes, you were wrong. Now vow to fix it.

Action is what you do after you’ve made a mistake. It’s how you make good and demonstrate that you’re sorry. Choose two or three key things you’ll do differently so this never happens again, and do them.

Accountability, contrition, and action. That’s what it takes to get a second chance.

Here’s What Happened Next

Later that morning, Bella stood at the head of the table in a taupe-on-taupe conference room and apologized for being disrespectful and immature. She promised to learn from her mistakes and prove she deserved her management role. And she agreed to work with HR and improve her communication skills, her leadership style, and how she expresses anger.

When she sat down, I told the team it’s tough to be a young woman with a lot of potential who has never had to navigate the complexities of a large corporation before. Weren’t we all a version of Bella when we started out — eager, anxious, and passionate?

I’m sure people rolled their eyes, but I promised to find a successful leader at the company who could mentor Bella. The plan was basic: They would meet and talk about obstacles, challenges, and corporate politics. At the end of 90 days, we’d reconvene and have an honest discussion about Bella’s performance.

Everybody agreed to move forward. And I introduced Bella to Nancy — her new mentor.

What I loved about Nancy was that she had over 20 years of experience but still kept her sense of hope and optimism. Even when men treated her like a secretary instead of an IT leader, she showed no signs of anger.

When I requested Nancy’s help, she had only one question.

“What’s an assbag?”

To this day, I still don’t know. It might be a general term for someone who sucks. Might be a colostomy bag. Or it might be a hemorrhoid pillow people use on long airplane trips. I never asked Bella to explain the origins of the word.

Once Nancy began mentoring Bella, I saw an immediate improvement in performance and morale. Bella was less abrasive and seemed genuinely excited to have a workplace ally. Her colleagues backed off. Nobody called me with level-six personnel emergencies.

All credit to Bella (and Nancy). She got the message, worked hard, embraced the opportunity to start fresh, and enrolled in leadership courses at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Bella learned how to communicate with maturity and compassion in a high-pressure environment, and she worked hard to earn back the trust of her team.

After the 90-day probationary period, Bella and I reviewed her progress. She was happier and thanked me for being in her corner as she learned how to better navigate corporate America.

“I’m surprised I didn’t get fired.”

To be honest, me too. I still can’t believe we pulled it off.

Excerpted from Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career (Henry Holt and Company) by Laurie Ruettimann. ©2021

Register here to interact with Laurie during the QA webinar Can HR Fix People? Questioning Authority With Laurie Ruettimann, on Tuesday, January 19, at 2 p.m. ET.

This article is part of a series called Questioning Authority.
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