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Toughest Moments: Dealing with Being Accused

“Dave, you’re going to want to see this.”

C.P. handed me a single white piece of paper. On it were three short paragraphs. No signature.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s not good.” said C.P.

Less than a minute later, I handed it back to C.P.

“I’m not worried about it. There’s no credibility in this accusation. It looks random.” I said. “Where did you find this?”

“It just printed on every network printer in the complex.” He said.

I could feel the blood drain from my face.

“Great…” I said. “I better go make some visits.”

15 years ago, I was a contractor working for the Federal government. I was at one point, the senior on-site person responsible for contracts managing the help desk, network operations, security, the officer pay program, patient admin, concierge, and a small application called SPMS. I was also a target, and I had just been accused by an anonymous person of illegally loading software on every computer in the place.

This accusation, since it has such wide-spread distribution, got the attention of several people who questioned its authenticity. I had no idea how many copies were distributed, but there were hundreds of network printers. By the time I read the copy C.P. handed me, the damage was already done. I didn’t know it yet, but the next several months would bring visits from the Inspector General (IG), dozens of interviews, and an ultimate verdict – which you will soon know.

A few years before this event I was hired right out of uniform. I was an enlisted Navy Corpsman with a sterling record and an reputation for going above and beyond. I was once asked to chauffeur the Surgeon General, organized relief efforts in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Hortense, brought together more than 20 civilian and military organizations to produce a film on drinking and driving, and put together a joint Navy/ Marine Corps skills exchange program – all while operating an IT consulting business on the side. Many of the senior enlisted and officers in the medical community knew my name & helped me out from time to time.

Unknown to me when I got the job, my former Commanding Officer had called the Director for Administration (3rd in command) to tell him he had an asset on board – a new young contractor that used to work for him as a Corpsman. They decided to use me to improve some things in the new organization.

I was summoned in my second week on the job and informed that I had two missions – the one that was on my statement of work, and the one this Navy Captain was about to give me. Being a recently discharged veteran, my loyalty to the military chain of command was strong and unquestionable. I believed that following these orders – especially as given through a fraternal military chain – was my duty. Contracting issues aside for now. This is what was in my head.

“I’ve got a lot of dead wood in my civil servants,” he said. “and my two officers in charge of this operation need a lot of help. I want you to make my two officers look good and do whatever it takes to make this (command) work the way it should.”

My own experience confirmed civil servants literally sleeping on the job, elaborate schemes to drag projects on forever, a passive aggressive security manager who came in at 10 AM, reshuffled his papers and left at 2 PM without consequence, and countless examples of solitaire and other time wasters. That Captain was right. He had lot’s of people on the pay roll who were not doing much beyond collecting a paycheck. Morale was rancid. Lethargy and passive aggression seemed to be the actions of choice.

I set out to light the world on fire. I teed up project after project for those two officers to take credit for. My teams were hot. They knocked down the backlog of several thousand help desk calls via a program we called “Going for the Goose,” (as is the big Goose Egg – Zero help desk tickets). We found all manner of security flaws and restored it to state of the art. We started a computer training program for government staff, and generally raised H.E.-double toothpicks.

Customers and that Navy Captain were very happy with the changes, but the civil servants were pretty ticked, and likely frightened. A-76 studies were going on at the time and many civil service personnel felt they were under threat of being replaced by contractors. I imagine I was a poster child of the devil to them. I suppose they believed it was time for the devil to go.

This accusation of loading illegal software was one of what would become many accusations thrown in my direction in an attempt to get me out of the way. The civil servants were on the war path and they wanted me gone. In this case, someone with access to the server that managed the network printers had forced a print job that was designed to make it look like I was doing something illegal. If true, it would be grounds for getting me fired.

The command did indeed have a lot of illegal copies of software loaded on computers. Poor record keeping, tight budgets, competing priorities, and an abysmally slow acquisition process made loading copies of software that hadn’t yet been paid for a pretty common occurrence. This had gone on for years before I got there. A simple audit revealed that that portion of the mystery memo was true.

