Category Archives: Workplace

Safetyism Won’t Fly in the Workplace


I must be getting older, because my first reaction when I read about “safetyism” was that no one ever bothered to make me feel safe when I was in college. In fact, I expected my professors and campus organizations and speakers to push me in ways that would cause me to think differently than when I started college as a seventeen-year-old freshman—and I expected that I would be uncomfortable with some of the ideas I heard. I could control some of my discomfort by choosing certain courses and programs and events over others, but I didn’t expect to have total control. Sometimes I stayed away from campus events because I didn’t want to hear what was being said. Other times I went to events, even when I didn’t think I’d agree with the speaker—I went because I wanted to learn something.

But apparently, many college students these days do not view college the same way I did.

Coddling of the American Mind coverIn The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the growing trend on campuses to make the environment ‘safe’ from threatening ideas. After growing up with helicopter parents and participating only in supervised activities, today’s students are not prepared to cope when confronted with ideas and conduct unlike what they have experienced in the past.

I haven’t read The Coddling of the American Mind, and so this post summarizes the book based on several reviews I have read. My purpose in citing this book is primarily to comment on what it means for the workforce of the future.

The first section of this book explains what the authors believe are three “great untruths” that children are being taught: That pain and discomfort make them weaker; that they should trust their feelings completely; and that the world is composed of a dichotomy of good people and evil people. The book then discusses the authors’ perspective on the historical, social, psychological, and political causes for these untruths. Finally, the authors attempt to offer solutions, such as intellectual humility (no one has all the answers), courage to think independently (pursuing truth wherever it leads), and emotional resilience (handling adversity by controlling your emotions and reactions).

So why is the notion of “safetyism” a relevant topic for a blog focused on corporate and employment issues? Because the college students of today will be employees within just a few years. How will young people who believe that discomfort makes them weaker, who rely on their emotions, and who see the world as a battle between good and evil survive in a corporate environment? I see serious problems when these new adults enter the workplace.

  • If young people cannot deal with emotional pain, how will they react to having their errors pointed out to them? Will they expect to have their every action praised and applauded, whether it was productive or not? How will they respond to bosses who push them to work harder or smarter? What will they do during frank performance discussions? How will they handle merit pay decisions when they don’t come out on top?
  • If they rely primarily on their own emotions, how will they react to the personality quirks and behavioral foibles of other employees with whom they must work? How will they deal with bosses who rant or make cutting remarks on occasion? How will they cope with budget cuts and other decisions that differ from their preferred courses of action? Like families, workplaces operate best when there is some give and take between the members—not every snappish comment is worth reacting to, and not every decision is all about you.
  • If they see a dichotomy between good and evil, how will they deal with people who think differently than they do? How will they compromise or find the best ideas after sifting through a number of possibilities? How will they interact with coworkers from different backgrounds and cultures than their own? How will they learn that the truth is often in the middle, and that people on both sides of a controversy can have developed their opinions rationally?

Keeping children and teens emotionally safe and protected from controversy does not turn them into adults able to speak for themselves. This emotional coddling does not prepare young people to live independently, nor to contribute openly and resiliently in the changing business environment we find ourselves in today.

Trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and avoidance of unpopular viewpoints do not foster strong thinkers. Tolerance of this coddling in the interest of making students feel “safe” is no way to raise the next generation of leaders. We should hope that college campuses where these aspects of “safetyism” are rampant change their approaches to higher education quickly. Because corporations cannot afford to continue the coddling. At some point, young people will have to become adults, which might come as a rude awakening.

What do you think about the culture of “safetyism”?

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Favorite Firing: Discharged for Writing a Religious Book


cute-164323_640As I’ve written before, protecting religious freedom deserves special recognition in American society. (See here and here.) The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .” Thus, religious freedom was the first right protected by the Bill of Rights. The Constitution’s protection of religion was extended to all levels of government in the Fourteenth Amendment.

I’ve been following the case of the former Atlanta Fire Chief who was fired after he published a book about his religious beliefs. See Cochran v. City of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed, Case No, 1:15-CV-0477-LMM (N.D. Ga. December 20, 2017).

