What Do You Do When Your Boss May Have Broken the Law?

Joining me on this week’s episode is Tami Nealy, the vice president of communications and talent relations at Find Your Influence, Inc. I had the pleasure of working with Tami years ago when she was at LifeLock.

In this personal interview, Tami shares some great advice and insight on topics including:

I know a lot of your story, but our listeners don’t. Why you to tell us more about yourself and your career?

I am currently the vice president of communications and talent relations with Find Your Influence. But going back to the beginning of my career, I started out working in the WNBA for a couple of different teams, serving as the director of communications, media relations, and public relations for two teams. I traveled with the team. I was the liaison between beat reporters, television reporters, and players and coaches and the front office staff. And then that expanded into arena football and NASCAR. I worked at LifeLock and I’ve also worked for a series of education technology companies and all the way to today at Find Your Influence. I’ve done media relations, investor relations, internal communications, and crisis communications. You name it and I can check the box right next to it.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

This is a great question and I was bouncing it off a couple of my mentors just yesterday via text. And I said, “I think I want to talk about this.” And they said, “no, you really need to talk about this.” And I said, “Well, that was a scary time in my life and I don’t know that I want to talk about it.” And then the more I reflected on it last night, I thought, “No, I have to talk about this issue because it was scary for me. It was hard for me and anyone listening can benefit and learn from it that’s what I’m hoping to get out of this today.”

So, all of that buildup is to tell you in my early thirties I had a boss that wasn’t so great. How he showed up to the leadership team and other people in the office was very different than how he showed up to me.

He didn’t treat me with kindness. He was very controlling, very micromanaging, and it was tough. I loved the company. I loved everyone else in the company. I loved what I did. I knew he treated me differently than anyone else. I don’t know if he was trying to get the most out of me. If he thought using “tough love” or being forceful would really teach me well or shape me into the professional that I would become. Either way, I didn’t love it. I took advantage of the employee assistance program. I was talking to a counselor. I was taking anxiety medication. All because I didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. And it led me to a point that from time to time I would have conversations with human resources, but it was always “Here is what he said to me. Here is how he said it. Here’s how it made me feel.”

And I didn’t ever have any proof. There were no other witnesses into these conversations. So, it was a struggle. And in your early thirties, when you’re trying to prove yourself as a female in an organization dominated by men, it was tough. One of the core values of that organization was, “we will always do what we should and not what we can.” And I bought into that. That’s who I am at my core. That’s why I loved working there. Aside from this individual, life was great.

There came a period of time when I found out some information about what he did that was, to a point, illegal. And the person who shared it with me was outside of the organization and had what the kids today call “receipts”. It was in email. There were texts. And when those were shared with me, in that moment, that was my ethical decision.

Do I just say to him, “Oh, I’m sorry, this is happening to you.” Or do I take these emails, these texts and show them to someone. And in that moment, I knew who I was as an individual and then the company’s core value of “we will always do what we should and that will be can.” What I should do was escalate that to the top of the management chain immediately. If I took it to him, I anticipated what that conversation was going to look like, how defensive he may get. And instead I went to the top.

It was a very scary time because, in my mind I thought, “this person is going to get fired or I’m going to get fired.” But that was the risk that I was going to take. It turned out in the end, after some legal involvement he left. I’m not sure if he chose to leave on his own or if he was terminated.

It was a very tough time for me because I didn’t know what that outcome was going to be. And when I faced that decision of what do I do with this information, I hadn’t been believed before, I hadn’t been heard before, and so it was that ethical point in my career. It was very scary for me to say, “is someone going to believe me? Will I be heard? Will I survive this? Do I have to start looking for a new job? Do I have to double down on my anxiety medication? What is it? What do I need to do in this situation?” But it worked out the way I believe it should have in that situation where the person who wasn’t being honest and forthcoming was removed from that position.

Thank you for sharing that story. I was talking to Nicky McHugh recently who was dealing with it in a slightly different area, where a boss was abusive to a lot of employees and not just one. I think it’s definitely a key issue. When do you speak up and how do you speak up when you’re seeing behavior that is not consistent with company values?

Tell us a little bit more for those people that may be encountering that situation. What were some of the processes you went through to make sure people were taking you seriously? What champions did you work to enroll in the list?

Because it was an issue that could impact the company if it were to come out, I considered who do I go to in the C-suite with this? And I made the decision to go to the general counsel because I thought this person needs to understand what the risks are to the company. I hadn’t had any sort of interactions like this with the legal team before, so I knew if I went there and it was a real issue, they would be the ones to champion it throughout the organization. They would bring the other leadership in as appropriate.  And being in my early thirties and not having an experience like this before, not knowing that the way that I was being treated wasn’t right… I mean, that sounds silly. I knew I wasn’t being treated right, but I wasn’t standing up for myself.

