Cover your ass moves (“CYA”) are everywhere at work. While I firmly believe there are great managers and leaders all over the world, the fact of the matter remains that most people are not actually good at anything managerial — by some estimates, 82 percent of managers end up being the wrong hire. That’s a massively high number. If you went to a business executive and told him (or her, but probably a “him”) that he had an 82 percent failure rate in an aspect of his business, he’d probably spear you through a table like Goldberg or weep openly. But yet, managerial hires operate at an 82 percent failure rate according to actual academic research … and we pretty much do nothing about it except saying “Oh well, that’s the way of the world!” That’s terrifying.
One of the major hallmarks of bad bosses is the cover your ass move. You probably know what this means, but to clarify: you either (a) don’t know how to do something, (b) don’t want to do something, or (c) just generally don’t really want to interact with people. In the process of A, B, or C happening, something goes wrong. A goal isn’t met. The wrong e-mail is sent. A customer is unhappy. An executive is livid. It can be any number of things. Instead of actually dealing with the problem at hand, you find a cover your ass move — either one you set up before the stuff went down, or one you concoct on the fly. You cover your ass and sacrifice someone else. To many people, this is work in a nutshell — and what side of the equation you fall on determines a ton of other things about your life, including “how happy you are” and/or “how much you job-hop and thus get stigmatized by HR professionals down the road.” (Even though you shouldn’t, because job-hopping is pretty much the only way in the modern era to make more money.)
What are some of the biggest cover your ass moves out there? Let’s explore.
Classic cover your ass move: The Temple of Busy
This is an absolute all-timer. Basically, you absolutely cannot be bothered to take on anything new, teach anyone anything, provide any type of context or clarity or guidance, or anything else … because you are completely slammed, inundated, buried, or drowning as is. There is so much fraught with this cover your ass move that it would take me about 172 versions of War and Peace to fully explain it, but we can start with a couple of basics.
Work is supposed to be about the quality of what you get done, but we often focus on the quantity of tasks achieved. That’s a problem. “Quantity” ties to busy, and “busy” does not mean the same thing as “productive.” But … and this is an important “but” here … being busy gives you the same sensation as being high as a motherf’er, so people chase that target. Because I mean, if your job is essentially devoid of meaning aside from task work — as many jobs can be, hence our horrible employee engagement stats — then why wouldn’t you chase a high now and again, legally?
The Temple of Busy has buried so many good ideas, it’s probably impossible to even tabulate. “Sounds great Tim, but I’m racing to my 11:30! No time! Put it in an e-mail?”
When you constantly cover your ass with Temple of Busy, all you do is maintain the status quo in your organization — because it’s task task task task task, and there’s no time for anything new. Or, truly, any long-term strategy coming into play either.
Cover your ass move: E-Mail
I sincerely hope that by this point in workplace evolution, almost everyone realizes that e-mail hasn’t died off yet primarily because it’s a cover your ass move. “Get it in writing, Jill! That’s how you bring down the top dogs!”
I once had a job where I had an e-mail folder in my Inbox called “CYA,” or yes, cover your ass. It was basically e-mails I had gotten from bosses and copies of sent e-mails that I knew had a chance to come up in HR screenings. It’s sad that those jobs exist in the world but you know what? They do. And if you’ve got a chance of being blitz-krieged out the door, you might as well have an e-mail folder entitled Cover Your Ass.
Out of all the tremendously fraught, time-sucking, morale-dropping elements of e-mail, No. 1 might be how big a CYA it is — and how, in reality, it only exists to underscore and reinforce the pre-existing hierarchy of your workplace anyway.
There’s no way around e-mail as a cover your ass move, unfortunately. Stuff in writing > stuff that someone maybe theoretically said to you once. So this one isn’t going anywhere, and managers straight-up love to use it. (You should too!)
Soul-draining cover your ass move: The hiring manager shuffle
This one has boggled my mind since I was 22 and wide-eyed in my first full-time gigs. You have a job opening. The eventual hire will work for a specific person, who is usually “the hiring manager.” Even though this person — the hiring manager — theoretically understands the job he/she needs hired for, and theoretically knows what type of person would be best (neither of those is a guarantee, sadly), he/she still passes the buck to HR.
