Category Archives: Workplace Issues

Resolving Conflict in Teams: new blog latest addition to

Resolving Conflict in TeamsThe World Directory of ADR Blogs has just added a new entry to its catalog: Resolving Conflict in Teams, published by American conflict resolution specialist Guy Harris, who describes himself as a “recovering engineer”. Guy explains:

I completed both a BS and MS in Chemical Engineering, and I served as a Nuclear trained submarine officer in the US Navy.

As my career progressed through various leadership roles, I began to realize that my biggest problems were with people and not with equipment. So, I started to study and apply “people skills” to get better at my job. I eventually grew to love the study of leadership, communication, and conflict resolution principles. Now, I am a Conflict Resolution Specialist. I specialize in helping teams resolve conflicts so that they can get better results.

On this new blog, Guy shares his insights in posts like “Are You at War or at Peace?“, which describes how your heart affects the way you perceive others in conflict.

Welcome, Guy, to the ADR blogosphere.

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours: organizational behavior expert explains negotiation of i-deals

Negotiating i-dealsIdiosyncratic deals, or i-deals as they are also known, are agreements negotiated between individual employees and employers that benefit both sides. Although such deals give an individual employee a benefit that other, similarly situated employees may not have, these deals are not the products of favoritism, nor are they one-sided, since by definition the organization as well as the individual benefits. I-deals in fact can be an effective way for organizations to motivate individuals and reward job performance.

Denise Rousseau, H. J. Heinz II Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at the H. J. Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, Tepper School of Business, and a nationally recognized expert on the i-deal, gives a series of short video interviews explaining how they work and why they foster innovation, and has some advice to employees on negotiating i-deals for themselves.

Failure to listen leads to racial harassment charge

Failure to listen leads to racial harassment chargeA Purdue University employee and student has been accused of racial harassment simply for reading a book. The book that got Keith Sampson into trouble was the critically acclaimed Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, which surveys Notre Dame and anti-Catholic bigotry during a troubled time in U.S. history.

According to the Freedom for Individual Rights in Education‘s (FIRE) The Torch,

First, a shop steward told Sampson that reading a book about the KKK was like bringing pornography to work (apparently this holds true in his eyes regardless of the context in which a book discusses the KKK, the position it takes, and so on). Likewise, a co-worker who happened to be sitting across the table from Sampson in the break room remarked that she found the KKK offensive. On both occasions, Sampson tried to explain what the book was really about. Both times, the other individual refused to listen.

A few weeks later, Sampson was notified by Marguerite Watkins of the school’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that a co-worker had filed a racial harassment complaint against him for reading the book in the break room. Once again, he attempted to explain the book’s content, but Watkins too had no interest in hearing it.

(Emphasis mine.)

Apart from the significant threat posed by “an over-aggressive application of employment discrimination laws poses for First Amendment rights in the public employment context”, in the words of Concurring Opinions blogger Paul Secunda put it, what is deeply disturbing to me as a dispute resolution professional is the utter failure of anyone to listen to Sampson. Had anyone bothered to do so, any concerns about the subject matter of the book would have been instantly allayed.

A little listening would have meant a very different outcome for everyone involved — including Sampson. Consider how many misunderstandings, the vast majority below the radar and unreported, arise out of the failure to communicate — and how many complaints, lawsuits, and conflicts might be avoided if people assumed less and listened more.

(Hat tip to Concurring Opinions.)

Workplace violence blog committed to making employees safer

Prevent workplace, a web site dedicated to providing resources that help organizations, companies, and agencies create safer workplaces, also publishes Workplace Violence, a blog that delivers news and links to resources for employers and others seeking ways to address and prevent violence at work.

Among the stories covered recently are:

Boys will be boys: gender still an issue for the legal profession

climbing the legal profession ladder still tough for womenI will remember always the pride I felt the day I was sworn in as a member of the bar.

I was the first woman in my family to go to college, to get an advanced degree, and now, to become a lawyer. It was an important achievement for me and for my whole family.

It meant a great deal, this formal commitment to the courts and to the law that courts serve — to become a member of a profession dedicated to principles so lofty that when you speak their names out loud, you can hear the capital letters ring out:

Justice. Liberty. Equality. Rights.

Such is the romanticism of youth.

A week or so after the ceremony, something unexpected happened to crush my youthful idealism.

I can no longer remember what mission the partner who was supervising me had sent me on, but for the first time I walked into a courtroom as a lawyer. I wore a brand-new suit and carried a leather briefcase (also new). I walked past the gleaming wood rail that marked the area where the general public waited, entered the lawyers’ bullpen, and proudly sat down.

A few minutes later, two attorneys, men in their late sixties, approached my row, caught sight of me, and then glared at me. They stood for a moment, and I had the impression that they were about to ask me to move. Instead, they glanced meaningfully at each other and then sat down directly behind me.

