A WINN REVIEW
One key feature of WINN’s approach is to review books and other materials that cover
workplace issues. At WINN we intend to review motion pictures, television programs and other
materials that help to achieve WINN’s objectives. WINN starts this aspect of the website by
reviewing the book Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You To
Know-And What To Do About It. Though the book is called secrets, the material is often not
secrets per se. Rather; the word secret is used to mean aspects of a workplace informal culture,
and workplace politics. Given the book’s inclusion of the word “secrets” in its title, WINN had
no expectation that the book’s content would represent a balanced treatment of workplace related
issues. WINN expected the book’s contents to be negatively slanted; highlighting what might
sometimes be labeled as pathologies. With this backdrop, WINN starts the review.
Back in 2005 Cynthia Shapiro, a former Vice President of Human Resources for a large,
American corporation wrote a book titled: “Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company
Doesn’t Want you to know—And What To Do About It”. As the title suggests, the book
chronicles some of corporate America’s secrets that, according to Shapiro, executives refuse to
speak about in public. These are secrets that the book implies are present in virtually every,
presumably large corporate culture.
The book’s contents presents information that can be grouped into two broad categories. The
first part is largely about what I am calling corporate sins, and the views executives hold about
employees within corporate cultures that are inward looking. Part two of the book seems to
contain Shapiro’s advice as she debunks commonly held myths. It appears that part 2 of the book
is intended to help people navigate through the corporate communication confusion. Despite a
more upbeat tone in its latter chapters, the book is a damning indictment of corporate American
executives, whom, it is written, operate on a code of conduct that is manipulative, deceitful, and
arguably sinister. By the end of the book, Shapiro’s motive for writing the book becomes clearer.
At first it appears that Shapiro may simply be an opportunist trying to cash in on negative
information about corporate executives. By the end of the book, however, it seems that she has a
genuine desire to change the corporate American culture from which she emerged as a leader and
subsequently a workplace consultant.
The book leaves the impression that corporate executives who, on the one hand, demand honesty
and integrity from employees engage in the polar opposite behavior when behind closed doors.
Shapiro’s treatment of the subject matter seems to suggest that corporate America executives
constructs their employees as the “enemy” armed with the dreaded weapon of “liability”, and
litigation. Executives and managerial actions converge in sinister plot seemingly designed to
insulate the corporation from liability, regardless of the human impacts and costs associated with
doing so. Shapiro paints an awful picture of corporate American executives. Those who are
promoted must necessarily learn to mask their true motives in a set of generalized statements
aimed at protecting the corporation and its bottom line. Employees are warned not to rely too
much on lofty corporate stated values because the bottom line wins out in every contest, or clash
between adherence to lofty values and the bottom line.
Shapiro comes clean and explicitly states that the law useless to save an employee’s job because
“[c]ompanies have learned to protect themselves fiercely from those they feel are out of
alignment with what they value. …..One secret human resource department’s function is to
remove those unwanted employees while legally protecting the company”. “No matter the reason
your company gave you for a lay off, the real reason is most likely that they lost interest in you”,
writes the author. Shapiro tells it all when she writes: “whether written or unwritten, there is
always a list of employees the company wouldn’t mind getting rid of without the potential for
legal complications”, Shapiro confesses. “Several of these things might sound like
retaliation—and they are” “In fact, human resources professionals and executives have been
instructed for years not to tell employee what they have done wrong or what’s cost them their
jobs….So what do you think HR will be more willing to risk: helping an employee understand
what he did wrong so he doesn’t do it again, or protecting their own job security?
…Unfortunately, the very laws designed to protect employees are now exactly what’s keeping
the companies and human resources departments from helping them”
In today’s barrage of confusing corporate messages, it is imperative that you develop the ability
to see things thorough your employer’s eye so you can navigate. Corporate America, by Ms
Shapiro’s account, is filled with hidden agendas and senior personnel super scared of litigation,
lacking backbone or both to be forthright with their employees. She essentially describes
corporate American workplaces as environments in which it is dangerous to do what the
company says, or stay true to stated corporate values when they collide with the bottom line.