Who was responsible and whether I would be hung for it was still to be determined. It was, however, pretty common for contractors to be considered third class citizens at the time, so I knew my future was in jeopardy.

How I handled it:

  • First, I was worried. My reputation and integrity had never been challenged like this before. I was hurt, embarrassed, and offended. It’s uncomfortable to be accused of something, even with knowledge that the accusation is unfounded. The IG inspection seemed to give credence to the accusation. I thought the accusation should have been dismissed unceremoniously, but when politics are involved, things are rarely that simple.
  • I made myself available to the Navy Captain who had sent me on my mission. He didn’t want (or wasn’t allowed) to see me.
  • I disclosed what I knew to the two officers in charge, my contract company chain of command, and my staffs. Then, I settled into a waiting period. A very LOOONG waiting period where hours seemed like days and weeks seemed like months. Stress was always on simmer in the background.
  • Every so often, I’d hear about someone else – mostly from the civil service staff – being summoned to see the IG and provide a statement. I knew those statements couldn’t have painted me in a very positive light. I waited some more & attempted to do my job – though admittedly, the wind was blowing a little less full in my sails.

The IG didn’t ask for my statement until the very end. Several months later, I got the call. I hung up the phone, gathered my things, and the phone rang a second time. It was the Navy Captain.

“Your about to go see the IG?” he said.

“Yes.” I responded.

“I want you to tell them the whole truth and nothing more, do you understand?” He said. “Don’t volunteer anything they don’t ask you about. Don’t belabor your responses. Just answer their questions.”

“Yes sir.” I replied, and went off to my interview. A stack of papers in my briefcase.

I always kept meticulous records. Every staff action, every order received, every suggestion or criticism, and every bit of appreciation expressed got documented somewhere: the time, date, person involved, status and outcome if I knew it. I had gathered all the documentation I could find and brought it with me to the interview.

The interview lasted for maybe 30 minutes. I answered questions as they came and bit my tongue to keep my mouth from wandering on side trips. When the investigator was wrapping up, she asked if I had anything else I would like to share. I pulled out my documentation and handed it to her.

“This is a record of every piece of software we’ve ever loaded.” I began “The computer it was loaded on, the serial numbers, the person who gave the order, the person who received the order, the date, the technician… everything. I hope you find this useful.”

Two weeks later, I was informed of the verdict. The government was found guilty of loading illegal software on computers and instructed to remedy the situation. I was found not guilty of any charges and invited to return to business as usual. The anonymous “accuser” was never identified to my knowledge. And while the line item in the budget labeled “software” got a little more love, the government system for managing IT operations wasn’t improved in any substantial way.

The victory was empty. I had wasted a lot of time and energy on worry and empty threats. My integrity was questioned, and the momentum my teams had gained was weakened. We were really good at record keeping, but it wasn’t fun. The best I could say at the time was that I had first hand experience with political tactics I wished I didn’t know about.

From a leadership perspective, I had to reassure staffs along the way that if anything negative came out of this, that I would be taking full responsibility. I had to open myself and my operations up to full Transparency. I had to sit still for a long time when my instinct was to take action. And I had to learn what it feels like to be in the hot seat.

If you’re an action taker, particularly if you’re in the business of creating change, there’s a better than average chance that you will tick someone off. If you tick people off consistently or well enough, they may resort to accusing you of wrong doing to get you out of the way. Like it or not, being accused of something – justified or not – puts limitations on what you can do until things can be sorted out.

At times like those I was grateful for the positive things I had done and the relationships I had built in advance. Being in the hot seat, there isn’t time or opportunity to make new relationships. Just about anything you do after being accused of something can be construed as an attempt to save yourself.

