Anti-Disparagement Starts with Trust

An article in today’s Guardian mentioned some details of a deal between Microsoft and former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.  The jist of the deal is that Sinofsky, in exchange for a payout from Microsoft, will not seek employment at Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon until post-2014.

That’s certainly understandable.  Although I think that technology is moving quickly enough that a 6-month hiatus from one of Tech’s Big 5 would clear out any useful info, Sinofsky was a senior exec and a one-time confidante of Bill Gates.  So the extended period makes sense.

It’s the second part of the agreement that makes me sad.  The agreement includes a “mutual non-disparagement clause” which prevents Sinofsky from being publicly critical of Microsoft.  (One can presume that Microsoft would be perfectly comfortable with public praise.)

Twice, I’ve left untenable jobs. When all was said and done, no matter how much discomfort I had about the situation, it did not occur to me to disparage my former position.

The first time, I wasn’t being challenged by the work.  I had some ideas about how management could have done things differently, methods I thought might energize our clients and by extension, my own output.  But in the end, the executives in that business went a different direction, and so did I.

The second time, a management change left me on the outside of a team.  The visionary boss who hired me was leaving the organization, and the new boss had a different vision, his own team, and necessary budget cuts to achieve.

In both cases, we didn’t agree on the “how” of the business.  But I did work I’m proud of at both organizations. These are great groups of people, with some mediocrity and some brilliance in the mix.  Disparaging them – my colleagues – would be disparaging myself for being part of such an organization.  No way.  They’re great.  They were then and they are now.

In most cases, anti-disparagement clauses are simply a legal protection, which in most cases won’t really make a difference.  Those who choose to disparage a company will do so regardless.  They will outline all the ways their former organization will fail; they will hope for that failure publicly and privately.

Those who choose the high road understand the value of staying above the fray.

What we really want to say is this, “Stay dignified.  Stay professional.  Things didn’t work out between us, but we all respect each other, even if we disagree.”  I don’t know Steve Sinofsky, but I’ve read some of his writing on the “Learning by Shipping” blog.  He seems reasonable and thoughtful and capable.  I would like to believe that, after 24 years at Microsoft, he would have held his head high, even without the prohibition of an anti-disparagement clause.

One of my favorite books is “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M.R. Covey (son of 7 Habits’ Covey).  In it, he relays an anecdote about the sale of McLane Distribution, a $23 billion company.  Berkshire Hathaway purchased the company from Wal-Mart, and completed the acquisition within one month, an incredible time frame in the mergers and acquisitions world.  The example has stuck with me:  how a massive acquisition could be completed quickly, based on a two-hour meeting and a handshake deal.  Everyone involved knew that Warren Buffett and the executives at Wal-Mart could be trusted to keep their word.

For me, this is what it comes down to… We should be looking at the beginning of the relationship, not the end, when corporate lawyers understandably want an anti-disparagement clause.  Instead, we should say this, to all of our employees, throughout their tenure:  “I trust you to stay dignified.  I know that you will be professional.  I respect you and your work, even if we disagree.”

If we could just do that – cultivate a culture of trust and respect – anti-disparagement clauses would become remarkably unnecessary.

One thought on “Anti-Disparagement Starts with Trust”

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