10/20/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

If They Won't Put It in Writing Then Be Afraid

Years ago, I got a call out of the blue. Someone I don't usually work with, in delicate political language, was requesting I do something. Problem was that the request seemed highly inappropriate to me. It wasn't based on any policy or guideline and seemed to be very questionable on both moral and professional grounds. I probed further, to better why the request was being made and the logic supporting the request, but didn't get a reasonable explanation or at a minimum, any way for me to justify what I was being asked to do.

So the conversation moved on to this:

"So, are you going to follow my request or not?"

"Let's be clear, what you are suggesting doesn't follow any existing policy and I think it is simply not appropriate. So, if this is a request, then the answer is no, I will not. If this is an order, then make sure you have the authority to make this order and then send me an email stating exactly what you are telling me to do, so I have a permanent record in case anyone questions why I am taking this action."

That email never arrived. His unwillingness to "put it in writing" was further evidence that he knew his request was inappropriate and he was afraid of any evidence linking him to the idea. Had he gone the step of writing me an email (creating a permanent traceable record), I then would have had to decide what to do -- do I check with another authority, do I follow his written instructions or do I continue to ignore?

The two key points I was reminded of by this incident were:

1) Documentation has power. Creating an audit trail when someone tries to lead you down a shady path is always a good idea.

2) Whenever someone is afraid to put something in writing, be afraid, be very afraid. Without a written record, you are 100 percent at risk when the person giving the oral, untraceable directions may suddenly find themselves with an acute case of amnesia.

A related behavior is when executives refuse to have email accounts. To me, this is an immediate red flag about the individual and the organization. It is difficult to imagine how anyone can run a division, company, or organization without using email, yet there are still executives who insist on no emails. This behavior always suggests to me someone who is working on a plausible deniability defense, rather than trying to do their job effectively.

As for me, I'll stick to a simple rule of thumb. If someone won't put a questionable instruction in writing and there are no clear policies or guidelines to support that instruction, then I'll let my moral compass guide me.

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