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The Ethics Coach on Dealing With the Office Know-It-All

How to temper a co-worker who smashes everyone's ideas.
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Q: One of my business partners shuts down discussion in meetings by dismissing ideas or concerns that don't mesh with what he has learned during his career. I worry that people's unwillingness to challenge him makes us vulnerable to other problems. He isn't receptive to feedback. Suggestions? 

A: He may not be thinking through the consequences of his actions or even be aware of the toxic impact he's having on the culture. You have to step up to help him see what he's doing and turn the situation around. Partners who share a history, friendship and commitment to the company's success have a solid starting point for difficult conversations. He must stop "dismissing" people's suggestions and comments, because that behavior conveys that what is on their minds is worthless and doesn't even merit discussion. This violates your staffers' dignity and leads to resentment. (To help reinforce this point, consider giving him a copy of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by conflict-resolution expert Donna Hicks.) 

One way to help him understand: Make it clear that his behavior discourages employee vigilance and discussion of potential red flags for ethical and business issues--you know, the kinds of issues that can derail a firm's reputation. Without an environment that makes it safe for people to contribute their best thinking, you have a one-man company, which isn't sustainable. 

When you have the discussion, honor his value and keep the focus on operating toward a common goal of business success. Be clear about what has to change--bringing other partners into the discussion to support you if needed--so he can act on it quickly. But, just as you would with an employee who goes against company culture, have your own action plan in mind in case Mr. Here's the Way Things Work dismisses you, too.

Q: One of my staffers has mentioned that, at times, she doesn't feel comfortable with my company's policies and practices because they're inconsistent with her faith. What's the best way to handle the sensitive issue of religion in the workplace?

A: Business owners and their teams need to be prepared to address religious issues when they arise. Of course, that is easier if the company culture already makes employees feel respected and comfortable talking about difficult or sensitive subjects. 

Leaders should identify and discuss the types of accommodations that can be made for issues pertaining to religious practices. Not clear on what you need to do? The Religious Discrimination section of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's compliance manual spells it out. You might also talk to your counterparts at other companies and read up on best practices to make sure you have an effective company response to diversity issues and ethical concerns. If your company is faith-based, keep a careful watch to make sure that employees refrain from proselytizing and are respectful of all others' beliefs.

As for responding to the employee in question, talk to her about the company strategy or activity that makes her uncomfortable. Talk about ways she might continue to contribute to the company but not be directly involved with any activity that goes against her beliefs. If her discomfort is more of an ethical conflict (like seeing the potential to violate trust with customers or offend or cause harm), consider how to address perceived vulnerabilities or unintended consequences. In matters of reputation, when team members have differing interpretations of a situation's impact, it is helpful to take a second look to rein in possible fallout and evaluate safeguards. 

In having these conversations, you respect employees' values while shoring up company values, and you create a forum and an organization that is benefited by a range of perspectives. But it's also important to realize that at times, the values gap may be too wide between your company and an employee's beliefs, and the staffer may decide it's time to seek other employment. Just make sure she doesn't feel excluded right out the door.