Jerks at Work: How to Deal with Difficult Colleagues
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Stephanie Francis Ward: You probably spend at least 40 hours a week at work, and if you think your job has a toxic work environment, it probably seems much longer than that. So how can you find ways to make your time at work more enjoyable?
I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and that’s what we’re discussing today at the ABA Journal Podcast. Joining me are John Beasley, a Georgia employment lawyer; Tracey Dibble, an Indiana human resources consultant; and Patricia Pippert, a Chicago consultant who specializes in personnel management and development.
First question for all of you I have is, if you work with a lot of people who don’t really enjoy their jobs (and, in fact, maybe you don’t like your job that much either), what can you do to find enjoyment while you’re at work? Patricia, would you like to go first?
Patricia Pippert: Sure. First of all, I guess that I’ve been in that situation before, unfortunately. I think that you can always seek out people who you do enjoy working with, who have something in common with you, finding the commonalities with other people and just trying to spend more time with them. Also, outside of work, they also say, too, that if you can have a hobby that makes you feel good, that sometimes you can take that feeling into the work with you.
John Beasley: Well, Patricia, this is John Beasley. I kind of come at this from a legal perspective and that’s kind of the way I look at most things and how the clients, when they come in and ask me questions, I respond to them from a legal background, obviously. I specialize in employment law.
When you have situations that you don’t like as employees, if you’re non-management, non-supervisors, you do have legal rights under the National Labor Relations Act even if you’re in a non-union setting or a right-to-work state to collectively get together and discuss your work situations and even take those to management without fear of reprisal. Or if you did have some kind of reprisal, you would have a cause of action through the NLRB.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious, John. Have you advised the clients to do that and if so, how did it work out for them?
John Beasley: Many times they come to me after they’ve already had a problem.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Sure.
John Beasley: One of the things I would say to anybody experiencing sort of a toxic work environment is to consult an employment lawyer just because there are so many different employment issues that you want to be aware of. Probably the most important one is if you don’t have a claim, what kinds of situations you might be facing if you are going to raise an issue or report it.
Tracey Dibble: If I could jump in, this is Tracey. I’ve seen more before someone goes to an attorney. I’m in an HR position and I do think that, first of all, you need to figure out why someone is so unhappy, why that person is unhappy. They originally accepted the position because there was something of interest, something they liked about it and my advice is usually to try to find those things that are working well.
A little like Patricia was saying, align yourself with people who do bring you joy from the work that you’re doing and try to problem solve and bring those issues along the lines of what’s wrong with things. Bring those issues to management if you can. See if you can solve the problems. I’m a big believer of not just complaining and bringing up problems, but offering solutions. If you’re going to bring up a problem, have some idea about how to solve that yourself.
Patricia Pippert: Building on that, Tracey, you said that assuming they took that job for a reason, they thought they were going to like it, one also has to figure out maybe they just jumped on the bandwagon for the job because it’s a job, especially in this economy. So in some of the career classes that I teach with people, I know it seems like a luxury sometimes, but do you really analyze what are your values, personally?
What does bring you joy in work? What doesn’t bring you joy? Are you all about wealth or are you about economic security? Those are two different things. Are you about getting a lot of recognition in your job or having a lot of family happiness? Does it need to be family friendly? What are your skills that you really enjoy using and will this job use it?
Sometimes if somebody’s not enjoying themselves at work and they are going to, unfortunately, leave and go elsewhere, let’s analyze what the new job is like and is it going to meet your values and your needs and satisfy those any better than the job you just left?
Tracey Dibble: I agree with that.
John Beasley: Yeah and just to follow up on what both of y’all said, I think one of the things that you don’t want as an employee, you don’t want to find yourself in an isolated situation where you’re the only one complaining, if you can avoid that, because that does tend to backfire.
Patricia Pippert: Yes.
Stephanie Francis Ward: So we talked about what you could do as an employee. What if you’re in management and you have a really unhappy staff? What would you advise them to do? Tracey, do you want to go ahead first?
Tracey Dibble: Sure. We’ve done some different things that involved employee opinion surveys and usually if you protect the anonymity of the participants, they feel very free to express themselves in that forum because you may have some employees who will not speak out no matter how unhappy they are, but you know they’re unhappy.
It will give you a sense of a group and maybe be able to look for trends. Exit interviews are a good way to collect data and collect trends and information that you can then target those problems without maybe singling out any individual. I do think that what you need to look at is, is there a systemic problem in the organization?