I wasn’t empowered with a voice. And when I took it to the legal team, I was heard. They said, “you did the right thing. We absolutely needed to know this.” And so that lesson was find the person who is going to have your back, who understands whatever this issue is and how it could impact, not just you, but the company, the people throughout the company, and go there. If you get the support you need and you feel heard, you’re in the right spot. If you don’t, my next move, honestly Mark, would have been resignation at that point.

You mentioned you had complained about manager before to HR and others. Were you concerned at all that people would think this was a personal vendetta from you or you trying to get back at the manager in a different way?

No, because in this situation I had email proof, a series of emails over and over making threats to external people outside of the organization. “If you don’t do this, we will do this.” A lot of threats. And in that moment, I wasn’t concerned because I said, “I finally have the proof. This isn’t the conversation that happened in a closed-door meeting where it’s my word against his word. I have proof here.” So in that moment I felt empowered because I had something that I didn’t have before.

What’s your advice to people if they’re in similar circumstances, even if they don’t have the proof? How do you recommend they go about addressing the issue?

Find a mentor early in your career. Find someone who you trust, who you can talk to about your personal growth and your struggles. How do I work through this or that? I didn’t have that person or those series of people in my back pocket at that time. But I now understood the value of that. And so, I am continuing to grow the people who I look to as mentors. I am looking to young people that I have worked with and that I come across that I see really strong value in and hard work and drive and I offer to mentor them because I know how when that was missing for me, how it really could have guided me and helped me. That’s what I recommend others to do. Find that mentor, someone you can trust, and talk it through. Share your feelings.

“Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what I’ve done. This hasn’t worked. What could I do next?” I felt trapped in my own head about that. Being a young professional who wanted to be successful, I was afraid to speak up to other people and to be like, “well, you know, the company is run by men and they have a lot more experience than you do at 32 or 33 or whatever that is.” But having those trusted mentors who believe in you, who see your potential, I really think at that point in my career, a mentor really could have been very, very beneficial for me.

I think mentorship is one of the most important things. That’s how we make diversity, equity, and inclusion, a reality. It’s how we really just help nurture and develop the best talent. You mentioned you were thinking about a few different ethical issues. Are there any other personal issues you wanted to highlight that you ran into?

I was with a consumer services company and we did some advertising with major radio personalities. We would have these various different personalities would do live reads on behalf of brands. And there were many times in this radio personality’s career where he would say outlandish things trying to get reactions. And he made a comment once on air, not when he was doing a live read for any brand, but he was talking negatively about women and women’s rights. And as we’ve seen many times before brands pull out. They say, “we don’t want to be associated with this personality who is this controversial or wrong in what his views or beliefs are.” And every brand pulled out except the brand that I worked for. That was tough for me because I had to say, “why do we believe this? I’m a woman. I believe I should be supported.”

And the conversation was, “Well, if we’re the only brand left, we’re going to get so many more live reads because there’s no competition. Everybody else has pulled out. It’s going to do great for our brand.” That’s not what I would’ve done. It felt gross and dirty to me as a woman. And so that was a challenge that I faced. And again, it was earlier in my career and I didn’t speak up and looking back now I wish I would have felt empowered with a stronger voice earlier in my career. That mentorship… I’m not blaming not having a mentor, but I just didn’t know that I could use my voice and speak up and be heard in a way that I know and I have confidence in today.

It sounds like the brand that you were talking about was focusing more on business results than on living core values that they might’ve had.

Yes.

And that’s the challenges when the conflict comes and they were, sounds like seduced in some ways by the utilitarian benefit of we’re going to get more mentions, but they weren’t necessarily looking at the long-term impact on the brand.

Yes. And you said it right there, core values. That’s what I was thinking about going into our conversation today, Mark. Core values are so important to me as I’ve matured professionally. If I’m interviewing with a company, I want to understand what their core values are. I want to speak to other employees there. How do you see those core values showing up? Are they just words that are printed out and framed on a wall or are they lived? And I’m so, so very proud at Find Your Influence, where I work today, day one on the job they said, “we have been trying for months to work through our core values. We sat down; we’ve workshopped them. Here’s notebooks worth of notes we’ve taken from them. Can you sit down and help us shape our core values?” On day one.

