Don't Diss the Boss in Public

One employee learned the hard way how that can backfire -- no matter how right he might have been

By Don MacRae

This is the true story of Dave, a 31-year-old manager, and his boss, John, 53, an eccentric vice-president with a reputation for enjoying life. The pair got along famously. Dave was a quick study, and his boss recognized the youthful energy and leadership abilities of his protégé.

At the time in question, along with his day job, Dave served as president-elect of a prominent professional organization. When John heard that Dave was in charge of arranging the organization's annual conference, he suggested that his division help plan it. He also offered the company's conference facilities as a site for the meeting. Dave thought his boss's idea was a win-win: Not only would the meeting give public exposure to the company but it would spotlight John and his division, too.


  Arrangements for the conference began in earnest. Dave assembled a planning committee of volunteers from his division. Soon prominent individuals in the industry were lined up as speakers and panel participants. A deal was negotiated with a broadcasting company to develop an educational-TV series featuring interviews with conference presenters. Politicians of all stripes wanted to attend. Press credentials were issued for what came to be billed as the "biggest conference of its kind in America."

According to the schedule of events, the conference was to open with a keynote speaker followed by a panel of professionals and academics who would discuss the speaker's comments. The person chosen to introduce the speaker and lead the panel would play a prominent role in the proceedings. John wanted to be this person. Since Dave owed much of the anticipated success of the meeting to his boss, he asked John to do the honors. John accepted Dave's invitation.

The day of the conference arrived, and speakers and organizers met for a casual cocktail party before the proceedings began. John drank heavily at the party. An hour before the meeting's official start, Dave approached his boss and suggested he grab a quick bite and some coffee. John gave him a sarcastic smile. Dave walked away with an ache in the pit of his stomach.


  Later, in the auditorium, 1,100 attendees watched John wobble to the podium, carrying several books written by the keynote speaker. He quoted from each book during a rambling, semicoherent introduction. The audience was mystified. Dave was mortified. The keynote speaker was nonplussed.

When the speaker took the stage, Dave sat down at the side of the auditorium with John, who'd collapsed into an inebriated slumber. It didn't take long for Dave to realize that John was in no shape to thank the presenter, let alone lead a panel of experts. Near the end of the speech, Dave woke up John and said he would thank the speaker. John appeared stunned but agreed to stay put.

During a short break, Dave returned to John, who now was standing and visibly upset. Dave explained that it would be best for John and the conference if someone else moderated the panel. John grew angry and insisted on leading it.


  Let's stop the action for a minute. What would you do if you were Dave? Ultimately, you're responsible for the success of the conference, but you also have your career to think about. Would you stick with your decision to replace John? Or would you give in and let him participate? Would you ask the planning committee to share in the decision?

Dave called over the committee members to join the heated discussion. He explained his point of view, asked John to do the same, and then asked his visibly uncomfortable colleagues for their opinions. Three of the four lost their tongues. The fourth, a golf buddy of John's, supported his friend. Dave quickly realized that his choice to involve others was a poor one, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

Dave then made his decision, which would compound his original lapse in judgment. He told his boss -- in front of the committee members, who also reported to John -- that he was going to ask someone else to chair the panel.


  The panel went off without a hitch, the press coverage of the event was glowing, and Dave began his year as president of the professional organization on a positive note. However, he was about to pay a price for this success.

After the conference ended, John called Dave into his office. Without mentioning what had happened at the event, John told Dave that he could no longer work with him and that he would support the young manager's move to another division of the company.

That wasn't all: John also informed Dave that a performance appraisal was being prepared for his file that would indicate "a lack of mature decision-making" and "an impulsive, headstrong personality that would make advancement to higher leadership positions in the division unlikely." If Dave bristled at the review, John said he would seriously consider suing him for defamation of character.

Dave agreed to John's terms without a fight. It would be impossible, he reasoned, to work for his boss under the circumstances. He also felt responsible for the choices he'd made, both good and bad. Unfortunately, he underestimated how harmful a spiteful performance appraisal can be.


  Other than an occasional greeting, Dave and John never spoke again. John continued as vice-president for several years until his drinking caught up with him. He was then moved unceremoniously to a dead-end job to await his retirement.

Dave, meanwhile, transferred to another division in a nonmanagement position. He struggled for years to get past the performance appraisal that blocked his advancement, and finally his leadership qualities earned him another chance. He moved up into the executive ranks and later left the organization to start his own, successful company. Dave wound up a prosperous executive, but he paid a big price for the lapse in judgment earlier in his career. He never again forgot the management axiom: Praise in public -- and criticize in private.

Don MacRae is president of the Lachlan Group, a management consultancy in Toronto. He has taught and worked with corporate leaders for the past 25 years. You can reach him at, or visit his Web site at

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