Is there a trust issue? Is it a culture issue because there are a lot of employees unhappy or is it the manager themselves? Maybe the manager really isn’t listening to their staff. Maybe that’s it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: How do you get management to actively listen because I would guess that a lot of times when you have an unhappy staff, you also have an unhappy manager?
Tracey Dibble: True. It has to start at the top. I do think that if you don’t have your executive group, your leadership modeling healthy behaviors and creating an open door climate or looking for opportunities to prove that they are trust worthy, that they’re willing to listen, that they will take ideas, if you don’t have that, you can talk all day to the staff and they know that nothing’s going to change, nothing’s going to get done.
You’re right. The manager may be very unhappy, too. If you’re lucky enough to have someone like an internal person present in an organization they can kind of walk that fine line where you’re looking at the employees’ rights and obligations. You’re also looking at protecting the organization.
You’re looking at it legally, but you can also be kind of a consultant to everyone and help them understand each other if you’re in that unique situation. You do have to have some support from leadership in order to even do that.
Patricia Pippert: Can I just jump in? When you asked that question, it reminded me of a situation I was in where I was unhappy and so were a couple of the other staff members, and it had nothing to do with anything systemic or the organization. We all just happened to be going through some things in our own personal lives simultaneously that were making us unhappy and our manager had the decency and the smarts to sit down with each of us individually and said, “I can just comment on what I’ve noticed. I know what you’re normally like when you work and I’ve noticed for some time now. I see that you seem to be unhappy.” She literally said, “And I’d like to know if there’s something that I’m doing that’s contributing to that unhappiness because as a manager, the best way for me to grow is to hear from the people that I manage.”
It turns out that she found out in some cases it was things she had no control over. It was outside. It was personal life. Sometimes it was a little thing at work that she did have control over and that she could fix for the staff. I think a lot of managers are afraid to ask that question because they feel like if it’s outside of their control, I shouldn’t have even asked and opened up that Pandora’s Box to begin with, but sometimes by asking the question privately and individually to each employee, you might find out it’s a simple little thing and you can fix it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: John, what do you think about that in terms of opening up the Pandora’s Box?
John Beasley: I think the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ doesn’t work in an employment setting. The other thing that doesn’t work–and Tracey mentioned this–is singling somebody out for discipline in order to try and create a remedy for the problem in a quick way. That’s a good way to end up in a lawsuit of some kind. Much better is the open door type of policy, engaging in discussion where there’s a real problem. Where there’s a group dynamic problem, mediation can work.
Some companies have mediation programs internally. There’s not that many of those, but I have seen where those can work wonders in trying to bring a solution to a group problem. The alternative is often discipline, which then results in adversarial situations.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Tracey, do you want to add something?
Tracey Dibble: I do. I’m going to piggyback on what Patricia said. She describes a good manager. That’s a skilled manager who’s willing to sit down with their staff and actually say “can you tell me” and, like you said, open the Pandora’s Box. Oftentimes managers, what I’ve seen is they’re afraid to ask those questions because they don’t know what those answers are going to be and they’re sometimes fearful not only that they can’t control what’s happening, but some of them don’t want to know about an employee’s personal life or they’re worried legally that they could get into trouble.
They’re also afraid that it could be them; that they may be the problem and they may be unwilling to really look at themselves and what they can do differently. It takes a sophisticated manager, I think, and someone who is self-aware to be able to listen to that type of feedback. It’s hard for them sometimes to do. It does take a skilled manager, I believe.
Patricia Pippert: Right. It does take somebody with a good strong ego who is not going to have their feelings hurt by hearing that maybe they’re doing something to contribute to the problem.
Tracey Dibble: Right.
John Beasley: I can say if a manager is going to do that, they certainly ought to engage HR because what’s going to happen is you may get some employees that complain of discrimination or complain of other things that fall into a protected category and that is going to need to be addressed.
That’s the point of the open door type of situation is to address those problems and address employee concerns. They shouldn’t be heading off single-handedly to deal with these things. They really need to consult with HR and do this in an open way that doesn’t allow for possibilities of retaliation.
Stephanie Francis Ward: John, I’m curious. When lawyers of the managers at firms or government offices, do you find that they tend to be pretty willing to listen to HR or is it maybe more common a problem that they don’t listen to HR?