I knew going into it at Find Your Influence, the two co-founders were friends of mine. We had worked together for six or seven years earlier in our careers. I knew them. I knew who they were as leaders. So, walking into that situation without a defined set of core values, I felt comfortable with, but on day one, they knew me. They knew how important values are to me. So that was the very first project I was assigned at Find Your Influence. And I couldn’t be happier today about those values, how I see everyone living them. And it wasn’t a set of values that leadership said, “Here’s what they are. Here’s what we’re going to do.” It was defined by the people. They looked at themselves and said, “Who are we? How do we show up?” And that has helped drive our growth.

So I’m going to toss you a little softball here, but I think it’s interesting based on the second example that you gave, where you were working with an influencer that did some things you didn’t agree with, but there was a benefit to it. When it comes to dealing with influencers what are some of your recommendations on how to avoid some of the ethical pitfalls that people are talking about when they engage influencers? How do you really ethically use them and get the most out of influencers?

You need to be open and honest about what you want, what you’re looking for, what you want the content to be shaped like. And then you have to step back and empower the influencers to create that content.

I’ve got my Hydroflask right here, filled with water that I’m drinking every day. And that’s my go to brand that I talk to because it’s literally always in my hands. If Hydroflask was working with influencers, they might want the influencers to show how they’re actively refueling their body with water in their Hydroflask each day. And that may be some sort of outdoor exercise or outdoor activity, whatever that might be. In the campaign guidelines, they would list, “We want to see you do all of this. And this is how we want to frame it. We want the photos to be taken during daylight. We do X, X, X.” But it’s also very, very important to say what you don’t want.

If Hydroflask is a brand that’s focusing on keeping individuals hydrated, they likely want to define on their campaign do not do this list, do not show yourself putting alcohol into it. Do not have alcohol in the frame with minors. What you want the influencers to do is just as important as what you want to make sure they do not do.

Mark, I know we’ve all worked with legal teams before that are like, “You can’t make this claim. You can’t make that claim.” Whatever claims you can’t make as a brand, do not let your influencers make those claims either. And so having that open line of communication saying, “Here’s what we’re looking for. The content should be framed this way, but it cannot include anything like this. Here are the deadlines. Here are the deliverables.” Setting those out front really helps influencers understand what the expectations are.

You should share those campaign guidelines as you’re trying to recruit influencers because they want to look at that and say, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” Or, “I can’t do that.” You don’t want to negotiate with an influencer on a rate and then give them guidelines where they’re like, “Wait, I can’t do that. I can’t turn this around in two weeks or I have a conflict with a competitor.”

Brands need to better understand that for influencers, creating content is their business. They’re a brand too. They know their audience. They know the type of content their audience is looking for. You need to give them some room to use their expertise in creating content. And if they say, “My followers are most engaged on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:47 PM Eastern standard time,” that’s when they’re going to post the content. They’re not just going to post it on a Wednesday at 2:15 because that’s when the brand wants it. They want to get the most out of it for you. They want the campaign to be just as successful as you do.

One additional question involves disclosure, particularly as you’re looking at new channels, like TikTok, what are your recommendations around ethical disclosure?

Having worked on crisis communications before related to a Federal Trade Commission issue, I will say that in November of 2019, the Federal Trade Commission issued social media disclosures 101, which is a guide for influencers on how to disclose that the content that they are posting is either paid, so they were paid to post it, or whether it was gifted to them. Either way, they want to see that you’re disclosing it with #ad or #sponsored or on Instagram you can tag the partner. You can say in partnership with X brand. You need to disclose that to your followers so that they understand that there was some level of compensation or gifting in exchange for that product. Most often the content and the experience that they had with it is authentic, but disclosing it is very, very, very important.

Beyond ethical ways of engaging with influencers, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I really think it has to do with having an open and honest line of communication. We’ve all worked with reporters before who are like, “Oh, could you get me a comment for this? I’d love to include it in my story.” And then you send off the quote or whatever it is they’re looking for, an infographic or a data point, and then you don’t hear back. And you send a couple emails, you leave voicemails. You’re like, “Hey, wondering when this was going to run. Do you need anything more?” And we’re just kind of ghosted sometimes.

And it just sits on your list. I’ve also submitted to be a speaker for a variety of different events. They say, “Oh, we’re now accepting speaker proposals for our conference.” So, I submit as many as I can and not everyone responds. Like they say, “Oh, we’re going to announce on January 18th who our speakers are. We’ll let everybody know who’s submitted.” And then you don’t hear. For PR professionals, we put in a lot of work, whether it’s with reporters, whether it’s on conferences, whether it’s on event planning, and to not hear answers back, to just kind of feel ghosted if you will, it’s really frustrating.

