Workplace Wisdom: 4 True Tales and Tips for HR and Managers

By Christina Folz Nov 9, 2016
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Like priests and therapists, employment attorneys will hear just about everything over the course of their careers. They are privy to all manner of human tragedy, triumph—and stupidity. The best of them will turn their knowledge and experience into something deeper: wisdom.

That's what attorney Jathan Janove, who has more than 25 years of experience litigating workplace issues and consulting for companies, has done in his unconventional new management book, Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (Amacom, 2016). The book is refreshingly free of motivational platitudes and vague advice and instead imparts practical wisdom to managers and HR professionals through unforgettable stories of living, breathing—and highly flawed—people.

True Tale #1: Phil was a well-intentioned director of finance who did everything right in communicating his expectations and feedback to his direct report, a staff accountant named Melinda, except for one thing: He didn't listen to what she had to say.

Lesson Learned: Keep track of your "period-to-question-mark" ratio when conversing with employees. If it starts to skew heavily toward statements, make a point of inserting more questions. Also follow the "EAR" method of listening by exploring issues through open-ended questions, acknowledging that you understand and responding to what you learn.

True Tale #2: And then there's the story of Texas Wes, the oil company executive who was great at sharing constructive feedback but who never wanted to document it. ("Ah hate to write," he told Janove.)

Lesson Learned: To improve in this area, Wes borrowed a tip from attorneys who regularly use "opposing counsel confirmation letters"—bulleted summaries of important discussions that can be compiled quickly and easily based on prepared templates. They typically start with "This note summarizes our conversation from this morning" and end with "Please let me know if I haven't captured the information accurately."

True Tale #3: No one will forget Shameless Sheila, the waitress who was fired after stripping down to her underwear in full view of the restaurant's customers. Her boss had confronted her about not being in uniform in time to start her shift, so she changed clothes on the spot. Yet, unbelievably, Sheila wound up getting a settlement from the company because she was able to demonstrate that the restaurant culture constituted a hostile, sexually charged environment.

Lesson Learned: Company leaders made the common mistake of thinking that no harassment complaints meant no problems. Had they paid more attention to the culture in which Sheila had been working, they might have avoided making a settlement payout for an otherwise-appropriate termination.

True Tale #4: While many of Janove's stories are funny, others are sad reminders that workplace reality rarely matches up with the ideal environments described in culture statements or employee handbooks. For example, Janet, a vice president of HR for a large corporation, was inappropriately propositioned by William, a senior operations director at her company, on a business trip. The conversation started with William asking her whether she still had sex with her husband and went downhill quickly. Yet this revelation came to light only after William had voluntarily departed the company, when Janove was counseling Janet in preparation for an anti-harassment training that he was helping her implement.

Lesson Learned: Even knowledge of HR and the law aren't always enough to overcome an employee's reluctance to act on her own behalf for fear of being ostracized or blamed. Janet's experience emphasizes the critical importance of making sure a company's approach to harassment goes beyond annual training to working daily to institute a culture in which everyone, including those in HR, feels completely safe coming forward.

HR Magazine shares more of Janove's tales in "5 Wacky Termination Cases and Their Lessons" and "True Tales from the Trenches," includes an audio interview with Janove.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

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