Here’s my top five picks for preparing defense against accusations:

  1. Do the right thing. The more painful it is to do the right thing, the better. Doing the right thing consistently establishes your personal “brand” as one with integrity. Accusations are still both possible and painful, but it’s harder to levy an accusation against someone who is clearly wearing a white hat.
  2. Establish and maintain positive relationships. Having people in your corner makes a huge difference in times of crisis. If you make the time to develop positive relationships now, you may never “need” them, but they’ll be there if/when you do, and you’ll have a good time with them if you don’t. Positive relationships are a win for everyone.
  3. Keep good records. Keeping good records is one sign of a professional. Whether you think you need them or not, good records can help you manage staff (try recording every time a staff member does something cool – it’ll come in handy when it’s time to write performance evals), keep your life organized, and could mean the difference between guilt or innocence when the chips are down.
  4. Know when NOT to speak. We spend a lot of time helping people learn how to speak up and speak clearly, but little time on when and how to shut up. When politics or legal action is concerned, common sense does not always prevail. You may have noticed, for example, that the more senior a person gets, the shorter their emails usually get too. There is a reason for that. It’s not all about time management either.
  5. Relax & give yourself a break. Things that happen – including accusations thrown in your direction – are not always about you. As long as you keep your morale compass calibrated, you can hold your head high, regardless of what other people are saying.

What other things can you think of that can help people defend themselves against accusations?

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Corey McCarren

Great post as always. The anecdotes at the beginning always help put the purpose of the post in perspective. Being accused is never fun, and can be very embarrassing knowing there’s many people that assume guilty until proven innocent. Also, if some people in the office perceived you as bad for trying to better the organization, they are biased to begin with.

Maybe another way to defend yourself is to not put the blame on others. Provide records that show who is responsible if available, but don’t go around accusing people, especially not in front of anyone who isn’t directly involved with your case. I don’t think looking like you’re searching for a scapegoat helps peoples perception of you.

David Dejewski

LOL… “C.P.” is my mildly clever way of hiding the name of the person who actually handed me the memo. Sorry I made you do research on it. I am careful to leave actual names out of stories like these.

Thanks for your comments! You made a great point about not trying to shift blame. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re absolutely right. If I had spend time and energy trying to accuse other people of wrong doing, it would have made matter much worse. Good pull. 🙂

David Dejewski

Robert – I have several. I’ll post them for your amusement later.

My immediate reaction to your question was to think that the current version of myself might deal with the “dead wood” civil servants differently. After some thought, however, I believe there was very little anyone could do with this group – certainly not as a contractor. This group was ruined and dug in long before I got there – even successive Admirals were unsuccessful trying to clean it up.

From the organization perspective (having eventually become an equal rank peer of that former Navy Captain), I question the wisdom of sending a young contractor (eager as I was) on a mission like the one I was given. It’s probably not something I would do in his position.

The real questions for the organization are related to the pool of 50 civil servants that were in this condition. They were not always bad eggs. Some of them once had real passion for their jobs. What happened?

I heard many horror stories during my tenure there (and after I left) about ignoring the staff, belittling them, inconsistent and punitive management techniques, poorly structured incentives, etc. The organization made their own bed.

In one case, for example, the security manager found security issues he felt were a concern. His CIO would not listen, so he exercised his legal right to go straight to the Admiral. The security manager wasn’t a great communicator (a training issue). He was blunt and demanding with the Admiral. The Admiral thanked him, called in the CIO, and told the CIO that he never wanted to see that Security Manager again. Instead of addressing the issue, the Admiral focused on the disrespect, ignored the issue and shook up the chain of command for allowing disrespect to get to his office.

The CIO, in turn, turned to his Deputy and ordered him to tell the Security Manager to sit down, shut up, and sit on his hands. The Deputy put this in writing and handed it to the Security Manager. So… the Security Manager sat down and shut up. For five years, he came in at 10:00 and left at 2PM. He slept during lunch break, re-shuffled his five year old stack of papers each day, and grumbled – a lot. No one seemed to care & the security program fell apart.