John Beasley: It depends how high up in management you’re talking about. If you’re a manager that regularly deals with HR, a lot of the mid- and upper-level managers that come to me, they don’t have a problem with dealing with HR. Employees, the lower level employees, need to be very careful and that’s one of the reasons, I think, that employees need to consult with an attorney before they make complaints or decide on a course of action.
Now, as Tracey said, HR is walking a fine line, but ultimately, if there comes some type of adversarial action, they’re there to protect the company and I’ve rarely seen HR take the other side. Employees need to be very careful.
Stephanie Francis Ward: If you do decide to go to HR, what is the best way to voice your complaint or concern in a way the department will listen to you and also what should you ask yourself before you go? If you’re someone that goes to HR a fair amount with issues that are maybe more personal and nothing is really terrible about it, they’re probably not going to listen to you after a bit, would be my guess.
Tracey Dibble: I would agree with that. I think that if you have someone who is constantly bringing up every little issue like “we don’t like what’s in the lunch room” or frivolous things that are not of significance, it is more difficult to really take them seriously when they really do have an issue. I think credibility is important and HR professionals, we’re human, but we do look at the credibility of the staff member coming to us.
Usually the person who brings something to you who has not complained, they usually bring you the significant things and those are the ones that really you take notice to. You realize that this person doesn’t complain about every little thing. This is something we should look into or, obviously, if it’s anything that is a protected class situation or discrimination situation, you would have an obligation to investigate that right away.
Something that John was saying about employees having to be careful, if I could mention something about that, they do have to be careful; however, not all HR professionals are created equal. I’ve seen some people who are really not very credible in the profession, who don’t really take it seriously and who care a little bit more about their ego, their career, as opposed to doing the right thing.
So I would agree with that statement that John made. You do have to be careful about it; however, there are also some really great people out there, too. You do need to know who you’re bringing it to and you’ll know. You talk to the staff members at any organization, they will tell you. They know whether or not their HR department is one that they can trust, that they can go to, because employees talk and all it takes is a couple of situations that an HR handled credibly, professionally, for that reputation to be established.
If people are not fired without some sort of due process, if they’re not blindsided, if they’re treated fairly, that reputation helps HR and the employees will come and talk to them a little bit more. You do have to be careful about what you bring to them and also how often you’re bringing it. I always ask the question, “Have you talked to the person you’re having the issue with first?” If they haven’t done any of that due diligence, that’s where I send them next. I send them back to try to work it out themselves.
Patricia Pippert: If people want to go running to HR and I think that comes from the baggage we bring to work from our childhoods of when your sibling or some friend did something you didn’t like, what did you do? You ran and tattled. You went and told the teacher, you told a parent and if that sort of conflict resolution strategy worked for you, that’s exactly what people bring into the workplace.
They’re so ready to run to HR or somebody else. That’s the first thing I say, too, Tracey, is “Have you addressed this with the individual that’s causing this and talked about it with them first?” I understand that people are afraid to do that because they might not have been educated in how to give feedback to another individual without hurting feelings and causing more problems. Then, John, maybe it ends up on your desk. I don’t know.
Just something else, Tracey, I want to piggyback and I think you said it earlier, too. When somebody does come to HR with a complaint or an issue, you said to have a solution attached. I think most people who go to HR, the biggest mistake they make is “me, me, me, me, me; I’m having this problem; it’s making my life miserable” and they don’t think in terms of why should HR listen? Why should HR care? How is this impacting either HR or the productivity of the organization or not that employees would understand the legal nature of things, but what is the larger impact to this? Why should HR care about this complaint?
John Beasley: From a legal perspective, there are corporate defenses to claims of discrimination where an employee has not taken advantage of preventative or corrective options.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. You’ve got to make the record.
John Beasley: Or otherwise tried to avoid the harm. The only caveat to going to the person that you have a problem with is if it is something really serious, like a really serious sexual harassment issue or physical confrontation or something like that. That may not be possible. Companies, very few these days, won’t have some type of reporting mechanism or procedure in place and that is incumbent on the employee to take advantage of.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Patricia, let’s go back. You mentioned, both you and Tracey mentioned, usually HR will say, “Have you spoken with the person you’re having an issue with?” What sort of advice do you have for someone to talk to someone they have an issue with in a professional way that doesn’t make things worse, providing of course, it’s not something very serious like what John mentioned?