THE FACTS: Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran of Atlanta wrote a book entitled Who Told You That You Were Naked? Most of the book explained his thoughts on helping men become better husbands and fathers. But a few pages discussed his fundamentalist Christian beliefs related to homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. His opinions were certainly politically incorrect and even repugnant to much of American society today. As the District Court later stated, the book contained

“passages identifying those who engage in homosexual and extramarital sex as ‘naked’—or ‘wicked,’ ‘un-Godly’ sinners—whose deaths will be
celebrated.”

Chief Cochran self-published his book and gave copies to a few of his subordinates in the Atlanta Fire Department. One employee took the book to a union official, who took it to the city’s Human Resources Department. Human Resources launched an investigation to determine if Chief Cochran’s views as expressed in the book affected his departmental leadership.

Pending the investigation, Chief Cochran was suspended for 30 days without pay and told that he would need to attend sensitivity training. He says he was told he could not conduct media interviews during his suspension, but the city said he was told not to comment publicly at all. As outlined in the District Court’s opinion, Chief Cochran and members of the Georgia Baptist Convention and others launched a public campaign to get the Chief reinstated.

After his suspension and the city’s investigation, Chief Cochran was fired in January 2015.

There was no indication that Chief Cochran had any performance difficulties in his role as Fire Chief, nor was there any evidence that Chief Cochran had treated any employee or any member of the public with any disrespect or discrimination. However, the city feared that an employee might later allege discrimination and use Cochran’s book as evidence against the city.

After his discharge, Chief Cochran filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and its mayor, alleging violation of his First Amendment free speech rights, retaliation in violation of his freedom of association right, unlawful prior restraint of speech in violation of the First Amendment, violation of his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, and violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.

THE MORAL: Although Chief Cochran’s religious book was at the center of the controversy, the parties disagreed on how they stated its role in his discharge. As the District Court put it:

“Plaintiff contends that he was fired because of his religious speech—which is grounded in conservative Christian principles—in violation of the Constitution, while Defendants contend that he was fired because he did not comply with the City’s pre-clearance rules for outside employment [including publication of the book] and for facilitating a massive public relations campaign against the Mayor and the City. Defendants also contend that Plaintiff’s speech made the City potentially vulnerable to employment discrimination claims and substantial disruption.”

The case came before the District Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. The District Court granted each motion in part.

The District Court went through a lengthy analysis balancing the parties’ interests as required by the Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). Quoting Pickering, the District Court described the standard:

“‘To prevail under this analysis, an employee must show that: (1) the speech involved a matter of public concern; (2) the employee’s free speech interests outweighed the employer’s interest in effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities; and (3) the speech played a substantial part in the adverse employment action.’ Id. If the employee establishes the first three elements, the burden then shifts to the government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence it would have reached the same decision absent the protected speech.”

Using this standard, the District Court found in the city’s favor and against Chief Cochran on several of his claims. The claims on which the city prevailed were Chief Cochran’s First Amendment free speech rights, freedom of association rights, and his claim of viewpoint discrimination. Because Chief Cochran was a supervisor, dissemination of his book in the workplace made it “not unreasonable for the city to fear” his views might cause “public erosion of trust in the fire department.”

The Court found

“In balancing all of the Pickering factors, Plaintiff’s speech caused such an actual and possible disruption that it does not warrant First Amendment
protection in the workplace . . . ”

And because Chief Cochran was an at will employee, the Court also found that his claim that he had been denied due process was not viable— he was subject to dismissal with or without cause.

To be frank, I think the District Court erred in giving so much credence to the disruption in the workplace, much of which was caused by the investigation itself. Also, the Court cited the social media campaign by plaintiff’s allies as evidence of disruption, but the plaintiff should not be held at fault because his situation was controversial in the city of Atlanta.

Although the District Court ruled in part for the city, the opinion also favored Chief Cochran in part, granting summary judgment for Chief Cochran on his prior restraint claim. The Court found that the city’s pre-clearance rules were an unlawful prior restraint and imposed “unbridled discretion” on city employees. Therefore, the Court held that the city’s decision to fire Chief Cochran for disseminating his book without approval “does not pass constitutional muster.” The city had not provided objective standards, and therefore the city could not require its employees to obtain permission before expressing their religious views.

