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HR Handled Right

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Maybe it’s something in the watercooler. Maybe it’s the glow of the florescent lights. Perhaps it’s the Musak playing softly in the elevator. Whatever the reason, love is in the office.

Almost half of us have been romantically tied to someone from work, and many more would like to find amour in a neighboring cubicle, according to a 2001 study by

A budding romance with a co-worker can really spice up life at the office. But does cupid belong in the workplace?

“You’ve got to be smart about this,” says Pamela Baack, co-author with her husband Donald of The Everything Romance Book. “You have to really think about what you’ve got to lose and what you’ve got to gain.”

It may be difficult to see what there is to lose when diving into a relationship with the love of your life (for real, this time). But in the worst-case scenario a soured romance could damage your professional reputation, cost you your job or result in sexual harassment charges.

Be prepared for office gossip, jealousy, tension and a lack of space, not to mention the possibility you’ll have to keep working with your sweetheart after a breakup.

“Most dating relationships end,” says Joni Johnston, president and CEO of, an interpersonal risk management firm in San Diego, Calif. “Think of the number of people that we date and the number that we end up marrying — the odds are not good.”

That said, sometimes your special someone is worth the risk.

Because you work together, you already have something in common and possibly a shared group of friends. And as we work longer hours, our chances of meeting someone elsewhere decline.

Working with someone before you start dating allows you to find out what he or she is really like in advance — which you can’t do when, say, meeting someone at a bar. And if you like the person enough, shared coffee breaks or lunch hours can be pretty nice.

The study shows workplace relationships have a fairly high success rate — with roughly a quarter of them resulting in either a long-term relationship or marriage.

Follow these guidelines to maintain balance between professionalism and romance:

  • Steer clear of your direct boss or subordinate.

While some office connections may be acceptable, dating the person you report to, or someone who reports to you, is not.

“Not only does this raise the potential for a sexual harassment claim, at the very least it may decrease morale in the department and raise suspicions by co-workers of preferential treatment,” says Kristin Bowl, a spokesperson for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Whether these suspicions are justified or imaginary, they can cause a real career setback.

“Perceptions are everything, and perceptions become reality,” says Dr. Lisa Mainiero, author of Office Romance: Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace. “You almost have to treat the perceptions as facts even if they’re not.”

If you really can’t live without each other, get your reporting relationship changed, either by transferring to another department or switching jobs.

No surprise at all, the most damaging office relationships — for your career and your personal life are extramarital affairs, Mainiero says.

According to her research, dating an unattached peer from another department is the best scenario for office romances.

Peer relationships within a department tend to be accepted by co-workers, but competing for promotions, raises and the boss’s approval can put a strain on a couple.

  • Do a little research.

Find out if your company has policies on dating. It may forbid or strongly discourage relationships between certain people in the company or require you to report the relationship when it begins.

“A lot of employers pretty strongly discourage romances because if there is a breakup or spat it affects everyone else in the office,” says Donald Baack.

Get a sense of the unwritten policies of your company’s corporate culture. Companies with couples in senior positions should be more tolerant of dating among the lower ranks.

Look around you. Are other co-workers dating? How do they handle the situation? Has the relationship affected their careers or their reputations around the office?

  • Proceed with caution

“Try to date someone you’ve had some sort of relationship with as a colleague, so that you trust that person,” Johnston says.

You’ll do yourself a favor by taking things slow. Before the relationship gets serious, be sure both of you have the maturity, judgment and tact to handle a potentially intense emotional experience in a work environment.

Remember, once you enter into a relationship, there are two people contributing to the way you’re perceived in the company. “It doesn’t matter if you’re being professional, if that other person is not it’s still going to impact you,” Johnston says.

If your honey shares intimate information with co-workers or blows up at you in the office, both of you will suffer the consequences.

  • Set some rules.

In Mainiero’s research, she found that couples who had a successful office romance were realistic about the relationship from the very beginning.

She recommends establishing a ‘psychological contract’ as early in the relationship as the first date. Discuss how you’ll handle things at work — whether you’ll tell your close friends or no one at all, whether you will discuss love at the office (don’t) or talk about work on dates, and how you’ll react if the relationship ends.

Laying down ground rules may not be romantic, but will help you keep your work life professional and your social life unburdened by office issues.

  • Don’t lose touch with reality.

“It’s fun to fall in love, but remember that you’ve worked too hard to jeopardize your work reputation by being distracted, missing deadlines and letting your projects suffer,” Bowl says.

Having your darling right there in the same building can make it harder than ever to focus on the task at hand. Don’t lose sight of why you’re both there in the first place — to get your work done.

“The time that you spend flirting or sending your signals at work is obviously time that you’re not working, so it can affect your job performance,” Pamela Baack says.

When Mike Torres first got involved with his girlfriend, they were working together for a software company in Boulder, Co. “We would instant message probably about half the day,” he says.

Maintain friendships with people you don’t work with, and try to enjoy activities away from the office. If work is the epicenter of your social and professional interests, it may be tough to tear yourself away. But if either the relationship or the job falls through, you’ll be glad you have other sources of satisfaction in your life.

  • Be discreet.

Stephanie Sanderson started dating her fiancé while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Philadelphia. They decided to keep the relationship under wraps for fear it wouldn’t be accepted by their managers and co-workers”I didn’t want people to start treating us differently because we were dating,” she says.