When a new Admiral (a few years later) realized that her security program was full of holes, she demanded the Security Manager’s head. He was ordered to her office to face the music. He brought with him a copy of the memo. From that meeting, it was a two year drag-out battle with complaints filed, management corrective actions, and documentation from that point forward to fire him. Similar fights were going on throughout that organization.

Mistakes all around, but this is only one example. No listening. No coaching. Poor delegation. Poor accountability. Poor engagement. Punitive action every time someone form the civil service ranks stood up. The organization had a leadership crisis.

There is no substitute for quality leadership. When it’s missing, this sort of thing can and does occur.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Wow, Dave. This is a great story – reads like a mystery novel, but ends with lessons for not being the victim.

Another defense: Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions. You can get spinning fast before you have the facts…and it only compounds the problem.

Scott O. Konopasek

Very timely post and the advice is right on- especially knowing when not to speak. I am going through a similar ordeal at the moment and, as the advice points out, when the accusations come your best (only?) defense is your track record and the relationships you have built along the way. Protesting and counter-attacking, although very normal impulses, will only damage one’s cause.

Jo Youngblood

It’s called relational aggression and it’s a form of bullying. When it occurred to me, I quit on the spot. It can seriously ruin your professional reputation and damage years of progress.

Dick Davies

What a wonderful story! Well done! Excellent advice for us all!

One takeaway. There were no winners and no resolution when someone came after you. That points to an unacceptably low level of response from your customer. Doesn’t look good for their future.

Thank you!

David Dejewski

Jody, Whitney Adrienne and Lori – I’m glad my pain could bring you such reading pleasure. lol. Just kidding. I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

Henry and Scott – spot on. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Shakespeare was a pretty smart guy. He nailed this phenomenon in the 1600’s when he wrote Hamlet.

Robert – I think some good advice is coming from other readers. I like and agree with the comments posted here so far.

Organizations need to do a better job preventing conditions that lead to a culture that produces this behavior. The “bad” employees, in their defense, were not like this when they were hired. They were eager, energetic, and committed. Their leadership failed them in my opinion. They rafted together and created a very dysfunctional reality. I felt the impact of their reality because I was acting on it. They had used similar tactics on other people in the past.

I can’t think of anything that the organization did wrong when it came to processing the accusation. The IG behaved as they were designed to behave. The fact that this group was allowed to get so dysfunctional or that they used (or abused) the system in this way is food for another discussion.

My experience has made me more critical of organizations I agree to support and have adjusted the tactics I might use to implement change management programs, but to a certain extent, this sort of thing comes with the change management territory. As individuals, we mitigate this sort of thing similar to the way we mitigate the effects of car accidents. We gain and leverage experience, wear our seat belts, drive carefully, and carry an insurance policy – but the risk is always there. This risk is probably higher for people who chose to drive change than for those who seek safety in status quo.

David Dejewski

Dick – unfortunately, you’re right about that customer. They struggled for a while. I’ve been away too long to know how they’re doing today. Thanks for your comment!

Jo – Sounds like a prudent decision. Sorry to hear it happened to you as well.

Jo Youngblood

David, it was for the best. I ended up in a much better position within the same agency at the end of the day. But I knew the moment I was confronted with it, that unlike you, I didn’t have sufficient standing to keep it from ruining me professionally. I was mid ranked at best and it was coming from a superior. I just thought it was best to get out of the way. There are other jobs and that one in particular wasn’t worth it to me to fight for it.

Long Ranger

Dave, another defense or really a prequel to staying out of trouble. Don’t take side bar or “under-the-table” orders from your commander to make his officers look good at the expense of the rest of the division. Instead, strive to make EVERYONE look good. Your article sounds like you and your commander both are looking on the civil servants as being seen as the enemy and a group that needs to be put in their place. An organization is the group as a whole, not choice parts of it and you should never devote your energy to making one part look better than the rest. Most likely this is the very reason why someone tried to burn you.