Patricia Pippert: Exactly. Usually the conversations that I’ve coached people on are somebody missed a deadline or showed up late or looked at you sideways. It’s nothing terribly serious, but it’s making the workplace be, as you said, toxic. I usually coach people to take a look at how we normally give feedback to people.
If left to our own devices, how we’ve been taught to give feedback and it usually starts with the word “you”. You did this. You did that. The index finger is usually pointing at the same time. When I act it out with them and say how would you feel being on the other side of that message, they realize, well, I’d be kind of defensive. I wouldn’t want to hear it that way.
So I teach them how to use what we call “I” messages. The reason you want to give feedback to people is because we’ve had angry thoughts, we had a reaction to what they’ve done. I coach them to say something like “I’m concerned” or “I was frustrated” or “I was upset when I noticed that the deadline was missed or when I noticed that you came in late for the meeting.”
It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever use the word “you”. You just don’t want to lead the sentence or lead the feedback with “you” because it puts people on the defensive. I also tend to coach them on their tone of voice because, again, when people are giving feedback and addressing issues with each other, if all the emotion is coming out, nobody wants to hear that. It could be whiny. It could be complaining. It could be very offensive.
I usually coach them to calm their voice down and calm themselves down, too, and to start with “I”: I’m concerned, I’m frustrated, I’m whatever emotion you’re feeling.
John Beasley: I would say that that probably also translates to emails. I constantly am talking to my clients about the tone of their emails. I think that can create a real problem in the workplace.
Patricia Pippert: You know what I’ve read recently about email, John, is that a lot of us don’t realize that when you send an email, it really is almost like a blank slate and unless you deliberately insert a tone that you want to insert, people will read into it whatever they want. If you want somebody to do something differently–the “pleases” and “thank you” and “can you do me a favor” can go a long way.
John Beasley: That’s a great piece of advice because many of my clients that come to me with work environments that have just gone completely downhill, it a lot of times goes back to the email situation and what someone has interpreted from some email. It becomes very difficult, but that’s great advice, Patricia.
Tracey Dibble: Also, if I could say regarding emails, there’ve been a lot of employee relation situations I’ve handled where an email does become kind of a smoking gun. It’s the thing that is a good thing to have and it’s a good documentation if you really want to document a conversation, but if you’re having a difficult issue with someone, I think that it makes it so much worse to try to solve that via email, particularly by copying other people or blind copying. I am not a fan of blind copying.
Stephanie Francis Ward: That makes people upset when you take it out and show other people, I think.
Tracey Dibble: Absolutely, it’s basically you’re humiliating them or having this difficult conversation in front of someone else or worse. You’re blind copying someone else and then they find out about it. That erodes trust really fast in an organization, I think.
Patricia Pippert: It’s really too bad that the bcc is even there. I teach email etiquette classes–because Bill Gates created it doesn’t mean that we need to use it. The only reason that anybody and it was a law firm actually, John, that convinced me of when to use bcc, is if it’s a blast. If it’s an email blast and everybody is bcc’d. If anybody accidentally replied to all, it would only come back to the original sender, only reason why you should ever, ever, ever use bcc. Because it’s just sneaky, otherwise, I think.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s talk a bit because you’ve all talked a bit about how you can look at yourself and, Patricia, you mentioned the “please” and “thank yous” in emails. If you work at a place where you have colleagues who just really push your buttons and you feel like they’re not being fair, etc., etc., how can you change yourself to get along better with people and just maybe not take things so seriously at work in terms of your colleagues?
Patricia Pippert: Well, those are two different things. How can you fix yourself versus how can you take it not so seriously? My first response was they just have to get over it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: How can you get over it, because that is hard for some people to get over it and move on?
Patricia Pippert: Yes, it is. Well, short of therapy, if I found out that I am the problem, if I start to hear this from enough corners, there’s an old adage that if one person calls you a donkey, it’s just one person’s opinion, but if 50 people call you a donkey, you better start braying and buy yourself a saddle because I think you’re a donkey.
You might if you have a trusted friend somewhere in the organization who you can get feedback from, honest feedback, to tell you what is it, what behavior of yours is making people respond to you in a certain way. Then take a look at that behavior. Not personality, I think you always have to stay away from personality because people can’t change their personalities.