As a result of winning on the prior restraint and unbridled discretion claims, Chief Cochran was eligible to receive his back pay and attorneys’ fees. In October 2018, several months after the District Court’s ruling, the City of Atlanta and Chief Cochran settled the case. In the settlement, Chief Cochran received $1.2 million.

This would have been a cleaner case had the Court recognized Chief Cochran’s religious expression rights more completely, but in the end, this was an expensive lesson for the city. And a good outcome for government employees who choose to express their religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular those beliefs might be.

Public employers should be careful when they restrict the speech and religious expressions of employees. Government employees should not face the chilling effect of possible discharge for expressing their religious opinions—whether in books, on social media, or in person. They should be free to state beliefs on their own time without fear of losing their jobs.

Under the Pickering framework, public employees, particularly those in supervisory positions, need to take care not to interfere with effective and efficient fulfillment of their agency’s responsibilities. But they should feel free to state their beliefs without fear of retribution.

What do you think about the protection of religious expression in the workplace?

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Labor Policy Changes Under the Trump Administration


Most of the news about the Trump Administration in recent days has involved developments arising out of the special counsel’s investigation. But as Labor Day approaches, it is worth examining what the administration has accomplished in the labor arena. Many stories about changes in regulations are getting less media attention than they might have, had we not had daily stories about sensational prosecutions or pleas and inflammatory tweets about Russia’s meddling and campaign finance violations.

Here are a few of the more significant changes in labor policy under President Trump:

DOL seal.pngFair Labor Standards Act: Although the 80-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act remains largely unchanged, the Department of Labor has again started using DOL opinion letters, which the Obama Administration had abolished. Opinion letters provide guidance that employers can rely on for interpretation of the regulations, so returning to this practice is a help. Moreover, many of the Bush Administration opinion letters have been reinstated.

Furthermore, in June 2017 the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama-era interpretation on joint employment. The joint employment interpretation—designed to make large franchisors liable for the practices of independently owned franchisees—was roundly criticized by employers, so the return to the former DOL interpretation of when joint employment arises is a welcome relief for employers.

The Trump Administration has also rolled back rulemaking under the white collar overtime exemption and the tip pooling regulations. In both cases, DOL is now attempting to provide employers with broader exemptions and greater relief from regulation.

Still, any changes to current FLSA regulations are likely to engender future litigation, so even if DOL’s Wage & Hour Division issues favorable changes, employers will have a long time to wait until there is certainty in this area.

Broader Range of Health Plans for Small Businesses: As a result of a Trump executive order seeking to reverse or limit portions of Obamacare that can be addressed by regulation, DOL has proposed letting more small firms and individuals form association health plans (AHPs). Large businesses have the market power to get good discounts from health care providers; the proposal is intended to let small businesses, including self-employed workers, pool their populations to get similar discounts through an AHP. Under this proposal, companies or individuals involved in the same type of business or located in the same region could band together to form AHPs.

Any attempts to broaden access to healthcare insurance should be encouraged, even if they do not satisfy all the benefit coverage requirements or other restrictions of Obamacare. More choice in insurance options will help employers of all sizes attract and retain employees.

Union Negotiations: The Trump Administration has pushed federal agencies with unionized workforces to reopen collective bargaining agreements with their public unions. Agencies have also been directed to move swiftly to fire poor performers. The Administration argues it is trying to streamline costly government bureaucracy and improve accountability of the federal workforce.

As with changes under the FLSA, litigation over these changes is likely. (In fact, on August 25, 2018, just as I was finalizing this post, a district court judge overturned some of the executive orders implementing them.)

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Sup. Ct. June 27, 2018), the Supreme Cout ruled against public unions in a different context (deciding that public employees could not be forced to pay union dues). This decision weakens public unions, and arguably indicates possible Supreme Court support for government efforts to push back against such unions. However, it remains to be seen whether the Court would help the Trump Administration roll back previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

And nothing in Janus changes how the NLRB deals with issues between private employers and their unions, which would be a more helpful area of focus during the next two years of the Trump Administration.

nlrb logoRestrictions on Employee Use of Employer Email: One helpful development for private employers that the Trump Administration has undertaken is that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has invited briefs on whether it should overrule Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB 1050 (2014). The Board held in that case that employees had a presumptive right to use employer email systems on nonworking time for organizing and other protected communications under the National Labor Relations Act.  In Purple Communications, the Board overruled its earlier decisions holding that employers could maintain union-neutral policies regarding permissible uses of their email systems, even if these policies had the incidental effect of limiting use of those systems for union–related communications. Presumably, the NLRB is now considering a return to the holding of those prior cases.