David Dejewski

Jo – I’m glad it worked out for the best.
Long – Yup. Side bar orders are not good from many perspectives. Anyone getting involved in that sort of thing is asking for trouble. Later on in my career (once I was a civil servant and a COR), I would use knowledge of my own mistakes to inform the way I handled my contracting responsibilities. I agree with you on this point. Good call.
I wasn’t concerned with things like making the officers look good at the civil servants expense, putting civil servants in their place, or making one group look better than the rest. That wasn’t my job. My job was to run at some obvious problems as hard as I could. Our meetings were more about getting the backlog of help desk calls down to zero, for example.
I don’t believe having me attack the civil servants was part of my Commander’s intent either. If he was dealing with that, it was through separate channels without my involvement.
My teams simply did things that were not being done – without regard for how that made the civil servants look. I declined to take credit for the problems we solved. Not taking credit for what I was doing was my way of making the officers look good. They were in charge so solving problems was to their credit.
I can see, however, how my writing could be interpreted as if we thought the civil servants were the “enemy” that “needs to be put in their place.” I was pretty disgusted by their behavior, as we’re a lot of customers, but this wasn’t a factor in my motivation.

Lori Reichert

I read this and felt your pain. Politics is a game where fairness and doing the right thing seem to get lost. The take away for me is that your integrity was maintained and strengthened. This validated that your way of being, your internal compass is working well. It would be my honour to work with someone like you. Let’s set the world on fire! Thanks for sharing.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

Lori is soooo right! I have been in this type of situation. Always seem to end up in highly political companies where someone is looking to throw anyone under the bus if they think they can. Keeping your cool, keeping good records, knowing that you work hard and have integrity, are important.

Here is how I handle these situations: Always review the situation, write out everything you know about the situation, review all documentation and highlight important areas, make copies of anything that may need to be handed over to whoever is investigating (one employee took original paperwork into supervisor’s manager and the manager shredded the documents), set out a timeline of actions taken, make lists of all possible outcomes/questions and prepare/rehearse in your mind. All of this helps maintain a professional demeaner, because you are prepared. This helps me keep a perspective and not take it personally even though the attack was personal. Lose your temper and you lose the battle. If people bring it up, tell them, “I am not worried because I know it is not true” (this is a message that gets spread as fast as the bad info does). It is inappropriate to discuss the situation until the investigation is over.

Robert asked some good questions and I appreciate David’s answers about how the organization caused a lot of their own problems. I have seen a lot of abusive and demeaning supervisory behavior lately and it is causing me to think hard about my continuing to be a civil servant. One manager temporarily stationed here did a lot of hiring and it seems the people brought in all have a similar abusive behavior. Lack compassion for employees and rally the wagons around other managers who are behaving badly. There is supposed to be an open door policy that you can go above your supervisor if there is an issue, it isn’t working. I have a habit of leaving companies that have a ‘bad’ corporate culture because I start becoming a person I don’t like, bitter, unhappy, stressed.

I am assessing my next move. If you are not a happy employee, move on. The impact on your mental and physical health is too important. It affects everyone you associate with as well.

David Dejewski

Lori – set the world on fire, aye!

Janina – sounds like you’re another person who’s had a similar experience. I’ve been getting private emails too. I’m rooting for your positive spirit & optimism.

Candace Riddle

Good story. I must say my optimism for trustful relationships in the workplace lasted most of my twenties. Now nearing 30, I’m beginning to realize that even the most trusted relationship in the workplace can sometimes crumble and leave you open to “being thrown under the bus”.

Unfortunately for me, I’m a corporate rebel. I love to lead change. Double unfortunate….my attention to detail and minute record keeping has not always been the best. But, the older I get, the better those weaknesses have become, and the shorter my emails have gotten.

I’ve always been a super trusting person, almost to a fault. But enough times of being ran over by the proverbial bus is enough to make one change her ways.

David Dejewski

Fortunately for the rest of us, you are a corporate rebel, Candace. I hope you chose to keep doing the right thing and give yourself a break. Nothing really worth doing comes easy.