Tracey Dibble: No, they can’t. I agree with that. You can’t change personality, but you can change behavior. I think a lot of the sources of problems in organizations have to do with assumptions. People assume that they know the intentions of someone else when they don’t really know the intentions. I try to get them to focus on what was actually said, what actually happened, not their perception of what happened and a lot of times that’s the source of the problem is the assumptions and perceptions of what’s going on, not what actually happened.
John Beasley: A lot of my job is also trying to prevent people from acting on assumptions in a way that cannot be taken back because going to HR is one thing. That’s one step in that continuum. Going to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a much more challenging and adversarial step and, obviously, filing a lawsuit is more than that. Getting a lawyer involved is sort of below the EEOC step. You really want to be sure before you’re acting on that and you want to be sure of those assumptions and have some evidence that your assumptions are correct before you charge off.
Tracey Dibble: I don’t know that we’ve really answered your question, Stephanie. I know you were asking about helping. That’s because I don’t think you can. What Patricia is saying is true, that you really can’t change someone’s personality, but if you are finding that you are the source of the problem, then you need to change your behavior.
You clearly need to check yourself and I do think that what you said about finding a trusted source, I love that I work with people that I can go to them, close the door and say, “Give me the real scoop here, because this what I’m feeling, this is what I think I’m seeing, but I don’t know for sure. I really need another perspective on this. What can I do better? What can the other person do better?”
You do need people who you can trust and who can give you that feedback, but I think over time, she’s right. If you hear it enough, you know what the real problems are.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. On the other hand, say that you’re someone that you’ve really taken a look at yourself and you realize you know what maybe a lot of these problems are me and I need to change and you really feel that in your heart. How can you convince your colleagues you’ve have a problem with…that you’ve turned over a new leaf and that they can trust you?
Tracey Dibble: I don’t think you can talk about it a whole lot. I think you just start doing it. You just start being trustworthy. You start behaving in a way that is credible. That is the opposite of how you were before and maybe you do preface it with “I know we had XYZ situation. I know I did not handle that well.” You kind of own it. You have to show that you’re responsible for it, but that you regret whatever behavior and that you’re learning from it.
I do think that people are forgiving. In a work situation there’s really nothing worse than someone pretending something didn’t happen because no one’s really going to want to listen to you until you acknowledge, “Yes, that happened. Yes, I made a mistake. Now I’m going to show you.” You just start showing them.
Patricia Pippert: You have to be subtle about it. In one voila change of your behavior, people aren’t going to believe it. They’re going to believe it when they see it the next day and the next day and the next day. In some of my training sessions because I have people who are sent to training, which is never a good thing, but if their manager or whoever has sent them has told them “this is why I’m sending you. I need you to work on such and such behavior,” I recommend to them when you go back to your office, try not to change absolutely everything that you’re doing because you’ll not be able to keep it up.
People will wonder what happened to Tracey. She used to behave this way. She’s 180 degrees from what she used to be. All you have to do are minor little changes to your behavior and something that you think you can keep going and keep doing that behavior and over time people will begin to trust it, even if you’re awkward at trying something differently.
For instance, I had a manager the other day who said, “I just don’t believe in coming in and saying hello to my employees. What does that have to do with anything? Why should that matter?” And we managed, not just me, but everybody else in the class managed to convince them that you set the tone as a manager. When you come in and are friendly in the morning, say hello, that sets the tone for the rest of the day for everybody else and how they’re going to treat each other respectfully.
She finally got the message and said that, yes, indeed she would do that. She said, “But I’m going to feel really awkward doing it.” That’s fine. It’s okay if you’re feeling awkward. Your employees will at least see that you’re trying something new, something different and they will cut you slack because they see that you’re trying to come around to their way of doing things.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s switch gears a tiny bit. I know oftentimes particularly with lawyers you hear about workplace tensions because someone sees someone else as a threat. If you’re seen as a threat, how can you do your job well and perhaps try to get along with that person who sees you as a threat?
Tracey Dibble: If I could jump in, I’ll tell you working in HR is interesting. When you come into an organization, I’ve been in organizations that have had HR presence so there’s already an established culture with regard to the interaction with HR and then I’ve also worked in organizations where there was no HR, but it was needed. There are people who along the lines of what John said earlier that people are comfortable working with HR. They have a relationship. They can trust them.
There are people who do not like working with HR and find it threatening to have that presence there as though we’re going to manage for them. The manager might be intimidated. Will I be managing their staff for them? Am I going to tell them how to do everything? So I’ve been in that situation myself as well as counseled employees with that. It is very tricky.