This and other NLRB actions could have far-ranging impact on employers’ efforts to maintain union-free workplaces. However, NLRB policy in recent decades has tended to shift with the party affiliations of the five NLRB members, so whatever the current administration does could once again be overruled.

Application of Religious Freedom Principles to the Workplace: DOL is attempting to make it easier for federal contractors to claim religious beliefs as a defense against anti-LGBTQ discrimination complaints. Recent directives state that the federal government has a duty to protect religious exercise, not to impede it. The Administration has instructed the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) not to condition federal contracts “upon a recipient’s willingness to surrender his [or her] religiously impelled status.” Rather, faith-based organizations should be permitted to compete on a level playing field for federal contracts.

There will be a rulemaking process, so the impact of these directives may not be known for some time.

* * * * *

All in all, there have been some helpful changes at the DOL, the NLRB, and other labor policy-making agencies. However, much of the Obama Administration’s overreach in the labor arena remains in place.

Employers should encourage the current administration and Congress to pursue business-friendly policies designed to keep the economy growing. Perhaps the likelihood of continued media attention on the special prosecutor’s investigation will enable more good regulatory work to move labor laws and policy in directions conducive to business and employment growth.

But employers should also remain mindful of the need to comply with labor laws and regulations currently in effect.

What labor policies would you like to see changed and why?

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What Is the Future of HR—Business Partnership or Employee Engagement?


HR signI wrote last September about the relevance of HR in changing times. Recently, I’ve seen several articles on TLNT.com that caused me to again reflect on the future of HR.

Let’s start with a story from DisruptHR entitled “It’s Not Complicated. HR Is About the People,” dated June 20, 2018. That story presents a video by Andrea Butcher which argues that HR professionals should not necessarily become business partners, if doing so takes them away from focusing on the people. Focusing on the people drives business results, because people are what drive business results.

Then I read another DisruptHR story called “HR’s Job Should Be to Encourage Conflict,” dated June 13, 2018. In that piece, Amanda Ono says that the best employees want to learn and grow . . . and they will only do their best work if they disrupt the status quo. So HR should help them by encouraging conflict in the workplace that will change things. She proposes that HR

“Train people on what healthy conflict means. Train people on how to engage in healthy dialogue.”

This sounds like another way of emphasizing people in the organization, albeit emphasizing top talent that can influence change and improve results.

In another TLNT article, “You Can’t Build a Talent-Driven Organization Without HR,” May 3, 2018, Michelle M. Smith writes that HR is under increasing scrutiny for ineffective talent strategies and lack of a strong business perspective. The thrust of her article is that it is the responsibility of corporate leadership—not just of HR—to be focused on finding and developing top talent, but HR must support them. This, of course, is the gist of HR being a business partner.

“The CHRO [Chief Human Resources Officer] of a talent-driven organization must be a great business person, not just a great people person.”

So which is it? Should future HR leaders focus on the business or the people?

The truth is, you can’t do one without the other.

My heart is in employee relations and in developing a great place to work. But if I ignore the business needs of the organization, it will not be a great place to work. If I only focus on employee engagement, without engaging them in what the business requires, I will not be serving anyone well.

And so says Susan Gallagher, in “Fast Growth Means You Need to Pay Extra Attention to Culture,” June 19, 2018.  She writes:

“Culture is the most critical part of your talent strategy when guiding your employees through the stages of rapid company growth. Keeping your people connected to your company’s core values is essential before, after, and – importantly – during the growth period, which itself challenges your company’s beliefs and behavior.”

Although her focus is on growth, the importance of culture and employee engagement is true wherever a company is in the business cycle. Moreover, Ms. Gallagher says:

“Culture cannot be dictated from the top; it must be integrated into all levels of your management team and down through the rank and file.”

The title of this post—business partnership or employee engagement—doesn’t capture the complexity of the workplace. The right answer is . . . HR must focus on BOTH. It is HR’s role to help the organization’s leaders articulate the connection between employee engagement and business results.

