Scenario: One day you are minding your business at your desk, when your manager suddenly approaches you and tells you that he/she received a complaint from a coworker that alleges you are guilty of a performance deficiency. For instance, that you’ve caused the team to miss a major deadline, that you are continually “rude” to staff, that you are passing along work that contains errors, that you are not responding to voice or email messages in a timely fashion, that you are revealing confidential/sensitive information to staff, etc.
You’re totally blind-sided by the false allegation. So, what do you do?
I know the temptation may be to raise an eyebrow, flare your nostrils, and go into attack mode. But, the reality is that any response that remotely takes the form of aggression will quickly help to turn the conversation away from any false allegations being against you, by making your response—and not the false accusation—the prime area for discussion.
So, the first step to dealing with false allegations is to REMAIN CALM! You would not believe the sorts of deviant behavior I’ve been falsely accused of in the past. I know how hard it is not to react in a big way because you are shocked, frustrated, angry, etc. and those are all legitimate reactions to being falsely accused of things that could lead to your firing, demotion, loss of promotion opportunities, etc.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remain calm. As African Americans, there are so many stereotypes and labels that surface during the course of a normal day. But, when there’s a stressful situation and a Black person is at the heart of it, the labeling and stereotyping—even by the most intelligent people—can really get out of hand.
Instead of reacting in an emotional way, stay calm and put the onus for the discussion back on your manager, as discussed in the example. Don’t rush to explain why you didn’t cause a deadline to be missed or why you aren’t guilty of some other infringement. Instead, force your employer and the person making the accusations to do all of the explaining and talking. Let them dig themselves a hole, as opposed to digging yourself a hole.
Tip #1: As calmly as you can, simply state: “This is the first time I’m hearing this. I’m really not sure what you’re referring to.” And, just wait. I don’t care if you do have an idea of what the issue is because you’ve been working with someone who is difficult or who is unaccountable for their actions (when there is a problem) or who is a racist, etc. Play dumb for a moment and let your manager tell you about the complaint. Ask for specific details about what you believe to be a false complaint and start thinking of your counterpoints.
NOTE: Don’t forget to ask for the alleged date/time of the incident and for the context in which it took place. For instance, the problem happened around 4:30 pm on January 4th, during a mass mailing for a client to send materials to conference participants. If you’re accused of personality-based problems, ask for dates/times and examples of when you exhibited this behavior. If someone is calling you rude, they should have no problem remembering what was being discussed and what “rude” response you gave.
Tip #2: If this is truly the first time you’ve heard the complaint, which I’m assuming is true, ask why the individual didn’t personally bring the problem to your attention. Bring up the protocol of employees attempting to resolve any issues on their own before seeking input from management. Remember, if the problem was really egregious, it would have made more sense for your coworker to speak to you about it—even before speaking to your manager. Most protocol suggests that employees work on problem solving together. Ask why your coworker went to your manager without giving you the courtesy of explaining what may or may not have happened, why it may or may not have happened, and without allowing you the opportunity to fix the perceived problem. Turn the discussion to the other person’s behavior, which really is an issue, if they didn’t speak to you first.
Tip #3: Calmly state the reasons why you disagree with the complaint. Pick apart the complaint. Think of any evidence (supporting documentation) that proves your point of view. For instance, the coworker may have emailed you instructions, which you saved. These instructions may show that you carried out an assignment per the specs provided. Or, you may have sent the individual an email warning them of the consequences of certain actions, such as skipping steps in a procedure, but you were ignored. For the moment, just focus on yourself and why you are not to blame. Forward all emails/voicemail to your manager, which supports your point of view. Or, print hard copies of any documents for your manager to read.
Tip #4: If you are being accused of false personality-based problems, ask if you need to solicit character references from staff that refute the claim. When my employers tried to falsely accuse me of being “angry and defensive,” I offered to get character references from staff and clients (I already had emails from clients that commented on my work ethic, professionalism, and temperament.) My employer quickly turned down this request. They didn’t want me having hard core evidence in my possession stating that I was a “joy to work with.” Make your employer piss or get off the pot. If they want to accuse you of this behavior, based on one person’s comments, you should have the right to refute the claims.
Tip #4: Talk in general terms about how these types of issues can be avoided in the future. This is how you can professionally get in your complaints about the individual making the allegations. For instance, you might say, “We discussed this potential problem at our January 2nd meeting. Janice (the person making the complaint) specifically said we didn’t need to worry about this and that we should proceed without changing our strategy. In the future, we need to ensure that task leaders are listening to the input of other staff, so that warnings are heeded and foreseeable problems like this can be avoided.”
Tip #5: When you’ve said your peace and handed over your evidence, find out the resolution to the complaint. Ask your manager where things stand, especially if you were accused of egregious behavior. Don’t let them surprise you with criticisms on your performance evaluation that you thought were non-issues. Make sure you are not being blamed for something you didn’t do. And, make sure that nothing is being put into your personnel file.
Tip #6: If you continue to be falsely blamed and decide that the accusation is too big of an issue to ignore, consider contacting HR to investigate. But, remember, there’s always the potential for a problem to escalate, once HR is involved.