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Dealing with the Fake News Freak-Out


“Nobody knows anything,” said William Goldman, writer of a handful of the most memorable films ever made. The quote has become almost biblical in its concise authority. Now, more than 30 years since its writing, the number of people not knowing anything has increased exponentially. Opinions are paraded as facts, anything inconvenient is labeled as fake and an armchair army of like-minded people are backing you.

What happens when this starts seeping into everyday life and your elderly parent shrieks “fake news” when you gently try persuading him to use his walker? Or your toddler blurts “fake news” when you try making a fact-based case for eating the steamed broccoli? All of which brings us to HR.

You’re responsible for communicating with your workforce regularly. For years you’ve sent emails and newsletters on all the standard topics, all of which were met with the usual degrees of what we’ll politely describe as casual interest. But that’s about to change.

“Fake news!” thunders Richard Wald, responding to a critical performance review.

“Fake news!” wails recently terminated Betsy Johnson, clutching a box of personal effects, as security muscles her into the elevator.

“Fake news!” scoffs an employee in an anonymous reply to a total BS laudatory profile of her supervisor in the online newsletter.

This new “impulse” will make the life of any HR professional infinitely more frustrating. And not just because you’ll be forced to defend the most ridiculous nonsense; you also have to know when fake news really is fake news.

While these examples are a somewhat heightened, satiric take on the pervasiveness of the fake-news problem in our culture, make no mistake: no one — certainly not HR — is safe from charges of fake news. A skeptical or mistrusting employee may not invoke those exact words, but he or she may feel validated — or emboldened — by the current climate to call out something they don’t like or agree with, where in the past these concerns would be aired more cautiously — or perhaps not at all.

The cries of fake news are juxtaposed with long-suppressed and often credible claims of sexual harassment, which we also can expect to see spread to the corporate world. Inevitably, a boss or co-worker will be accused of acting improperly, and it will be dismissed as “fake news.” HR has to redouble its efforts to ensure employees are aware of the proper channels to safely air grievances and, as importantly, be assured they are heard.

There is good news in all of this: HR might have finally stumbled on a way to improve engagement.

“For years we tried everything, from chat rooms to interactive games, and beyond the novelty of the first several weeks … nothing,” lamented a senior HR administrator who asked to go unnamed. “But at least I’m finally getting a response! We may not be operating from the same set of objective facts, but we are engaging!”

Some would call that fake news; I prefer to look at it as progress.

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