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Positive interactions: Someone is watching

Positive interactions: Someone is watching

By Thomas P. Godar

Sept. 6, 2002

Thomas Godar
Michael Best
& Friedrich LLP

Each workday, the employees of your organization are watching, listening and responding to interactions that the employer initiates. Most often, those interactions and responses are positive, healthy and support the mission of your organization. However, surprisingly often, through mere miscommunication, failure to understand the implications of your actions, or because of poor supervisory training, confrontation occurs. All too often this takes the route of litigation.

In 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received over 80,000 charges of discrimination nationwide. In that same year, the agency received more than 22,000 charges of retaliation, which is an increase of more than 100 percent from 10 years ago. While a high percentage of these cases never result in substantial verdicts or settlements, some have resulted in verdicts or settlements in millions of dollars. In enforcement actions brought by the EEOC, the agency obtained more than $50 million in monetary relief.

Unions are also watching the employer’s relationship with employees. Employers with unions understand the nearly universal right of represented employees to grieve what they perceive to be inappropriate actions. Those employers without unions should understand that a union organizer is only a telephone call away from one of your unhappy employees, ready to make promises of whatever advantages the organizer will claim come with a union setting and collective bargaining.

So what can be done to stimulate a positive relationship that discourages lawsuits, union intervention or an unhappy employee’s choosing to look for other employment? Listed below is a short checklist to help maintain that positive relationship that is so important between employers and employees:

  1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

    Employers should handle questions honestly. Do not sugar coat difficult news or duck difficult personnel decisions. Announce policy changes. Give employees information on what you expect from them, and then reward or counsel them accordingly.

  2. Pay attention to the details, and do sweat the small stuff.

    Human resources is about details, whether payroll, benefits, returning phone calls, performing evaluations and so forth. An innocent mistake can lead the way to a challenge. Be organized and timely and expect the same of your employees.

  3. No good deed goes unpunished.


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    This does not mean to abandon fairness or positive communications, but do not let some employees "slide" or do favors on occasion, thinking that it will all work out in the end. Employees respect fairness and look at the little favors to some (but not all) employees as arbitrary and a show of favoritism.

  4. Assume the lawsuit or the union is coming.

    Put yourself in the place of the jury and look at how a decis
    ion would be perceived by them, and whether it suggests basic fairness, positive communications or is a potential problem. Think about how a union would use the communication in an arbitration hearing or to motivate your employees to start a union relationship.

  5. Do reference and background checks when the employees begin.

    The problem employee is often a result of failing to take all of the steps necessary to know about the employee, in an appropriate and legal way, during the hiring process. Think through and work through your application and reference-check process critically and strategically. Train your supervisors to spot the winners and those applicants who should work with another organization.

  6. Think before speaking.

    Innocent comments made in jest or without recognizing the ramifications can – and do – come back. There is no such thing as an off the record conversation, and admitting error merely to defuse a situation can later be seen as an admission of liability. And, remember, don’t write anything, including e-mails, if you would not be comfortable showing it to a jury.

This short checklist is hardly the end of the steps needed to ensure a positive relationship with your employees. However, starting with this list can be a terrific way to initiate and maintain communications with your employees and avoid the specter of lawsuits or encouraging third parties to participate in your management.

Thomas Godar can be reached at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP at 608-257-3501.

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