Handling Work When Boss Is in the Hot Seat

Some workers have to manage their jobs while their supervisor is in legal and/or criminal trouble. Steve Inskeep tackles the dos and don'ts for employees in this predicament with syndicated workplace columnist Bob Rosner.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays we focus on the workplace, and today we'll focus on what to do when your boss is in trouble. Indictments and investigations of top officials, from CEOs to House leader Tom DeLay, raise the question of how the people around them should behave. This is the very same dilemma faced by some labor union thugs in the movie "On the Waterfront." Their boss, played by Lee J. Cobb, orders everybody to present a cleaner image.

(Soundbite of "On the Waterfront")

Mr. LEE J. COBB: (As Johnny Friendly) I'm going to be indicted any minute! Can you get it through your heads? They're dusting off the hot seat for me! We're a law-abiding union, understand?

INSKEEP: We're going to talk over that situation with Bob Rosner. He writes a blog called Working Wounded on abc.com.

Welcome again.

Mr. BOB ROSNER (Working Wounded, abc.com): Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So not everybody's boss gets indicted, but plenty of bosses get in trouble or seem like they're heading for the door. What situation does that create for subordinates?

Mr. ROSNER: Well, a lot of people see workplace problems like a wounded boss as a dilemma. Either you hop on the boss' train and remain loyal, or you bail out and try to find somebody new. My philosophy on this is, can you kind of play the middle? I call it the one foot on the boat and one foot on the pier rule. Can you remain in contact with the boss, be supportive of the boss, but at the same time, build bridges with other people so that you're not seen as chained to the boss?

INSKEEP: Fascinating situation is unfolding in the House of Representatives, where Tom DeLay has had to step down as majority leader, but he remains influential, and people know that he may be back. He says he'll be back, anyway.

Mr. ROSNER: Well, I don't want to make this as a political statement, Steve, but when you see a character like DeLay, who's very powerful and very wounded, you have to kind of treat it like a bad rash. It's not going to go away quickly. And so as an employee, you have to get in this weird mind-set of--you have to spend 50 percent of your time assuming the boss is going to come back more powerful than ever, and 50 percent of your time assuming the boss is gone and you don't necessarily want to chain yourself to him and go down with the ship.

INSKEEP: Well, what do you do in a situation with someone like Tom DeLay, who's quite effective and has always expected complete loyalty, not half-loyalty of the sort you're suggesting?

Mr. ROSNER: What I'm saying is that you reach out to people, but you reach out to people in a way that won't annoy him, you know. You e-mail, you talk to your boss on a regular basis and you say, `This is what I'm working on. Does this make sense to you? I need to talk to these people.' But then when you talk to those people, you got to show little signs of independence.

INSKEEP: What are some other things that you should do if you're in that situation?

Mr. ROSNER: You have to stay connected with other people. When you're in a situation with a wounded boss and your life is kind of imploding in on you, your gut can sometimes be right on, and sometimes you can really lose focus. So it's really important to have confidences and mentors and people talking to you from a variety of perspectives. And then you can really sort out what is the best path to take.

INSKEEP: Moving on to other cases now, not talking specifically about any particular case that's in the news, what if your boss wants you to help cover something up?

Mr. ROSNER: I had a case of a woman who e-mailed me and it was an embezzlement situation and her boss told her that she had to do something, and she was writing to me from jail because her boss had covered his tracks and she basically got caught literally holding the bag. When it comes to illegality, no. If your boss asks you to do something unethical, illegal, the very simple response is, `Look, you know you're under a lot of scrutiny. Don't forget that I'm under a lot of scrutiny, too, because I'm associated with you, and the last thing we need to do is have both of us go down.'

INSKEEP: Is there honor, in some circumstances, if you think the person has been a good boss in just staying insistently loyal and being helpful in all the ways that you can?

Mr. ROSNER: I think loyalty is a very good thing. I'm not sure just because the captain's going to go down with the ship, that the first mate should go down with the ship. You know, the bottom line here is you've got to look out for yourself, because chances are there will be a career after this boss is gone.

INSKEEP: The advice comes from Bob Rosner. His blog is called Working Wounded.

Thanks very much.

Mr. ROSNER: Thank you, Steve.

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