What a conundrum and no win situation for employees? There is an open admission that skill
level is not the most important ingredient that factors into how well employees are awarded with
Described as land mines, and “executive sized” mistakes are things such as age discrimination,
and talking to HR about personal, family or confidential matters, including illegal corporate
activities such as reprisal against a sexual harassment complaint. Even filing a workers’
compensation claim, asserting a right to free speech, or alienating gatekeepers fall within the
scope of what is considered “executive-sized mistakes”. In the corporate world in which Ms
Shapiro was trained and her skills honed, work friendships are frequently understood as
dangerous. Being in with the wrong camp is one sure way to get labeled as “the enemy”, and
sharing information about family, marriage and health in the workplace can undo years of
strides, even though it is alleged that companies are said to have short memories.”
Shapiro makes an attempt to unmask, what she calls, corporate myths. One chapter starts out by
openly confessing that, in the American context, “neither maternity leave nor medical leave is
protected”, and that “performance appraisal systems are fundamentally flawed, often not being
about performance at all”. “No one in the company will give you real answers because they are
either using them to test you or the answers are not politically correct”, she writes. Delving
deeper in the third Chapter, we learn that those who get raises are not the ones most deserving,
and that performance scores are not really about performance. On the topic of the rumor mill
Shapiro notes that what matters is whether corporate executives believe the rumor, not whether
the rumor is true. Because employees have little concrete knowledge about their rights, lawsuits
become an expensive proposition that diverts available finance to the fight of legal action.
Those with expense reports are cautioned that it is a secret test to determine loyalty, and frugality
with the company’s finances. Employees are advised to take immediate protective action when a
new boss is assigned by becoming appropriately aligned, or realigned, if necessary. Oh, by the
way, watch the amount of vacation one takes at any given time. Regardless of vacation
entitlement, Shapiro tells that corporate America frowns upon its employees taking any more
One surprising point is that Shapiro makes a link between proper attire and one’s ability to think.
Nothing is too surprising when Shapiro repeats and highlights the importance of dressing for
success, even in an era of when dress codes have been relaxed. She notes that a relaxed dress
code is not license for a “no dress code”. But then she says this: “at work, your dress should
always be conservative. If you can, it should match as closely as possible the style of those at the
top.” Men who dress like a derelict are not only noticed, but judged. “Disheveled clothing gives
the impression of a disheveled thinker”; and in some cases it is a woman’s fashion faux pas in
the workplace that creates a perceived glass ceiling.
Even when addressing secrets to fireproof one’s career, Shapiro says this:”[h]aving become
distrustful of the true motivations of employees, companies now require an act of faith before
they will feel inspired to invest in or specially protect an employee.“
On becoming indispensable, Shapiro suggests that employees protect the corporation’s image as
in the minds of top level management, employees are divided into two categories: 1. those who
work for the company; and 2. those who are the company. The latter category contains the
company cheerleaders who are more indispensible than others. The most successful employees,
we are told, are not those who focus solely on their own work, but those who keep their tasks in
line with what is most important to the company, whatever that might be. One cannot see ahead
with one’s head down into one’s own tasks, nor can one see with her or his heads to high in the
cloud to see what’s staring you in the face. The trick is one of balance.
Shapiro fully acknowledges that promotions can and often exposes the employee to greater risks
of dispensability, noting along the way that many internal promotions fail within the first year
leading either to a demotion, or employment termination. Three factors are advanced to explain
the reason for failures in employee promotions: 1. shifting alliances; 2. unclear expectations; and,
3. Misunderstanding about what being a manager entails. Unfortunately, Shapiro writes, each
time an employee is promoted the stakes and scrutiny get higher, as are the risks, particularly in
newly created positions into which an employee was promoted.
Metaphorically, Shapiro treats the workplace as a “stage” on which high valued employees are
always being tested, even when at a social, work-related events. Learning to spot and respond
appropriately to a secret corporate test separates those who shine from those on the decline.
Recognizing that person change on the way up is always inevitable, Shapiro directs corporate
climbers to protect the transformed self as in a visibly reactive corporate environment questions
may arise to defend, if not explain changes evident in a employee who is climbing the corporate
ladder. These are not innocuous questions, but coded questions designed to test motives. While a
sudden change is often welcoming, it could just as easily viewed and understood with suspicion.