As Susan Gallagher says:

“Put yourself in the shoes of different groups of employees and how they will be affected. Get granular and look at different constituencies of your workforce. . . . you want your people to be as invested in the change as you are and happy about making it happen.”

Now that sounds like a focus on employee engagement AND business partnership.

Which focus do you emphasize? Business partnership or employee engagement?

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Likely Impact of Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision on Employers


wedding-cake-3346747_640Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Sup. Ct. June 4, 2018), is about discrimination in public accommodations, not employment discrimination. Moreover, the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow grounds—the Court ruled against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because the Commission had voiced remarks showing a disdain for religion. The Commission did not act as a neutral decision-maker in the dispute between Jack Phillips, the Christian owner of a bakery, and two gay men who asked Mr. Phillips to make them a wedding cake.

Therefore, it might seem that this case would have little to do with employment cases. However, employers frequently find themselves in the same position as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission—arbitrating disputes between two employees each of whom has a protected status, but whose interests clash. These disputes can relate to race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any other protected status.

Let’s just stick with religion—the primary issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. I once dealt with an employment discrimination claim in which a woman was fired after she repeatedly answered the phone of her retail employer “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . .” Needless to say, the non-Christian customers of this store (as well as many of the Christian customers) were offended to be greeted in this fashion.

At the time, the standard for religious accommodation in employment discrimination cases was whether accommodating the employee’s religious practices resulted in more than a “de minimis” burden on the employer. We successfully argued that offending our customers was more than a “de minimis” burden.

I still think that would be the result today. However, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision makes it clear that religious practices are to be taken seriously.

In the case I described, we talked to the woman’s pastor, who told us (and her) that her church did not require her to answer the phone “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” It’s clear under later precedents, however, that it doesn’t matter what the religious institution says, if the individual holds a sincere belief. Thus, this woman’s firmly held belief that she was called to answer the phone this way gave her protected rights, whether it was part of church doctrine or not.

And if we had belittled her in some way because of her belief or because of how she practiced her religion—as the Supreme Court found that Colorado Civil Rights Commission had belittled the cake baker—we might well have been liable for religious discrimination.

Justice Kennedy said in the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop,

“The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.”

Moreover, the Court focused on how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission treated Mr. Phillips differently than other bakers who refused to make cakes with messages opposing gay marriage—those bakers were allowed to refuse customers with whom they disagreed, while the Commission had required Mr. Phillips to bake a cake supporting an occasion his religious beliefs caused him to oppose.

As Justice Kennedy said,

“these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

This is a tall order, but deference and courtesy on all sides is more likely to lead to a positive outcome than hostility and ridicule.

It is never easy to resolve situations when two protected interests clash. For me, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision reemphasizes the importance of treating all interests with respect. At the end of the day, employers must choose sides, just as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had to choose a side in this case. But all sides in the dispute should be heard and treated with courtesy and tolerance.

It would have been easy for my client to ridicule the employee who answered a business phone with an overtly religious message. But it would have been wrong. Just as it was wrong for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to ridicule Jack Phillips and his beliefs.

When have you had to resolve a situation in which various employees’ protected rights clashed?

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Dealing with Emotions as a Leader


As I’ve described in this blog, I am trained as an attorney and I am an introvert. I have always been focused on facts rather than emotions. As a result, I am not the most sensitive human being on the planet.

While this might have been a strength during most of the years I practiced law, it became a blind spot when I started managing human resources functions, particularly when I managed employee relations, which included quite a bit of employee and manager counseling.

business_fight-300x300

Image from Forbes

Early in my career, while I was still working as an attorney, I came to the realization that emotions are facts. While emotions are not tangible, they are nevertheless real. I had to incorporate the emotions of my clients, those of the parties and witnesses to lawsuits, and even the emotions of my co-counsel, opposing counsel, and the judges I encountered. If I did not successfully handle the emotional aspects of the case, I would not achieve the best result for my client.

Thus, I found myself babysitting (my word for it) witnesses in a major case, so that they were not overwrought by the time they had to testify. I listened to my clients vent when they felt they were being asked to pay too large a settlement, even when it was the rational thing to do. I maintained an even personality as much as I could with opposing counsel to diffuse their rants. I patiently explained the law to obtuse judges over and over again until they finally read the cases I had presented.