I tread very lightly and I’m careful with how I assert myself and with what opinions I offer and when I offer them and I say things like would you like some feedback on that meeting or would you like some constructive comments? Are you open to that? I try to set the tone so that they know I’m not there to step on their toes. I’m not there to do their job. I’m there to help them.
Over time, it’s similar to the other question that over time they realize that I’m there as a good resource. When they really need HR, boy, are they glad you’re there for them when you back them up, when you help them through a crisis situation. Then you have a good relationship with them, but it is difficult when someone sees you as a threat because they’re worried about their own responsibilities, their own little kingdom and that you’re going to somehow come in there and take away from that.
So if you can show that you’re not there to be a threat, you’re there to be a help. That’s usually my advice. Just tread carefully with personalities.
John Beasley: Yeah. That’s a good point. A lot of the cases that I have arise out of situations where there are sort of competing threats or people seeing each other as threats. Mostly that happens in a situation where you have a long term employee with significant seniority and then someone new comes in as their supervisor. Maybe it’s somebody they worked with or maybe somebody leapfrogged over them and got the job.
They may not have even wanted the job, but they feel that they have this institutional knowledge, that they want to impart to the new supervisor and they see the supervisor somewhat as a threat to how established operations how things are going forward and how things are done. That’s a concern so they start inserting themselves into the situation.
Then in turn the new supervisor sees this person with seniority as a threat to them and to their ability to prove themselves to upper management. It becomes a very difficult situation and it requires some careful work on both parties. On the part of the one with seniority needs to understand there’s a new sheriff in town and they have some ideas and they have to be very careful with how they interact and how they express feedback or want to offer assistance.
My suggestion is you don’t offer unless you’re asked. Then the supervisor needs to be very, very careful about not unloading on the person and just realizing that they’re stepping into a situation where there is a lot more seniority below them and that could be an advantage to them in performing their job.
Stephanie Francis Ward: John, just generally speaking, what kind of advice do you tend to give people on record keeping at work from an employment law point of view for a plaintiff, I think, if someone is unhappy?
John Beasley: Well, that’s a very touchy situation because all the records within a corporate entity are the corporation’s records. It’s not the individual’s records unless they’re actually given a document for their own personal use. Emails are part of the company records. A personnel file and many employees don’t understand this. Their personnel file is the company’s records.
My advice to employees that have a bad situation is that they keep their own records of what’s going on at work, but not on a company computer, not at work–something that they do when they get home. They write down what happened and keep a record of what’s going on contemporaneously so that if a lawyer needs to look at it or if they need to look back to it, they can, but it doesn’t become company property in doing so.
Patricia Pippert: So it’s not wise for them to take a company email and forward it to their personal home addresses for their documentation?
John Beasley: That’s a gray area because if it’s a personal email that they sent and then they’re sending it home, there’s an argument that that’s perfectly okay; however, I’ve been in situations where employees have been fired for doing that type of thing.
It immediately raises suspicion because the corporate IT person can see that that’s what they’re doing and then the company is concerned that they’re actually sending not maybe some reminder to go to lunch with somebody, but some type of corporate secret or trade secret or confidential information.
It becomes a very serious problem. I would advise people against doing that. If there’s a copy of an email that you sent, print it out and keep the copy, but I think sending things home is kind of a red flag.
Tracey Dibble: I would agree with that, too. I have to say, though, the personnel records or records that I’ve always maintained, nothing goes in those files that an employee has not signed or seen. So if someone came to us and asked me can I have a copy of my employment file or can I have a copy of my last review or my last written warning, they have a right to see that.
I just make a note of whatever copies I make for them. To me, there shouldn’t be anything in there that they haven’t seen. So a supervisor jotting down some derogatory comments about them would not go in that file, unless they’ve actually seen it and signed it.
John Beasley: From the employment attorney’s perspective, when we request personnel files in litigation, we’re requesting personnel files, but we’re also requesting the manager file and the HR file because there’s often multiple files where documents about an employee’s performance will go. Many companies are not quite on the mark as Tracey’s, I’m sure. You do find some unusual things in personnel files.
Tracey Dibble: Yes. In auditing files, I can see some unusual things that I’ve had to remove, like medical records and things like that when I come across them, but, you’re right. I have a very thick employee relations file when I’m working for an organization that I have all kinds of notes in there just about someone coming to talk to me and what we discussed and what the issue was and the date and that certainly could be used for further progression, if there were progressive issues down the road, if need be, I can see why you would ask for those.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I have a question for all of you. In your experience what personality types tend to be the happiest at work? Patricia, would you like to take that first?
