BLUF: How do you handle your boss asking you a direct question when the answer will be negative about someone else?

The Giving Bad News cast says that you never say anything negative about any other people to your boss. It's also says that you have to be truthful. What happens when the two rules conflict each other?

This recently happened to me and I felt that I didn't have a good way to handle the situation and the cast brushed over it too quickly. In the cast, the example is given when your boss asks "Oh, Robert didn't get it to you again?" you are not supposed to answer "Yes" but instead "Regardless of Robert, I don't have what I'm supposed to have." But what if the boss presses the questions with "I appreciate that and I still need to know, did he give it to you?" There is no honest answer that doesn't throw Robert under the bus.

My situation was similar and the question came as "Who did X?" with "X" being the thing that caused lots of problems. I had already taken responsibility as the one reporting back but my boss still wanted the detail of who actually did the thing that went wrong. I didn't feel I had any way to answer that didn't throw my coworker under the bus. More deflection seemed like it would have just frustrated him. I ultimately answered the question, he is the boss after all.

How could I have handled this differently, answering both honestly and not throwing my teammate under the bus?



Smacquarrie's picture

 There is no good way to answer this. I think you followed the right path on this: deflect, deflect, direct. 

Here is how I have handled this in the past:

I failed to deliver. 

I failed to follow up on this. 

X is the answer to your direct question but it still falls on me to have the correct information/answer. 

I hope this helps you. 


altadel's picture

Mac is right, providing your boss isn't on a hair-trigger. As soon as there was an issue, you need to speak with your coworker: "Hey, the performance of this task (that Coworker handled) is causing these problems (even if you only have a partial list). I report on this project to Boss, and I need to be ready with what is being done to correct the cause, address the effects, and ensure it doesn't repeat. We know he's going to ask about this.  I need to be able to report to Boss that corrective action is underway, so what steps are you taking?"

Then, to Boss, "I am responsible to you for Project X and Task A, as part of that project, is causing these problems. Are you aware of other problems this has caused? We are taking these steps (1, 2, 3,...) to address the cause and effects and to ensure it doesn't recur." 

If he then presses for "who did this", you have to tell him, but that discussion with your coworker is what prevents this from being a case of you throwing him under the bus. We're not guaranteed anonymity in screwups any more than we expect to be ignored for successful hard work (for which credit starts with the IC who performs the work up to the CEO).

Scott Delinger

DiSC: 5137

Chris.Lodge's picture

Honesty is the best policy.

Keep to the facts and tell the truth and there is no problem.
The problem with the comment "Oh, Robert didn't get it to you again?" is the “again” part. One imagines the boss rolling their eyes up as they say this. But I believe the correct answer to this is “yes” or “no”. 
I personally would get very frustrated if somebody replied with "Regardless of Robert, I don't have what I'm supposed to have". I know this; this is why you are sitting there in front of me. I now either let you sort it out yourself, in which case a leave you to get on with it,, or I want to understand more why this had happened, hence the "I appreciate that and I still need to know, did he give it to you?"
There are times to be noble and times when people want you to cut to the chase.