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Let’s Stop Blaming Lawyers For Business Decisions

You’ve heard it before either in the board room, an industry conference or webinar: someone heard from their legal team that they shouldn’t be engaging in some sort of new business activity. The latest version of this has been social media but it has come through the years with various regulatory and technological changes. We heard there were some pretty strong statements made about social media at the SHRM Legislative Conference and this should surprise nobody paying attention. The annual conference SHRM puts on has all of three sessions by my count on social media with only one of those being a progressive use of social media for internal purposes (kudos to Briana Marrah of Parker LePla for that one).

Still, something doesn’t strike me right about blaming the lawyers for this one. It is the easy route. Saying your legal team won’t let you do it is the biggest business cop-out you can give. And honestly, it isn’t an excuse I am willing to accept anymore.

Understanding A Lawyer’s Role

A good lawyer will help you evaluate one thing: the legal risk of a given business action. They can research past case precedents, key decisions and give you the skinny on what has happened in similar situations. They can tell you how you can help yourself setup the best possible legal case for what you want to try to do. This is useful and good.

Now this may be just the lawyers I’ve worked with but I’ve never had a lawyer help me evaluate the business risks associated with a certain decision. So for example, if I’ve had a lawyer look at potentially using Facebook as a recruiting tool, they’ve told me about the risks associated with possible EEO issues but they’ve never told me the risk of having a competitor use Facebook and get higher level talent at a much more reasonable cost.

That’s a serious business risk. One that needs to be weighed against other risks that you’re taking (including the legal ones).

Abdicating The Power Of Decision

So when the lawyer comes back and says that social media is risky to be involved with, business leaders will often abandon their power of discretion and risk evaluation and say it was outlawed by legal. Progressive business people cry foul at the fear mongering lawyers who have set in motion social media bans and have frustrated the lives of many Gen Y employees. Meanwhile, the true danger of such actions are swept under the rug:

Company leadership is often abandoning decision making and are instead adopting the least risky moves suggested by their legal, HR, marketing, accounting and IT teams.

Now all of these departments mean for the best I am sure but business leaders simply aren’t using them correctly. Yes, when you’re accountant says you might have a cash flow problem if you make a business purchase, you should listen. That being said, if it is the right decision to make, you find a way to mortgage some of your future for a chance to make the right decision. When HR says hiring 30 people in two months is going to be next to impossible, you should listen. But if you absolutely need those people, you lean on them and make the impossible happen.

That’s what real leadership is: it is understanding the risks and challenges from different perspectives and pushing forward on the correct broad strategy for your company with those challenges and risks in hand.

A Delay On Killing All Lawyers

When we resort to throwing lawyers under the bus for decisions that company leadership have made, we hold the wrong people responsible for some of the awful business decisions that happen. Of course various teams in your organization are going to tell you about the risks from their interest areas.

Leadership is about defending the lawyers and owning your decisions. It is easy to blame lawyers for a 10 page social media policy but much more difficult to target the people who signed off on the policy at the top (or who earlier abdicated policy generation to their legal team entirely).

What say you?

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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