Guide your boss past damaging rumors and unfounded blame

If your department is getting a bad rap, fight the scuttlebutt with concrete goals and evidence of your efforts and workload

Dear Bob ...

Perception is reality -- at least that's what my boss's boss, the IT director, says. And I'm getting a little tired of hearing it.

[ Also on Bob dishes on dealing with other workplace cliches in "How to expose empty office rhetoric -- constructively." | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The situation: Last week we had a couple of hiccups in a system I am responsible for and is the backbone of the company, even though I have zero dollars to spend for maintenance and/or upgrades -- but that's another issue!

This was the first time in six months that we've had any troubles with it. As soon as the incident was brought to my attention, I fixed it, but the delay in getting notified amounted to 4 to 5 hours of downtime. I have monitoring in place and it sends out emails, but all of the system admins (myself included) shut off email notification at night -- so that we can sleep. We amended this situation by getting a smartphone app that rings when a text with a certain phrase comes in.

Now, the IT director is spouting off about how we in IT operations are a complacent bunch of do-nothing, overpriced, worthless employees. Of course, he claims he doesn't feel that way, but that is the perception from the higher-ups (his peers) and we all know: Perception is reality.

He is visiting us in a couple of weeks, and he plans on having a talk with us. Of course, whatever hits the fan will not be evenly distributed.

On top of all of this, we took a major hit in our IT department -- not coincidentally -- about six months ago. We lost about a quarter of our IT staff (a small group before the departures), so the other system administrator and I are handling their jobs, even though one of them is entirely outside our area of responsibility.

I want to tell the IT director that since he is at the level where he hears this perception/reality stuff, it is his responsibility to handle it. I would also like to tell him that I am tired of hearing all these rumors about how horrible we are and to give us some concrete examples instead. Both of these would be career-limiting moves, which I am loathe to take in this job market.

What do you recommend we do? How can we handle this situation?

- Perceiving Reality

Dear Perceiving ...

What should you do? Find a different job in a different organization. Otherwise, do what you can to ride it out until the IT director is replaced by someone less inclined to treat blame as a legitimate expenditure of effort.

If you decide you have to improve your current reality, start with this: For those who view you and your colleagues as complacent shirkers, that perception is part of their reality -- not objective reality, their reality. It also means that their perceptions are part of your reality. In effect, as you've already noted, it's more a marketing problem than anything else.

The safest alternative is for you and your colleagues to keep your heads down, let the IT director have his talk, and figure it will all blow over. It isn't particularly satisfying, but there's something to be said for safety.

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