They began whispering to each other, just loudly enough that I could hear every word. “It’s an outrage what’s happened to the legal profession. People these days evidently don’t know their place,” said one. “Looks like anyone can be a lawyer these days,” said the other, “they’ve certainly lowered the bar.” There was more along those lines.

Nothing in my law school career had prepared me for that. I had no idea what to do. I could feel my face burning. I felt sick to my stomach. And really, really angry. The attorney sitting next to me rolled his eyes in disgust. “Ignore it,” he whispered, “and don’t let it get to you. Dinosaurs like that are on their way out.”

As it turns out, his prediction was wrong.

Sexism is alive and well and living in the comments section of an article in the ABA Journal’s Law News Now about a woman who contacts an advice columnist to get some help with a toxic workplace — specifically, the law firm that employs her.

Go see for yourself that dinosaurs still walk the earth.

Bursting the bubble: cultivating dissent in the workplace

Cultivating dissentAccording to a recent BusinessWeek poll, 90% of executives and middle managers believe that they perform in the top 10%. (This effect, known as positive illusion bias, is not confined to managers alone: it can be found among drivers confident that their reflexes are superior to those of others on the road, trial attorneys certain that they have the stronger case, and negotiators with an overinflated sense of their own prowess at the table.)

Given how widespread this phenomenon is, and how fallible then our judgment can be about the utility of our ideas and the strength of our abilities, many of us are undoubtedly in need of a little healthy perspective-taking when it comes to the decisions we make.

Just in time comes the latest edition of the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge newsletter with an article on the importance of “Encouraging Dissent in Decision-Making“.

Dissent asks the hard questions, anticipates problems, and prevents mistakes–mistakes which can otherwise prove costly:

Consider the costs to organizations, large and small, when dissent does not or cannot surface: Abjuring rigorous debate about its merits, a youthful president John F. Kennedy essentially rubber-stamped a 1961 plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, resulting in one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy fiascoes in decades. During a 1996 commercial expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, several climbers, including two of the world’s most experienced professionals, died in part because junior team members didn’t speak up when their expert leaders ignored their own core operating principles surrounding safety. In 2003, NASA engineers were reluctant to challenge long-held beliefs that foam strikes incurred during the launch of the space shuttle Columbia posed no risk to its fuselage.

Consider that the next time someone disagrees with you.

(Thanks to Thoughts from a Management Lawyer for the poll results.)

(Photo credit: Javier Taboada.)

Special Labor Day edition of Blawg Review covers history of American labor

Blawg Review salutes Labor DayLabor Day here in the United States is associated far more with back-to-school sales, political campaigning, and backyard barbecues than it is with its original purpose–a day to honor workers.

This week’s Blawg Review, the weekly review of legal blogging, pays homage to the roots of Labor Day in an epic style befitting its theme. Host George Lenard, an employment lawyer who publishes the eponymous George’s Employment Blawg, recounts the history of American labor, weaving in a week’s worth of blog posts together with personal anecdotes, archival images, and videos, and presents it in 14 parts in Blawg Review #124.

This opus magnum, meticulously assembled and imaginatively constructed, is a true labor of love. It is also perhaps the best presentation of Blawg Review of all time.

Don’t miss it.

The art of demotivation: video captures bad boss behavior

Demotivating bossesThere is probably no greater source of workplace conflict than bad bosses. Why?

Good bosses provide leadership. Bad bosses provide what columnist Dale Dauten, author of the Corporate Curmudgeon, calls “Impedership“–which Dauten defines as “the art of demotivation”–the ability to stifle innovation, stamp out ideas, and discourage success among employees.

In today’s column, Dauten points readers to a brilliant video produced by online training company ej4 that captures all the qualities common to demotivating bosses.

Mandatory arbitration provision violates US National Labor Relations Act

Mandatory arbitration provisions held to violate National Labor Relations ActRoss Runkel in both his arbitration blog and his employment law blog reports this week that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board has held in U-Haul Company of California (NLRB 06/08/2006) (2-1) that a mandatory arbitration policy adopted by a non-union company violates the National Labor Relations Act.

Ross’s analysis of this decision and its limited implications can be found here. Ross points out that this decision does not invalidate U-Haul’s mandatory arbitration policy in it entirety, but only the extent to which it affects NLRB claims.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am no fan of mandatory arbitration provisions in consumer, health care, and employment agreements.

For the reasons why, please read either of these posts: “The company we keep: ADR, tort reform, and the erosion of justice,” and “30 years after the Pound Conference: reflections on ADR and justice in the 21st century“.