Patricia Pippert: Well, my personality type, of course. Are you talking about the four specifically from a Myers Briggs or from a DiSC perspective or are you thinking about–?
Stephanie Francis Ward: Maybe a better way to phrase it is, what are some ways of dealing with people’s outlook on life that tends to create folks who are more happy at work than others?
Patricia Pippert: Okay. My opinion is I think people who like the people element of things and who realize that, yes, we’re here to do a job, I get it, but we can also have fun doing a job and we can do it as a team. Perhaps you could call those people the kind of people who have “the glass is half full” mentality as opposed to those who are half empty.
I think any personality style, I guess, that goes to any of the extremes is not going to be happy because they’re going to be either…I can’t remember whether Tracey or John said it. They’re going to be isolated. If they’re an extreme personality type and they think that everybody should be meeting them on their own ground and see the world the way they do as opposed to trying to adapt to other people and how other people have different ways of doing things.
I think that’s the person who’s going to be happiest is the open minded, I can learn from everybody. I don’t know all the completely correct ways to do things. I’m open to learn other ways of doing things. Sort of like back on the playground, who was the kid who was happiest on the playground? The one who could get along with the most kids on the playground.
Tracey Dibble: I would agree with that. I think also those who are less interested in drama, those who are more interested in goals, who are goal oriented and yet they are the kind of middle-of-the-road people who do see the glass as half full. I would agree that optimists tend to be happier at work because they don’t take themselves so seriously and they also tend to be involved with many other things other than just work.
When I see an employee whose work is everything for them, they worry me because it’s too extreme. They tend to take things very personally. They get very upset very quickly. They’re the ones who are coming to you saying “this isn’t right” or “that’s not right” and they tend to not be getting along with everyone because it’s everything for them. They don’t have a good perspective.
It seems to be those who have a middle-of-the-road perspective and a healthier expectation of what work should be for them. That it is a job. It is a career and they can care about it without bringing it and without trying to get everyone to agree with them all the time. Those are those extreme personalities who tend to thrive a little bit on the drama, those who tend to just understand also what’s expected of them.
If the expectations from the organization side are getting to them or a managerial side and they know that they can meet those, those people are also pretty satisfied. I’ve also seen very balanced people get very frustrated and unhappy at work when the organization is not clearly outlining what they’re supposed to be doing. I think that can create unhappiness, too.
Stephanie Francis Ward: John, what do you think?
John Beasley: I think I would agree with both Patricia and Tracey, everything they said about that. I think that certainly the “glass is half full” type of personality does much better. Conspiracy theorists don’t do well, typically. People that believe that other people’s intentions are generally good will get a long much better than those that feel like people are out to get them.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. That’s everything that I have for today. Would anyone like to add anything else?
Patricia Pippert: I guess in terms of getting along with other people and we talked about the adapting and also about looking inside yourself–is there some way that I’m contributing to this as well? I believe very much–and maybe this goes back to your question of what makes people happier–if you want to work well with other people and if you want them to want to work well with you, you’ve really got to be thinking in terms of “what can I do for them” before you’re asking, “What can I get them to do for me?”
They talk about it–networking. They talk about it everywhere. That ask first what you can do for other people before you’re asking what they can do for you. That has seemed to work for me in terms of influencing other people, motivating other people and just making it a more harmonious work environment. Thinking first–what I can do for other folks.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. Thank you all very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
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If you work with bullies, backstabbers and queen (or king) bees, work can make you crazy. But it doesn’t have to, and employees might find the best solutions by first looking at themselves, say employment experts. Hear them share their thoughts with ABA Journal podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward.
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In This Podcast:
John F. Beasley Jr.
John F. Beasley Jr. is an employment lawyer in Watkinsville, Ga., is a past president of the Georgia National Employment Lawyers Association. Currently, he co-chairs the employee rights and responsibilities committee of the American Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section.
Tracey I. Dibble
Tracey I. Dibble is a human resources professional. Her industry experience includes education, insurance, brokerage, banking, home healthcare and youth services.
Patricia Pippert, is president of P2 Enterprises, a Chicago-headquartered group that provides corporate training. Pippert, who has a master’s degree in organizational management, often focuses on personal and management development.