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The Definitive Guide to Covering Your Ass

Doing the kind of work I do, I’m often asked questions like “Do you know if the changes to were pushed to the live site?” or “Did Timmy get those edits done?”. Hell, even in my own house: “Did [mother-in-law] give [son] a bath?”. Questions to which, most of the time, I don’t have concrete answers. So, I answer in a non-concrete fashion.

It always slays me when people answer categorically “No” or “Yes” to a question when they don’t even know, for a fact, that their answer is correct. Not to get too geeky, but a former coworker of mine once asked another former coworker “Does C# support multiple inheritance?”. The latter coworker, without batting an eye, said “Yes”. He was wrong. (The meaning of the question is unimportant – so don’t spend too much time trying to figure it out – just an example). His problem? He didn’t cover his freakin’ ass.

Granted, his answer didn’t cause $1 million worth of product to be shipped to Singapore when the intended destination is Beijing, but the same principle applies.

It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, how few things we actually *know* to be true at a given moment. If you were to ask me if my wife was at work right now, I’d probably tell you “I believe so” or “As far as I know”. You know why? Because I’m not at the place where she works where I can attest to the fact that she’s there. For all I know, she could be at a bar with her friends – I really don’t know.

That’s the key. Unless you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something is true or false – don’t speak as if you do. Adding the slightest big of ambiguity to how you phrase things can go a long way in covering your ass.

Here are a few tidbits you can use (with their generally-inappropriate counterparts):

When you’re about to say “Yes”, instead say:

  • “As far as I know”
  • “To the best of my knowledge”
  • “I believe so”

The inverse of these statements would also be appropriate when saying “No”.

Some folks might think these types of things would be underhanded or even dishonest. I don’t believe that to be true because, as I said earlier, you shouldn’t state something as fact unless you *know* it to be true. And, chances are, you don’t.

How many of you have ever had DNA tests to confirm that your parents are actually your biological parents? I’m guessing most of you haven’t, but you trust that these people are who they say they are. Heaven knows you were in no shape to remember from whose womb you emerged when you did – these folks just brought you up to believe that they’re your parents.

I realize it’s a hyperbolic example, but it does speak to the relatively minute about of “facts” we possess in our brains. And the last thing you want is to tell your boss “Yes, absolutely” when there’s even the thinnest shred of doubt. Which position would you rather be in – having to explain why you gave a positively wrong answer? Or referring the person asking to another party to corroborate your not-definitive (but wholly truthful) response? Seems like a no-brainer, to me.

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