The Rumsfeld Principle in an Employment Context

Rumsfeld Principle“There are known knowns, there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns;  that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we do not know.”

United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

This statement was made by Rumsfeld on 12 February 2002 at a press briefing in relation to the lack of evidence linking the Iraqi government with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

The language is a little clumsy, but it is a helpful attempt to describe the process by which you can start to understand an issue that you do not fully understand.  This is often the case in relation to an employment issue, as an HR generalist, or as a manager you often know some of the facts and implications of a situation, but there are often areas which are either totally unknown, or partly unknown.

Thinking about these using the Rumsfeld Principle won’t give you the answers you need, but will start to articulate the questions you need to ask of yourself or others.  These questions will help you prepare the best way to approach your issue.

Looking at the Rumsfeld Principle through the Johari Window

If we consider this principle looking through the Johari window it begins to clarify the point identifying that there is a fourth dimension to consider, the unknown knowns.  This is specialist information that others may have that you do not have that would help your deliberations.  For example:

  • Legal advice in an area that you know exists but do not know the detail, or
  • Practical support for a situation where you have limited experience such as handling a particularly difficult disciplinary:

Rumsfeld Johari

Case Study

A small UK manufacturing operation with a German parent needed to relocate its UK operation as they had outgrown their current premises.

Known knowns:

  • Many of their staff would not want to relocate, but that some would and this would result in some redundancies
  • The company knew they would have to do some consultation with their employees
  • The company needed to be out of their current premises within three months

Known unknowns:

  • They were unsure of the consultation requirements as they had more than 20 employees but they expected less than 20 redundancies
  • They knew that their managers were both reluctant and unskilled in conducting the  consultation meetings
  • You expected some of the employees would be very difficult about the proposals


Unknown knowns:

  • Consultation requirements are clear in the legislation both in terms of how to consult and the timelines needed to be followed but they had no UK HR capability and limited legal knowledge
  • Achieving a completion of the consultation in the three months was going to be very challenging

Unknown unknowns:

  • How the individual employees would react to the news of their impending relocation
  • Changes in the market which would lead to a sharp upturn in sales.

The company knew that they needed to get some advice on the legal implications of their proposed relocation so that they could deal with the Known unknowns and the unknown knowns.  But, in completing this analysis they also, identified they needed some ‘hands-on’ support to ensure that they were able to meet their three month deadline.

The help they received supported the reluctant managers to conduct the consultation meetings, preparing for most eventualities enabling the company to meet its 3 month deadline.

Applying the Rumsfeld principle does not answer all the questions but it gets you a long way down the road to understanding what you don’t know but need to know in order to deal with your employment issue.  Having the right questions to ask of your legal advisor or your employment consultant will ensure that you get the right type of support that you need at the right time whether it be a site relocation, a disciplinary situation, a grievance or some other issue.

If you would like more information on how to tackle these complex issues, or would like some support to handle a difficult issue, contact Athena Professional on 01926 633086