I could have titled this “How to Handle an Ambush at Work – Part 1”. It is the story of a time I was ambushed at work. Ironically, it was not by a co-worker or even a boss.
I once took an interim job as the Atlanta District Manager for a small chain of stores. The chain’s strategy was rapid growth for an eventual sale. Our main supplier was also based in Atlanta. While I knew the local account reps., I had never met with any of the supplier’s internal management. You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to a “get acquainted” meeting with the supplier at their shiny new corporate office. Ironically, I saw it as an opportunity to network for a new job (silly me).
What I did not know was that my company had not paid the supplier in quite a long time – and no one was answering their calls. I guess it’s difficult to open 100 stores a year and still pay your bills. The “meeting” was just a desperate attempt by the supplier to reach someone at my company – even the lowly, unsuspecting District Manager. I should have known something was wrong when they didn’t even offer me a bottle of water. As I waited in the conference room, in my best suit, in walks the President of the company (which means it was a lot of money owed) and shoves a phone in my face. “Call your boss” he yells! “What are you talking about?”, I sincerely asked. He went on a tirade about unpaid bills, dishonesty, and lack of contact from my company ending with, “CALL YOUR BOSS!!”.
Here’s the crappy part. Knowing where I was, my boss wouldn’t take my call either. After a couple of pitiful attempts to reach someone, I left the conference room embarrassed to be part of such a messy situation. I also figured it was an inconvenient time to leave my resume. My boss gladly took my call once I assured him I had left the building and was in the parking lot. In hindsight, I was used by the company to gauge the supplier’s current mood and collection plans.
While the whole interaction took less than 15 minutes and I just wanted to get out, here is how I wish I had handled it.
Neutral is an awkward spot to be in unless you are a mediator (which I am now). I felt neutral and awkward, not defending my company but not really helping the supplier. While I, of course, owe a duty of loyalty to my company, the supplier was 100% correct. From my experience, this supplier had been a good partner and the company was screwing them without conscience. I think integrity trumps loyalty in most instances. I could have given the supplier some secret internal phone line to the company or at least tried harder to reach someone. I owed that to the account reps. who had always been honest, professional, and helpful to me. I would have felt better about the situation and myself.
I believe you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. However, this is the one and only time in my work career where I wonder if I should have taken a stance against my employer (it was, after all, an interim position). On the other hand, I could have sided with the supplier and asked for a job only to be told, “Are you kidding, why would we hire a traitor like you”. Sometimes you are damned if you do and ……. Well you know the rest. What do you think?