Confessions of a Recovering Employment Attorney
My Quest to Revolutionize Workplace Culture
I am on a mission to transform workplace culture. After 25 years of being a “Workplace Wolf” (my version of the “fixer” of Pulp Fiction fame), I saw little change. I continued to see company leaders become more and more confused and stressed about creating a culture at work that reduces conflict and increases engagement, loyalty and productivity. I saw company after company and leader after leader doing the same thing — worrying almost exclusively about risk management and legal compliance, all the while losing sight of what actually creates a healthy, inclusive and respectful work environment. It’s time to stop playing not to lose and begin playing to win at work.
The Aha Moment
I’ve conducted thousands of workplace investigations, so I often speak and train on this topic. I recently gave one of these talks to a group of California employment attorneys. I drove to the conference hotel and as I approached the parking roundabout, a polite valet asked why the sponsoring organization was a “bar” association and I told him he was surrounded by attorneys who specialize in workplace issues. Without missing a beat he said “oh really…I need to talk with one of you…it’s always good to know a good lawyer to help with work stuff.” I smiled and shrugged off the comment since it’s one I hear almost daily.
Once inside the conference room, I settled into my panelist seat and began guiding participants through recommended practices on how to conduct fair, timely and thorough workplace investigations. I was using a familiar (and real-life) fact-pattern as a backdrop (a CEO accused of having an extra-marital affair with a subordinate, getting away with it for some time but ultimately being exposed when he promoted his mistress to a VP position for which she was unqualified). An attorney in the front row asked whether the person who raised the complaint could be guilty of unlawful defamation. This question threw me for a loop because of how irrelevant and counterintuitive it was — we were here to talk about ways to resolve workplace drama, but this attorney was intent on figuring out ways to create new drama.
As I got back in my car and drove home, I began to think of both encounters and realized that they are two sides of the same coin — the coin that defines workplace culture through the narrow lens of legal compliance. Employees (or employee-side attorneys) too often think that unfair treatment can best (or only) be addressed or solved through a lawsuit. Defense attorneys (or company managers/leaders) refuse to remove their compliance blinders. It’s an issue I think about a lot — our failure to give employees creative and effective ways to recognize, address and resolve perceived unfairness or worse, the idea that turning to an adversarial system is the best answer to solve workplace strife.
A New Beginning
There is a better way. It’s time to redefine the workplace. To start, here are some ways we, employees and managers alike, can begin to revolutionize workplace culture.
· Stop listening to tired legal advice: Legal advice often misses the point entirely. Civil rights laws weren’t enacted to create adversarial relationships at work or to make sure that everyone documents everything. They were enacted to provide one avenue (not the sole avenue) to help create a level playing field for all qualified candidates and employees. Think for a minute how absurd legal advice about the workplace looks when applied in another setting. Imagine Maria Portokalos telling Toula in the scene the night before Toula’s big fat Greek wedding, “you know Toula, the key to a happy marriage is to assume your husband will cheat and lie, so my advice is for you to save all emails and document your conversations with Ian so that when your attorney litigates your divorce, you can take Ian to the cleaners because of all the great evidence you’ve saved.” Crazy, right? So why do we listen to the same silly advice when it comes from an employment attorney? Regardless of the underlying nature of a relationship, when one or both parties enter with a sense of inevitable gloom and doom, the self-fulfilling prophecy cycle kicks in and you can expect to hit the skids faster than Gus Portokalos can whip out a bottle of Windex. Most attorneys give excellent legal advice, but too many rely on fear tactics, fail to take humanity into account and throw common-sense out the window. It is this old, tired and ineffective counsel that you should ignore.
· Embrace new, creative solutions: We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. This is what we’ve been doing in the workplace for decades — emphasizing compliance, paranoia, defensiveness and an “us” versus “them” mentality — and yet the number of lawsuits filed has gone up not down, companies have made little or no gain in terms of diversity, and high-profile harassment scandals have become an almost daily occurrence. Stale solutions haven’t solved the problem, so it’s time for us to embrace new answers and a new workplace language — a language that emphasizes precise communication and smart decision-making. Perhaps most importantly, it will require that we reestablish trust and mutual respect.
· Accept that we are in a brave new world where employees are reclaiming power, and adapt to the new world order: This brave new world is primarily fueled by social media. Through the use of social media, employees are changing the power dynamic and in many ways are reclaiming control of the employment relationship. Think about it, a company’s brand might be forever tarnished not because of a lawsuit but because of a single blog post criticizing not only company culture, but also management’s response to complaints about the culture. And it’s not just blog posts or venting on Facebook or Twitter, employees also routinely review company ratings before accepting a job and often base a decision on whether to join a company on ratings provided about leaders and company culture. Employees are now using these social media tools to effectuate change. Companies must understand and embrace that both talking the talk AND walking the walk as it relates to corporate environment is a vital component to maintaining a positive internal and external brand.
These three steps are only the beginning and I look forward to having others join me in my quest to introduce groundbreaking ways for us to communicate, collaborate and make smart decisions at work.