Schwartz: The ‘Front Page Rule’

April 17, 2014

By Melissa Schwartz
Huffington Post
Published date: April 17, 2014

Earlier this month, a New York Magazine article went viral, detailing the sordid stories of an anonymous personal assistant who was tasked with everything from breaking up with her boss’s boyfriend to acting as a drug mule for the celebrity employer.

“The Devil Wears Prada” chronicled a nasty, self-centered magazine editor, landing the book on the New York Times bestseller list and later becoming a movie starring Meryl Streep. More recently, “Horrible Bosses” took workplace horror stories to the extreme, telling the story of three employees who choose to fight back, albeit in unconventional ways.

And last week, we saw a Capitol Hill sex scandal play out on cable news. First term Congressman Vance McAllister was caught on videotape kissing a married staffer. While elected officials across the aisle continue to line up to demand McAllister’s resignation, his office fired the staff member as part of its attempt to deal with the storyline.

In every field, there are great bosses and awful bosses — bosses who support their employees and those who terrorize their staff while managing to obey employment law. I’m sorry to say it, but very few employee experiences are unique; and very few requests by supervisors haven’t been done before. Not that the stories aren’t entertaining (did you hear the one about the Senator who made a male staff member shave her legs while she was doing a press interview by telephone?)

So why waste any more space on the salacious gossip from the water cooler? Because these examples are not isolated, and they should serve as a warning. First, there remains an appetite in the media for “terrible boss” anecdotes. Second, there continue to be careless employers who put themselves in positions to be publicly ridiculed. Supervisors may naively assume that the way they manage their team is merely their business, until it ends up in public.

The best strategy for an executive is to remember the “Front Page Rule” — if you don’t want to see it on the front page of your local paper, don’t do it, don’t say it, and whatever you do, don’t email it.

Despite an organization’s best efforts at reputation management, a nasty (or worse yet, entertaining) anecdote about leadership can go viral in an instant. If it’s salacious enough, your competitors may start using it, providing it as an example of mismanagement. Think I’m being dramatic? Try it.

For those of us who have had the pleasure (insert sarcasm here) of responding to congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests, inspections or audits, the “Front Page Rule” extends to the material that may need to be turned over. Depending on the industry, emails, text messages, memos, phone records, and credit card receipts may all be subject to publication. If you want to avoid embarrassment, reputation damage, or even termination, think before you act. Apply the “Front Page Rule” before potentially doing yourself harm.

Whether it’s the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, or Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the front pages are littered with self-inflicted wounds. The best defense that any supervisor has is not making a mistake in the first place. Adopt the “Front Page Rule” and teach your employees to do the same. It might save you from a world of hurt down the line.