This question comes up in many different contexts, and answering it always requires a little judgment.
At law firms, the questions often involve what the partner or the client needs to know. These people are supposed to be kept in the loop, but that task may be trickier than it seems. You want people to be fully informed, but you don’t want to become a pest, constantly alerting people to irrelevant trifles. What’s a person to do?
The answer varies by many things, including the nature of the matter you’re working on, the compulsiveness of the person you’re working with, the degree of trust established between you and the person you’re working with, time pressure, and the like. To the extent it’s possible, though, let’s establish some general rules….
First: There shall be no surprises at public meetings. In a law firm setting, if three firm lawyers are meeting three client representatives, then the three firm lawyers must know all of the important information that the law firm possesses before the meeting starts. You can’t be sitting in front of the client and startle your colleagues with some new, critical piece of information that changes the landscape. Any important information that the law firm knows gets shared in advance.
So, too, in-house. If you have quarterly meetings with the auditors to discuss some set of issues, then all of the client representatives at the meeting should know all important information that the client possesses before the meeting starts. Let’s not be sitting with the auditors when we first alert our colleagues that the billion-dollar acquisition has gone south or the appellate court just reversed the favorable hundred-million-dollar verdict. If you have news, share it with your colleagues privately first; we don’t spring surprises on our colleagues in public.
Second: Your boss shall not be surprised by his boss. For example, if an outraged client will be calling the CEO tomorrow to complain about something, and the CEO will predictably then walk down the hall to ask the general counsel about this issue, speak up now. We should advise the CEO that she’ll likely be receiving the angry call, so the CEO is prepared to field the call appropriately. We should advise the general counsel today, so that when the CEO walks down the hall to investigate, the general counsel is prepared to answer. To the extent that it’s humanly possible, don’t let people above you in the hierarchy be taken by surprise.
Third: Tell people the things they must know to perform their jobs intelligently. I know that’s a mushy standard, but it’s the relevant one. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes; think about what the other person logically must know to do his job effectively; pass along that information promptly. If a law firm knows that a case is going to trial in two months, the client must be told. Within the client’s hierarchy, the head of litigation must know about the trial date. If it’s possible that an adverse judgment will be significant, the general counsel must know about the trial date. If the adverse judgment might be not just significant, but material, then the CFO and CEO must know about the trial date. If an adverse judgment might draw media attention, then you owe a call to someone in public relations. Give people the information they need to do their jobs.
Fourth: If in doubt, share the information. It’s indeed annoying to receive endless e-mails relaying insignificant stuff — so I’m not saying you should pass along insignificant stuff. But if there’s a chance the other person will need the information to do her job, then share the information. It’s a whole lot easier to delete an e-mail that provides unnecessary information than it is to read minds to discern information that you’ve never been told. If your boss thinks you’re providing too much information, your boss will surely speak up. But if your boss flubs his job because you chose not to share some critical piece of information, your boss will likely speak up more quickly and less happily. If in doubt, share the information, until you’re told otherwise.
Those are suggestions for reporting up within a hierarchy. There are also ways to report down (or sideways) intelligently, but mistakes in those directions may not be as career-limiting. In any event, the general rule is always this: Think about what the other guy needs to know; then, provide it.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.