The claim at this point is always “HR has functional knowledge!” Yes, that’s true to an extent. HR ideally has functional knowledge around legal and procedural issues, but the problem is … most of the initial stages of a hiring process are about (a) filling out online forms and (b) quick, small-talk-driven interviews with mostly pointless questions. There’s no functional knowledge involved there. It’s looking at resumes via forms and asking people “So, tell me about your last few jobs.” That’s basically just the human skill of “communication” or “gaining information about something.”
Plus, HR reps typically have absolutely no knowledge of every department in a business and/or what they need. At one of my last gigs, I had been there about 11 months when the HR lady who did all my early screens asked me to design something for a Christmas party. I was like, “Um, I’m not a designer.” She said, “Oh, I thought you were.” Remember: this is a lady I probably did three phone screens with. Granted it was 11–12 months prior and people forget things, yes, but I mean … what?
This is a cover your ass move for the hiring manager, at base level. They kick it to HR because they feel they’re super busy and important and must focus on their core tasks (i.e. pleasing their boss as if it’s a porn). They also secretly know that if the hire bombs, they can yelp to anyone in sight “Well HR didn’t know what we needed! They screened in the wrong people!” This takes all culpability away from the hiring manager and shoves it down HR’s throat. And in a nutshell, that’s why HR has a hard time “getting a seat at the table.”
Cover your ass move: The consultant hire
This is a variation on the one above. Consultants can bring a tremendous amount of value to a business, and you’d hope they do — because there’s a good chance you’re paying them out the ass.
The rationale for consultants has always been “Well, we’re very busy internally day-to-day” (Rationale A) or “We need a fresh set of eyes on this problem” (Rationale B). Both of those rationales totally ignore the potential value of your actual employees, but let’s gloss that over for now. In reality, the main reason a lot of companies bring in consultants is Rationale C, which is a classic cover your ass move: basically an executive has an idea, but is fearful of being seen as incompetent if the idea tanks, so they bring in a third party and try to get them to propose/drive the idea. Then if the idea tanks, you pay the consultant — so the consultant is happy — but then internally you throw the consultant under 191 trains and buses and claim they “didn’t understand our unique business model.” Then the executive runs to the washroom and wipes his brow while exhaling deeply, because now he realizes his idea would have tanked — but now it tanked and someone else is to blame. Cover your ass 101, baby.
Cover your ass move: The process duck-and-cover
This is maybe my least favorite thing about any job, and that’s a long, long list of different things. Here’s what the “process duck-and-cover” is: essentially, it’s the same deal as hiding behind process. Let’s run through a quick example.
I just lobbed out some process bombs! Now duck and cover, baby!
You have a project due on Thursday. You’ve been trying to get a couple of answers on small aspects of it all week, but other stakeholders are worshiping at the Temple of Busy and you have a few gaps in this project. On Wednesday night, you send the first draft to the stakeholders and note a few gaps, but are quick to underscore that it will all be resolved as the project evolves. You welcome thoughts and feedback on the first steps.
The e-mails start rolling in almost immediately:
- “Why isn’t this in Excel?”
- “If you were concerned about gaps, why didn’t you submit questions through Slack?”
- “The attachments won’t work on mobile!”
Now the entire conversation has become about process. There’s absolutely no logical way to move that conversation back to “the value of the idea” or “how to maximize the project.” We’re going to now discuss process for the next 72 e-mails and 18 days. Process will bury results.
This is a classic cover your ass move, and its reasoning is very logical: ideas and big picture thinking are hard to discuss. First off, they’re often subjective. Second off, in a given org only about 7–10 people max are truly decision-makers, so everyone kinda farts around until one of those 7–10 chimes in.
Process, on the other hand, is very easy to discuss and belabor. It’s also a great way to reinforce hierarchy. This created ‘process for the sake of process,’ which is an additionally classic cover your ass work move.
The process duck-and-cover move basically turns every “idea” into “a rote series of deliverables and check boxes.” In short, it turns potentially creative work into “print and save” work. That’s a nutshell idea why employee engagement stats are so low.
Cover your ass move: Performance improvement plans
Written about this before, so won’t belabor it. Essentially, the second word of “performance improvement plan” is a lie. No one wants to improve your performance once you get on one. They want to get you out the door with the smallest amount of legal repercussion or noise possible. That’s not “good management” or “improving employees.” That’s a cover your ass move. It’s another great example of how we claim HR as a “strategic business partner,” but in reality we just kick them all the crap we don’t want to deal with as we slay revenue dragons upstairs.
What other cover your ass work moves did I miss here? Let me know.
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.