Tuesday Feb 05, 2008

"Question Authority, If You Dare"



I've been an avid reader of the Los Angeles Times since moving to Southern California in 1976.  It was a consistently terrific newspaper but has suffered under new ownership and market realities over the past few years, which is a real loss for the community. Now a member of the Tribune Company, I see its future as even more fragile.

Consider Molly Selvin's article in this morning's edition: Challenge Authority, if You Dare... It's a story that answers the question, "Why doesn't anyone ever ask executives any questions around here?"

The tale starts with a new employee handbook the Tribune put out.  The handbook got rid of the old boilerplate, turgid, stiff language and replaced it with clear, crisp  and frank directives.  Quoting the Los Angeles Times quoting the handbook: "Ask your manager, supervisor, business unit head or anyone in Corporate any question you have regarding the business.  Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer.  You will earn respect and not get into trouble for asking tough questions."

All right! You go, Tribune!  Music to this communicator's ears.  Alas, the story does not end there.  Sam Zell, the Tribune's new chairman, attended a staff meeting in Orlando, where he was asked a question he didn't much like by an Orlando Sentinel photographer.  His response was sarcastic and unpleasant. (And don't even get me started on the content of his response, which was pretty appalling.)  He completed his response by turning his head and muttering a two-word obscenity at the staff member.  One can only imagine...

Oh, wait!  There's no need to imagine.  Someone videotaped the meeting and now that infamous moment has made its way to YouTube and The Gawker, where all of us can enjoy it.

Putting lipstick on a pig does not make the pig beautiful.  Writing nice platitudes in your employee handbook does not transform a culture.  Please don't mislead employees about your true nature.  It's only a matter of time before the truth comes out.  Be genuine.  Be authentic.  Be yourself.  It's OK - we're all adults and we can deal with the truth.  What is hard to swallow and creates cynicism and disengagement is hypocrisy. If Mr. Zell didn't agree with the policies in the handbook, then he should have spoken up.  And if the communications department published that new handbook without getting executive buy-in, well, shame on them. 

Gee, why doesn't anyone ask any questions?  Maybe because the answer is a slap in the face.  Communicators beware....


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