What the Susan G Komen Foundation Reminded All of Us about Decision Making

A few years ago I had an under-performing employee who resisted all the performance-enhancing recommendations her colleagues and I made over a number of months. I knew I needed to let her go.

Some people are good at letting people go. They see it as good for the company and better for the person in the long run. I understand this perspective, but I'm not good at living it out.

So when it came time to face Jenny (name changed), I attempted to soften the decision. Things aren't really working out, I told her. And we're not sure what we're doing with the position. Money is tight, and budgets are getting cut. I have to let you go. All of this was true. But it was also true that if Jenny had been a high performing employee, I'd have found a way to keep her. She wasn't, and she needed to go.

Predictably, Jenny questioned my logic. She knew enough about our budgets to know where there was cushion, and suggested that I move money around accordingly. Give her time to rethink the program's approach, she suggested. Just let me stay, she said.

Gulp. I'd just learned the lesson Susan G Komen for the Cure Foundation inadvertently reminded us of last week.

For anyone who missed the headlines, Susan G Komen, the premier breast cancer research and awareness foundation, dropped funding to Planned Parenthood. According to the Associated Press, the foundation said their decision was motivated by a new policy forbidding grants to organizations under federal investigation. (Planned Parenthood was targeted for a federal audit to determine whether the organization has used public money to fund abortions.)

New policy or not, some people believe Komen's decision was politically motivated and that Komen was not sharing the whole truth of their decision making process. In part this perception was formed because of a newly hired Komen executive with a background in anti-abortion politics.

Regardless of your perspective on last week's headlines, or your views on the heated topic of abortion, this situation has much to teach the business community. When facing tough and unpopular decisions, it's tempting to misrepresent your motivations. (And, as the case may be in the Komen situation, it's also easy for your motivations to be misinterpreted.)

Komen officials faced an unexpected public outcry, including this
Someecards post that went viral, in response to their decision. 
Making a decision, by definition, means choosing one path over another. Making a decision with integrity means truthfully and clearly stating your choice and your true motivations. The problem for Komen executives arose when their explanation of their decisions didn't seem to align with the circumstances around them. Their quick waffle on the topic further enforced public opinion (as stated graphically in the Someecards picture, left, that went viral last week), and by the end of the week Komen had reversed their decision and made a public apology for the appearance of putting women's health at risk.

Here's what I should have said to Jenny: "You're a kind person with a lot of potential, but this role doesn't seem to inspire the hard work and hustle I need to see from a leader on my team. Your program is under-performing, and you haven't responded to suggestions for change. As a result, I've made the decision to let you go ..."

If I'd been kind but direct, she would have understood my motivations. My motivations couldn't have been misrepresented or misinterpreted. Had Komen been clear and direct, their motivations might have been better understood as well.  Clarity and honesty. That's the lesson we learned from last week's debacle.

An often attributed quote says we should never make excuses: friends don't need them, and enemies won't believe them. Next time I let someone go, I'll skip the excuses and speak the truth.

Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional.   

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