Managing my own emotions and those of others I encountered were not fun aspects of the job, but they were essential.

When I became responsible for employee relations, I realized my instincts on how employees would react to policy changes were not well-developed. If we were to communicate effectively why we needed to make these changes, I needed to find people with better instincts than I had. Fortunately, I had a man working for me who had long experience in the organization and who had excellent people skills. I learned very quickly to listen to him.

In fact, many times in my career I found it essential to let people with better skills than I had do their work. My role was to get out of their way and keep others out of their way as well.

It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them. It was about getting the job done the best way we could. And that was another fact, even when it felt emotional.

A couple weeks ago, I read an article on the ever-excellent TLNT.com, “None of Us Are Rational, So Smart Leadership Means Learning to Deal With Emotions,” by Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, dated May 7, 2018. [Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (2018)]

Mr. Hougaard and Ms. Carter say it far better than I can:

“emotions are neither good nor bad. . . . as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it — and whether we want to accept it or not — true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level.

. . .

“. . . If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: You’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. . . .

“If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip.”

Even as an analytical attorney untrained in human psychology, I understood these points intuitively. Thankfully, I was able to adjust my behavior to manage my emotions and those of people around me. Emotions are facts, and I dealt with them.

When have you had to deal with emotional situations at work that were uncomfortable for you?

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Deconstructing Your Grievance Story


Last week I attended the Heartland Mediators Association’s conference featuring Eileen Barker as the speaker. Ms. Barker spoke about forgiveness. In a single post, I can’t do justice to her day-and-a-half seminar about forgiveness. And she only touched on a part of her twelve-step forgiveness process. So I will focus on one step in the process—deconstructing our grievance stories.

As a mediator, an attorney, and a Human Resources professional, I have heard many, many grievance stories over the years. In the legal context, the grievance story takes the form of someone who feels wronged who wants to punish the person or institution that wronged them—whether it be the other person in a car accident, the owner of the premises where they fell, the manager who fired them, or any other situation causing them pain or grief.

ForgivenessWorkbook coverWe all tell stories to find the meaning in what is happening in our lives. According to Ms. Barker, there are three essential elements in a grievance story:

1. The aggrieved individual interprets an event in a personal way, as something intended to impact him or her in a negative way.

2. The aggrieved individual blames someone else for how he or she feels.

3. The aggrieved individual tells a story in which he or she is the victim, powerless to control the situation.

Note that these are my articulations of the three elements. For more, see Ms. Barker’s Forgiveness Workbook: A Step by Step Guide, available here.

Let’s take a workplace example: I’m thinking of a time when I did not get a job I thought I was well- qualified for. The hiring manager told me that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate. I immediately took that statement personally—I interpreted the remark to mean that he believed me unqualified and he would worry about me in the role. I felt mortified to think he thought I was unqualified and shamed that I had even put myself forward for the position. And I blamed him for making me feel that way. Of course, I was the victim—there was nothing I could do to change the situation, because he had the power to decide who to hire.

Deconstructing the story involves changing the three elements of the grievance story:

1. Looking for another way to tell the story so it’s not about the aggrieved individual.

2. Looking for the positive intention in the other person’s action, not blaming them.

3. Turning the story so that the aggrieved individual is the hero, not the victim, to give him or her back the power.

In my example above, I had to re-frame my story to tell myself that the hiring manager was looking for the best person for the job. I had to accept that on paper the other candidate had more experience than I did, even if I believed I was best able to take the job where it needed to go in the future. By retelling the story, I could see the hiring manager’s positive intention—he wanted the best person for the job, even if I disagreed with who that was. And I had to find ways to take back my power. Within a few weeks, I accepted another position that allowed me to grow professionally, even if it wasn’t the position I had first applied for and that I really wanted.

Deconstructing my story took time. I was quickly able to move on from my initial feelings of mortification and shame. But it took a couple of years for me to see the advantages of the situation I’d found myself in and to realize that I grew from the experience and that maybe I was better off than I would have been had I been thrust into the role I’d applied for.

This deconstruction of our stories is part of how we come to forgive. I later reported to this hiring manager and we built a good working relationship. I forgave his unfortunate comment that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate (though obviously, I never forgot it).

When have you told yourself a grievance story about a situation in your life? How did you deconstruct it?

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