I’m sure everybody listening has experienced this before. ‘No’ is a fine answer. I just need to hear no. And if you’re willing to give me no and why so that I can get better, that’s really what I’m looking for. I don’t think I’m going to be selected for every conference that I submit to speak at, but tell me why. Just say no so I can just check it off my list and move on to something else. And if they’re willing to say, “Oh, Hey Tami, we were really looking for somebody who had more experience in investor relations. It didn’t really seem like you had that much.” “Oh, okay, great.” Maybe I can position myself different next time or maybe understand that that’s just not an area of expertise where people see me.

And I’d say this goes both ways. I think it’s definitely something I’ve been seeing a lot with media, but it’s also something, unfortunately, more PR people are doing as well when it comes to media, is they just don’t reply at all. They ghost some of the interviews instead of just saying, “we’re not available” or “we’re not going to comment” or whatever else is going on. And that ties into PRSA’s code of ethics and the free flow of information and disclosure

Are there other areas you’re concerned about with regards to ethics?

The global pandemic that we’re experiencing right now, most of the world was not prepared for this. No one had a crisis plan for a pandemic. They may have had 18 to 25 other scenarios in their crisis plan, but no one really had pandemic, panic, you know? No one leaves their home.

I just think it goes back to that communication. If you don’t have anything to say, just say, “we’re trying to figure it out,” but you’ve got an audience who’s dependent on you, be candid. Be upfront. Say, “Hey, we’re learning and adjusting as quickly as we can. We don’t have answers for you now. As soon as we have them, we’re more than happy to share.” But having that transparency and that open line of communication with your constituents I think is very, very important. And I don’t know that we would have realized this until we found ourselves in this pandemic situation.

I have no idea why I’m on an email list for Chipotle. However, I have been so impressed for the communication they have been doing throughout this pandemic. They were the very first company that emailed me and they emailed me again earlier this week. I have no concept of time right now, but they emailed earlier this week telling me as the world starts to open what their plans are. And it felt true to who they are. And I’m not somebody that was a champion for Chipotle before this, but I am now. I’m so impressed with their communication throughout this. It’s been just the right amount, telling me exactly what I need to know, when I need to know it.

I think that for the most part, Chipotle has actually been historically a very ethical and very good communication team. I used them as a case study in my PR ethics class at Boston University over Carnitasgate and how they dealt with when they realized some of their suppliers weren’t using appropriately sourced, humanely sourced pork, and the way they handled that was a textbook perfect example of great ethical crisis communications.

I’m very impressed. I liked Chipotle before, but now I think it might eat there a little more frequently.

Thinking over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

You may not believe it because I’m actually speaking to you right now, but I have referenced it a hundred times, if not more. It came from you and your team back in the day when we worked together. We were creating a crisis communication plan together. The first one I had ever worked on, the first one I’d ever seen, and it was a nugget in a binder of 200 plus pages. You said, “Tell the truth and tell it fast.” And that’s so simple. That’s so on point with who I am, but to be able to frame it in that two sentences. Tell the truth, tell it fast… Six words. It’s so simple. It’s so easy.

I’ve had to let people go from their positions. I’ve had to have tough conversations with direct reports. I don’t look forward to those types of things, but I’ve been guided by tell the truth and tell it fast instead of letting it linger and build up and build up and it just gets uncomfortable for everybody. Tell the truth and tell it fast. And so Mark, I think you gave me that advice sometime in 2011, 2012, but it has guided me forever because I never would have been able to say it so succinctly.

It’s great to hear that. In full transparency, I think actually Bryan Scanlon is the one who first told me that. I’ve got to give him some credit for it.

Well he’s a great guy, too.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

The ethical challenge that we talked about at the top, I wasn’t looking forward to discussing, but it feels a little bit therapeutic. Thank you for letting me share that with you and your listeners.

My pleasure. I think it’s important. And as a challenge that unfortunately we’re facing more and more, I think it’s going to be interesting as we have the virtual work and people coming back into the workplace over time, called the no a-hole rule. But it’s a challenge that people are facing is how do you really deal with those abusive bosses when you realize that your job could be on the line? Unfortunately, something I think everybody has to struggle with at least once in their career.

Yep.

One more thing I do want to say, I’ve been obsessed the last couple of years with the reporter Ronan Farrow and his reporting.

And I read his book this year, Catch and Kill, the story of him kind of kicking off the #MeToo movement. And I listened to his podcasts and there were times it was very, very difficult to listen to the podcast and to read the book because I went through that situation where I… In no point, to be clear, there was no sexual harassment going on, but as a woman to not be believed and not be heard in the way that those women, as it relates to Harvey Weinstein, reported feeling, that was tough to get through. But it was also very important for me to read so I can feel more empowered and more in charge of who I am and using my voice. So that’s a must read. That’s a book I will read multiple times over again. That’s a must read.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content here:

 

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