For a detailed exploration of the issues associated with mandatory arbitration provisions from the perspective of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the governmental body charged with enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws, please consider the “Policy Statement on Mandatory Binding Arbitration of Employment Discrimination Disputes as a Condition of Employment” issued in 1997. The EEOC, a supporter of voluntary alternative dispute resolution, takes the position that mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements violate the fundamental principles of employment discrimination laws in large part due to the extent to which such policies shield employers from public accountability.

ARCHITECT OR ARSONIST: Using e-mail to build not burn bridges

Use e-mail to build not burn connectionsAs a mediator helping people repair the damage that conflict has done, I have seen the havoc a single e-mail message can wreak. And as a corporate trainer, I have heard supervisors and employees alike complain about the lack of civility in e-mail messages from co-workers.

Paradoxically, e-mail’s advantages are also its shortcomings. The advantages? E-mail instantaneously delivers information and content. The downside? E-mail instantaneously delivers information and content. It is all too easy to blast off the blistering e-mail response that you typed in a ten-fingered fury. And once you hit “send”, there’s nothing you can do to take it all back.

The latest cautionary tale regarding the destruction that e-mail can unleash comes, alas, from the legal world. Lawyers and now this morning’s Boston Globe are buzzing over an e-mail exchange between two Massachusetts attorneys, one an experienced and respected practitioner, the other a newly admitted lawyer who turned down a job offer in a rather ill-advised way.

Despite its tremendous convenience and speed, e-mail is unfortunately no substitute for face-to-face communication, nor is it always an effective medium for dialogue. So, before you hit that “send” button, please consider the following advice from a mediator on how to make the most of e-mail:

It’s the Little Things That Count

One of the most frequent complaints I hear about e-mail is how downright unfriendly they sound. That’s because many people want to keep their e-mail messages short and to the point. That’s fine, but to avoid sounding abrupt, you may want to include the following touches:

  • Start with a greeting–and remember to use the recipient’s name.
  • A little small talk doesn’t hurt. You need only a handful of words to ask how they’re doing or to say you hope they’re well.
  • Provide your contact information and encourage them to call you if there are questions. Remind them that there’s a real human being on the other end.
  • End by signing off–whether it’s “Thank you” or “Take care” or “Very truly yours”, along with your name.

Speaking of “thank you”, words like “please” and “thanks” aren’t just good manners. They can also soften a request (even if that request is actually a direct order) and convey respect and courtesy–which still carry a great deal of weight even in these modern, multi-tasking times. Make your mother proud.

Is E-Mail the Best Way to Handle This?

If you’re about to fire off an angry e-mail, take a moment and think. Is e-mail really the best way to resolve this?

People who are conflict-averse like e-mail a lot because it seems like an ideal way to avoid a face-to-face confrontation. The problem is that e-mail usually makes things worse. Unlike a face-to-face conversation where we can gauge tone of voice, inflection, facial expression, and other cues to divine the real intent behind someone’s words, with e-mail we’re flying blind. It’s easy to make assumptions about what someone meant, and it’s also easy to mistake the impact of our own words.

If the e-mail has raised important issues, your chances of addressing them effectively and meaningfully will be increased if you take courage in both hands and speak directly with the other person. You’ll avoid and prevent misunderstandings if you do.

Get a Second Opinion

If you’re not sure about the tone of an e-mail message, get a second opinion. Have a trusted colleague or friend read it for you and give you their feedback before you send it. Be careful, however: make sure that this colleague or friend will respect your confidentiality. You don’t want your e-mail to be seen by the wrong eyes.

Keep The Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

This is a favorite expression of mediators everywhere, but this is no meaningless platitude. It actually works. Whatever you do, don’t make it personal. Stay away from adjectives that insult the other person’s character, work ethic, or personal habits. Focus on the problem. Explain its impact on you. Ask for a solution. And definitely avoid all caps–YOU DON’T WANT TO LOOK AS IF YOU’RE SHOUTING, DO YOU?

Think About the Long Term

Right now you’re angry. And undoubtedly it would feel good to e-mail exactly what’s in your heart. For maybe about 30 seconds.

But our actions hold consequences not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. I was struck by something the older and more experienced lawyer said in one of his e-mail messages to the young attorney: “You need to realize that this is a very small legal community…”

That wasn’t a threat–it was the truth. It was a reminder to her of how small the world is. Everything we do builds a bridge between us and someone else, or burns one down. You can be either an architect or an arsonist, it’s your choice.

In the end, relationships really do matter. And how we conduct ourselves in life has impact, when we are all in fact so closely linked. Before you send that e-mail, think about what it may mean for you years down the road. Will sending it mean the end of a business relationship? A friendship sabotaged? Is it really worth it? What’s the big picture? And what can you do instead that will make a positive difference for your future?

The You of Tomorrow will thank you.

And, for further reading, I recommend “How to Be a Mensch“, by Guy Kawasaki. (See also his terrific post on “The Effective Emailer“–with thanks to Jim Calloway for the link.)