What is Shapiro’s advice to those with a desire to climb the corporate ladder? Be strategic, learn
the game, and model the behaviours of those at the top, including even their image. Remain an
optimist in way corporate matters are viewed, understood and communicated. Optimism is much
more valued that realism, as corporate executives tend to view realist and pessimists as traits of
Shapiro repeats some of the things that professionals working in human resources fields already
know. For instance, she reminds us that ” [h]ow you enter is of critical importance and that
holding on too tight may well impair one’s ability to catch up. The toughness of the management
function is summarized when Shapiro writes: [t]rying to be liked signals you have already lost
On the subject of promotions the author tells us that a promotion is “confidence in ability to
learn, not ability to do”, contrary to the commonly held view, particularly by employees and
inexperienced manager. It is a mistake, once promoted, to broadcast your big ideas. You are not
there to generate your own ideas. Provide, not prove. Offer yourself first to service to everyone
you will need to succeed, especially the new gatekeeper, if there is one. “Holding on too tight
means that you will never catch up”, Shapiro comments. Newly appointed managers are
encouraged to remember the notion of a productivity buffer zone where the company does not
expect the highest level of productivity. It is a manager’s fault if a finished product is not what
was expected. It means that the instructions were not clear.
When you get a promotion at work, it does not mean that you are better than anyone else at the
company. Employees do not work for the management team. Rather, the management team is in
service to the employees. Shapiro advises managers never to think of their positions as laced
with power, otherwise they would have lost the game.
Feedback in order to be effective and team building rather than scary and intense should be
casual, specific and often. And it should be both positive and corrective, leaving the formal
review to being close to a non-event. Focus on the situation, not the person when corrective
action becomes necessary; and give the employee the benefit of the doubt.
Shapiro ends the book with this question that she never does answer, but nevertheless poses:
[w]ithout using the tools we need to access the rewards, why are we working? Instead of
answering the posed question, Shapiro encourages those with a passion for change to press on,
get those promotions and once at the top make the necessary changes. You will never be able to
change corporate American modus operandi, unless it is done from the top. And as she says, “the
world needs strong, caring and intelligent leaders at the top who are not interested in playing the
corporate game”. Without those at the top who are not interested in playing the corporate game,
Shapiro laments out loud: what kind of corporations are we creating for the future?
If Shapiro is correct, corporate key decision makers are not only petty, but outright sadistic
manipulators in the way they deal with employee and their emotions, livelihood and future
employment prospects. From cover to cover, the book presents some interesting facts, which are
really observations, about the corporate world in which trade-offs and perceptions rule career
prospects. While the book covers a range of subject matters, it does reveal how conflicted a
human resources department really is. That the book suggests that human resources departments
often drop the humanness in human resources is chilling. Here are some direct quotes from the
text of the book to support this observation:
“… many employees, believing HR is a friend, have gotten into the dangerous habit of
treating their HR department like a confessional. Disclosing the details of personal
challenges, issues that place them in a less than flattering light, and even how they really
feel about the company or their boss. In the confusion of blurred boundaries, and casual
work environments, it can feel as though you are speaking to an entity separate to the
corporation, a friend and employee advocate. HR is none of those things. HR’s primary
function is not to help employees, it is to protect the company from its employees.” …..
“Most employees believe it’s safe to reveal personal information to HR because it’s all
in confidence. In truth, there is no such thing as true confidentiality in HR.
An HR person is only as good as their ability to protect the company from unwanted
difficulties. No matter how helpful with your issue or problem, if you have unwittingly
said something that made you look like a potential liability, or inconvenience to the
company, you’ve just put your career at risk.
Despite the fact that HR is somewhat of a female dominated occupation Shapiro advises : 1.
Never make a sexual harassment complaint; 2. Never go to HR to resolve a conflict; 3. Don’t file
a worker’s compensation claim; never complain to HR.
Though the contents of the book may reflect an American context, Fortune 500 corporations are,
by definition, global in their reach. What does it say about the state of the corporate executive
culture when a former HR executive can publicly advise never make a sexual harassment
complaint, or file a worker’s compensation claim? Earlier on the in the book Shapiro had stated
the inadequacy of the law to provide protections to employees. Not only is the law ineffective,
but corporate executives seem sinister and retaliate because a sexual harassment complaint does
not make the boss look good. What is the take away from this advice?
One is left to wonder whether any aspect of corporate America has changed in the ten years since
Shapiro’s book. Corporate confidential is a good book to read. It contains useful information for
employees up to the level of mid management. It offers some useful tips on how to navigate
through the “corporate game”, as well as how to become a part of the internal corporate political
charade. If Shapiro is correct then corporate America has much work to do to make workplaces
healthy spaces, and the book’s contents make it clear that there is no one within organizations
that is a champion for the average employee.
Though this is not a book that is super engaging and loaded with new and cutting edge
information, it still contains materials that are useful to remember about corporate American
WINN recommends reading this book if you are not yet at a senior level in your career.