A Story Is Worth a Thousand Lectures

Training on employment law should be inspired, not leaden.

By Jathan Janove Jul 1, 2009
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July CoverIn the aftermath of the 1991 Civil Rights Act amendments to Title VII, amendments that substantially increased monetary damages in harassment claims, I jumped on the sexual harassment training bandwagon. Dressed in my three-piece suit, white shirt and red tie, I lectured employees on the perils of sexual harassment, including the potentially ruinous consequences to employer and employee, and the necessity of zero tolerance.

This wasn’t much fun for anyone. Speaking to room after room of sullen faces, I couldn’t tell if I was really deterring offensive workplace behavior. The only thing clear was that I was inspiring more resentment of the legal system. At a program in Utah during 1995, an employee shot up in the middle of the room and shouted, "The United States government is trying to take over our lives!" He continued yelling about this until managers escorted him out.

It didn’t take a great leap to realize that this training wasn’t working, so I adopted a new approach, jettisoning scare-you-straight legal points. I substituted stories illustrating types of behaviors employees should avoid and how they unwittingly get themselves in trouble.

Something amazing happened: Suddenly, the rooms were full of bright eyes.

Discovering that telling stories is an excellent way to train employees about workplace law, I began collecting parables. Soon, I had a story that illustrated how most "sexual harassers" don’t intend to offend, but instead make false assumptions about appropriate behavior.

Business Trip from Hell

Picture this: On a business trip, a senior field service engineer and his younger, more junior female co-worker spent a lot of time together. On the last night, they got drunk and wound up at the hotel in bed with each other.

The morning after presented a stark contrast in perspective. "Randy" perceived himself at the dawn of a wonderful relationship. "Chastity" swore off alcohol.

Because they worked in different states, she was able to deflect his further advances and avoid future trips with him.

The following week, Randy clicked "reply" to an e-mail Chastity had sent about an unrelated issue and returned an explicit message about their night together. Seeing his e-mail reply and quickly realizing it had nothing to do with her business e-mail, Chastity immediately deleted it.

Time passed without incident. Several months later, however, Randy decided to bundle up common repair and maintenance questions he’d answered in various e-mail exchanges and had saved over time. He forwarded this bundle of messages to an extensive group of fellow engineers, managers, trainees and important customers.

Unfortunately, he had not changed the subject line on his earlier reply to Chastity’s e-mail, so that message was included with the batch. Not only did Chastity again see this noxious reminder of a night she wished to forget, she saw that everyone else now knew.

I didn’t learn of this story via a complaint from Chastity, who desperately wanted the whole thing to go away. It came from another female employee whom Randy had propositioned. This message was the final offensive straw leading her to come forward with a claim.

Collecting Stories

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, we often stumble over the truth but then pick ourselves up and continue on. So, instead of picking yourself up and moving on after your next trip-up, collect the anecdote and store it.

Start by identifying the goals of your presentations—what points do you want people to remember or be inspired by? Then, select a golden story nugget for each point.

Personal stories tend to go over best, but adopt someone else’s story if it fits. Ask colleagues about their experiences. You can also create the so-called "hypothetical." If it is realistic enough, it will have impact. And, by making your audience the hypothetical "you" in the story, you can intensify their connections to your message.

Suppose you’re an HR professional tasked with training managers on the do’s and don’ts of dealing with employee health issues. You want to drive home two points:

Don’t pretend to be a doctor.

When an employee discloses a health problem in response to a performance or attendance issue, get HR involved right away.

With a little effort, you should be able to find a story that brings these points to life. Maybe it’s a situation where a supervisor opined with an employee about what her physical and psychological problems were and the employee took strong exception to her boss’s "diagnosis," or a manager who failed to give the HR department timely notice of an employee’s health problems that affected attendance and performance.

Your stories will have greater staying power with managers than a monotonous recounting of the challenges posed by a grab bag of employment laws.

Adding Insult to Injury

When addressing discipline and discharge with management groups, I make a left-brain point that the way an employee is fired becomes a better predictor of whether he’ll sue than the reason he got fired. I point out that managers typically learn this lesson the hard way because of their intuitive, self-protective instinct to avoid exchanges with employees out of fear of hostility. This instinct often leads them down the path they desire to avoid because they fail to communicate directly with an employee when it’s most critical.

