Forgive Us Dumb Questions, Lord — They May Just Reflect a Dumber Boss

Many “dumb questions” are voiced in response to management orders, so be charitable when you encounter an overly basic query from people who are supposed to know better.

For example, a question about Canadians being treated exactly like Americans for overtime purposes was raised a while ago in a LinkedIn professional discussion forum.

Since the two nations have very different laws governing overtime, the answer seemed simple. But it brought this private response: “Thanks Jim – My thoughts exactly, but I was asked to do the research.”

Good to extend a little sympathy

While I had been pretty sure this wasn’t her idea, it was good to know that she was given that specific task to complete, because any HR professional, and especially a rewards specialist, should have known that answer.

Nevertheless, forums for professional discussion are filled with such silly questions. Examples include:

  • What is the pay inflation rate?
  • How is the cost of labor different from cost of living?
  • Why are lump sum payments superior to base pay increases?
  • Doesn’t everyone everywhere want exactly the same rewards?

There is a lesson here: Rather than criticize the inquirer when you receive a technical question with a rather obvious answer, it might be more appropriate to express sympathy for their plight.

Painful workplace implications

The boss may have issued a directive to bring back a precise answer to a specific question. Being commanded to ask a “dumb” question is no fun. The unfortunate staffer is typically required to supply a direct response from outside experts that answers the exact question as defined by some senior executive.

The fact that the inside employee already knows the answers will cut no ice with some people.

Brennan’s Law No. 3 on Consulting applies: When management concludes that someone from the outside is always smarter than an employee, they are saying, “no one with any brains could be expected to work here.”

The implications are painful.

First, they have no trust in your competence.

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Second, they don’t understand how the question that baffles a high-ranking executive like them simply displays their ignorance about matters that should be clear to any well educated manager.

While there can be other implications, too, solutions to the first two alone may be impossible to achieve.

How to cope? Humor .. and Dilbert

If you can consistently demonstrate over time that your initial answer is always backed up by independent objectives sources, you may become trusted. But there is little you can do to make up for the defects of whatever education system or experience history that produced your boss.

Situations inspired by feckless superiors might be best handled by reference to the latest Dilbert cartoons. A sense of humor can be essential for survival in this field, and the camaraderie of friendly fellow professionals helps, as well.

With that in mind, what was the goofiest question you have received from a boss?

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.

E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), and will express his opinion on almost anything. Contact him at ej.brennan@erieri.com.

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