I have had a few calls this week, and three comments stand out.
The first was a lawyer describing the time she was “let go” by her law firm at the end of her training contract. We all know that this can happen and while it is hugely disappointing it is not the end of the world. It should only signal the closing of a chapter, and in no way is it the end of the story. However, in this case, the partner who gave her the news added this:
“We just don’t think you are cut out to be a solicitor”.
After a rigorous selection process, and two years of service without a hint of performance management or any suggestion something was awry, one might think that the decision to “let go” would be devastating enough. Shame on this firm and this partner, therefore, who felt it was necessary to give this young lawyer a career long narrative for her internal critic to recite whenever she felt a little vulnerable.
The more I have thought about this the more cruel it becomes. Frankly, I do not care if there were technical or performance concerns (although I am sure there were none). The comment was not meant kindly and was not given as considered advice; it was self-regarding, self-protecting and a selfish act of corporate indifference.
The second comment was shared by someone who a while ago had been attending a firm’s strategic retreat in some chic European city hotel. She was there as an important member of the management team, but she was not a lawyer. In a crowded room where the sound of self-congratulation hung in the air, she noticed two partners looking in her direction and then one say to the other “what the hell is she doing here”.
Nice work chaps. No hint of misogyny there obviously, just bantz I expect. Perhaps they think you break glass ceilings by hurling people at them until either the glass or the people shatter.
The third comment was from a lawyer who had been interviewed on a video call as part of an investigation into the conduct of a colleague. She had no idea at the start of the call what it was all about.
She told me that she was made to feel that her failure to whistle-blow on her colleague’s apparent wrongs (of which she had no knowledge) was the greater crime. At the end of the call, she was told to say nothing to anyone. As the call ended in that brutal silence only video calls deliver, she was alone, exhausted and totally devastated. There was no follow up call from anyone to see how she was, she was just left feeling very alone.
Ok everyone, buckle up.
I do not care how many industry awards your minimum-wage contract cleaners must polish in your airport lounge receptions. I do not care if you had it tougher than the kids today on your way to the top and I do not care if it is a competitive world out there and not every face fits. Please, for goodness sake, just treat people with a little respect.
I know I bang on about kindness, and I am about to do it again, but this shit has got to stop. It is no good having an award-winning inclusion initiative if you also employ gold plated knobheads who can shelter their inadequacies behind it.
Kindness is not about tolerating slack standards or accepting substandard work or indulging weakness. Kindness is your superpower. Your chance to heal confidence, to encourage excellence and to shine your light on a better path for others to follow.
Yes, we can still hire and fire. Yes, we can still criticise and yes, we do not have to like everyone, but there is never EVER a need to detonate someone else’s confidence. The words we use can stay with people forever. Careless words are bad enough, but the intended cruelty of some who seem to deploy unkindness tactically or casually is unacceptable in any situation.
The partner handling the exit conversation had a chance to offer words of warmth and encouragement. He could have noted how most lawyers make their name in firms they did not train in, and he could have said he would do all he could to make her feel proud of her time as a trainee.
The partners who wondered loudly why a trusted colleague had been invited to the meeting, probably chunter over terms such as “non-lawyer” and “non fee-earner” too. They might reflect however that leadership is not about status, but about how you make those around you feel.
Investigations will sometimes be necessary, and they are never comfortable for anyone involved. However, now more than ever, without the personal networks that office life used to provide, we must be more caring, more kind and more thoughtful about the words we use. For everyone’s sake we must be mindful of what happens when the video link ends and screens go blank.
The people I spoke to this week are brave and wonderful and they are all doing extraordinary things. Others may not have coped so well.
The world is tough enough, please let’s make the first rule of leadership not to fuck it up anymore.