Stories I tell to make this point include:

  • A CEO who fired his CFO via e-mail because it was "easier"—even though his subordinate was only four doors down the hall. Picture this: click-send, click-open, click-forward to my attorney.
  • A supervisor who fired an employee by leaving a message on the employee’s home voice mail. The supervisor said she was relieved when the phone rang six times and went to voice mail. Her relief was short-lived, however, because the employee’s humiliation soon got channeled into the legal system. Picture this: "Hey, Daddy, there’s a message you need to listen to."
  • A construction superintendent who "delegated" to a line supervisor firing a 270-pound muscle-bound equipment operator who’d served time for beating up people in bar fights. The employee took the news calmly from the ashen-faced supervisor, who hastily added he was only the messenger, not the decision-maker. Two days later, the employee returned to the worksite and beat the superintendent into the dust. As five employees pulled him off, he screamed at his prostrate victim, "You weren’t man enough to tell me to my face!" After his release from jail, and still angry, the ex-employee filed a claim for race and national origin discrimination.
  • An HR manager who regularly topped off her "We’re letting you go" speech with the admonishment, "Oh, and by the way, if you’re thinking of suing us, good luck: We’ve got the best outside counsel in Los Angeles." As you might imagine, her in-your-face arrogance at a moment of vulnerability inspired a number of fired employees to test just how good that lawyer was.


Once you’ve identified a story to make a point, don’t just report it. Tell it. Recreate it. Lights! Camera! Action! You won’t achieve your presentation objectives unless you bring the story to life.

When speaking on the relationship between consistency, documentation and employment litigation, I often tell about how a client averted what could have been a costly, nasty race discrimination lawsuit. If I simply reported the story, here’s how it might begin:

"Two employees at a company got into a loud argument. One of the employees was black; the other was white. At one point, one employee threatened the other with violence, although no blows were struck. The black employee was fired, while the white employee was reprimanded. A claim of race discrimination ensued."

This account may be efficient for setting the scene, but it’s boring. It’s not likely to capture imaginations or trigger desired regions of training attendees’ brains.

Contrast that with this version:

"A client in Des Moines employs telemarketers. You know these folks aren’t exactly bashful. Two outspoken employees were placed in adjacent workstations. Each booming voice made it hard for the other to hear prospect calls. Resentment built to the point that one snapped, ‘Would you keep it down? I can’t hear a damn thing because of you!’ The recipient took exception and responded in kind. Soon, both telemarketers were standing up, nose to nose, in full-throated throttle, mouths foaming, spit flying. One made a gesture with his hands and said, in his best Clint Eastwood accent, ‘Enough. Let’s take this outside!’ Fortunately, other employees intervened and no punches were thrown.

"Following an investigation, one employee received a reprimand while the other was fired. The reprimanded employee was white. The fired employee was black and had no prior disciplinary history. Managers, HR professionals and just about everyone else in the department were white. While you may not be surprised to learn that a race discrimination claim followed, this may surprise you: Once we had the opportunity to share the employer’s side of the story with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the fired employee’s attorney, the claim quickly and quietly went away. No lawsuit was filed."

Although the second version takes another minute to tell, it makes a difference in getting managers to sit up and take notice. Instead of boring them, you’ll have piqued their curiosity to learn how the company got the whole case dismissed. And that’s when you know they’re really listening and learning.

In this instance, after letting this information sink in, I ask the audience if they can think of a reason other than racial bias to explain why the black employee lost his job while the white employee kept his. From there, we go to the critical points:

  • According to the witnesses, only the black employee threatened violence.
  • The company had a written policy providing that "threats or acts of violence subject employees to immediate termination of employment."
  • Both employees signed an acknowledgment that they’d reviewed and agreed to follow all company policies.
  • Managers properly documented a previous incident involving a threat of violence that resulted in immediate dismissal—and the discharged employee was white.

More than any lecture, this story conveys how imperative it is for managers to understand what distinguishes consistency from inconsistency, what enables them to show the difference, and why acquiring basic documentation skills can help them manage employees more effectively while potentially saving them time, trouble and litigation.

The next time you’re preparing a presentation, ask yourself: What three to five points are most important for attendees to retain? With this list in hand, reflect on stories that can illustrate these points.

You’ll find that incorporating storytelling into your training on employment laws isn’t a chore, but a craft that speaks to employees in a way that really gets their attention.

The author is an attorney with Ater Wynne LLP in Portland, Ore., and author of The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential (Davies-Black Publishing, 2008).

Web Extras

SHRM online sidebar: Sensitive Storytelling

SHRM article: Stories in the Workplace (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Jerks at Work (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: The Arts as a Role Model for Business (SHRM Online Consulting Discipline)

SHRM research article: Making Work Fun: How HR Can (and Should) Take the Lead

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