But even if you don’t decide to keep the affair top secret, you should refrain from workplace displays of affection. If you seem more interested in affairs of the heart than business affairs, your boss and co-workers will have a hard time taking you seriously.

“You don’t want to be sending each other romantic e-mails while you’re at work; you don’t want to be giving each other little kisses,” says Pamela Baack.

Beware that triggering a bitter reaction from an ex at work raises the stakes of potential retaliation. What might warrant an angry phone call in the outside world could result in harmful rumors or a lack of cooperation from key co-workers taking the other person’s side.

You need to be on your best behavior, and if you do decide to break things off, do so as gently as possible. Don’t — whatever you do — dump one co-worker for another.

“Give yourself a cooling off period,” Johnston says. Launching into a new office romance shortly after another one ends is just begging for embarrassing confrontations, and dating several people in the same company can quickly earn you a bad reputation.

If handled responsibly, an office love affair can be rewarding. Just make sure you weigh the professional risks with the personal rewards of your particular situation before falling head-over-heels.

Worker fears can range from computer monitoring to losing their vacation time. But the big daddy of them all is being laid off. What’s the key to alleviating this, and other, workplace anxieties? Communication.

Getting The Boot
In a recent CareerBuilder poll, 68 percent of the 5,804 respondents reported feeling moderately to completely fearful of being laid off. In today’s economic downturn, this isn’t an unfounded concern. Corporate downsizing, closures, and slowdowns — specifically in the high-tech sector as well as retail and manufacturing segments — have reached an unwelcome high.

Many companies are working hard to thwart layoff anxieties by being as forthright with their workforce as possible. High profile CEOs such as Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina and Compaq’s Michael Capellas have made efforts reassuring employees of their commitment to continually building their companies. While candid communication doesn’t negate the possibility of layoffs, it does signal a willingness to communicate and inform employees as to the status of the company and addresses the changes within the marketplace.

Workplace violence is the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States.

Coincidentally, open communication is also the best approach that an employee can take. By being frank with supervisors, workers can alleviate anxieties and sometimes dispel baseless rumors. This professional approach to a difficult situation ideally allows employees to open the flow of dialogue between workers and management (read: the people who really know what’s going on). Mind your insecurity. You’re less likely to get good feedback from your supervisor if your emotions are getting the better of you. Lastly, by understanding that it could happen and preparing yourself for the emotional and financial pitfalls of a layoff, you may actually halt any internal fears or anxieties that you’re experiencing.

There are a whole host of other concerns plaguing America’s workforce. Some exist in the best and the worst of economic times; others are especially visible during economic downturns.

Many companies are moving divisions or entire workforces to other regions of the United States and around the world due to economic incentives. According to Richard Dacri, founder of HR consulting firm Dacri & Associates, with relocation comes employee fears ranging from moving anxieties to the stressful aspects of a “spouse having to leave a job [and] children having to leave school.” If you’re an employee with a great track record, companies will usually try and place you in another department if relocation isn’t an option for you. Read: if you scratch the company’s back, they’ll scratch yours. Otherwise, dust off the interview suit.

Many workers fear their safety while they’re on the job. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is the second leading cause of “fatal occupational injury in the United States.” The threat is very real for all workers — no one is immune. If stress has gotten to you, or you suspect a co-worker (or a disgruntled ex-employee) is on the edge, speak with human resources or your department supervisor. Awareness and action are often the best protection against a potentially violent situation.

Personal Sacrifice
A common fear: We put in all these hours and sacrifice time with family and friends, for what? Psychologist and CEO of WorkRelationships Dr. Joni Johnston says “The number one fear I observe among employees is that they will have to sacrifice their personal lives (and be chronically overworked) in order to be successful. That they will somehow not be a part of this [company’s] success.”

Feeling overworked and underappreciated is a common concern in today’s workforce. Employees are working 50 to 80 hours a week, while only the top percent of management makes the really big bucks. If your hard work isn’t paying off the way you would like, consider leaving. Is it really worth it to log all those hours without great results? Consider other career options where you’ll see the fruits of your labor.

Other worker concerns are computer monitoring, becoming obsolete, and racial and gender discrimination. While the concerns felt by workers appear to be varied, their remedy is universal: communication. And, if your fears aren’t quelled by the words of company management, take matters into your own hands. Keep your resume fresh and your networking skills polished. In the event your fears are realized, you’ll be ready for action.

Rebecca Firth is a freelance writer and editor, based in California.

Many workers love their bosses and respect them. Of course, not much of that sentiment shows up in On the Job’s mail.

It’s just the conflicts that workers want resolved. How do you cope with the domineering, demanding boss? Or the one who talks about you behind your back? These are the concerns workers are worried about in these queries.

Q. My boss is a poor manager. She talks about her employees, never nicely, to anyone who will listen. She doesn’t support her employees and will leave them out to dry if anyone questions anything she has done. She’s just plain irritating. I have had many bosses and she is just about the worst one I’ve worked for. Any suggestions?

Managers who show no discretion in their comments about their subordinates are among the low lifes of the office world. Dealing with such a person can certainly be unnerving, but two people who regularly advise corporate clients on workplace issues offered a variety of advice to this worker that could be useful.

Deborah Keary, who each month answers hundreds of questions for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, said that if the boss “is just irritating, then you’ll just have to live with it. If she’s gone beyond irritating, then I’d go to the boss’s boss. Of course, that is going to alienate the boss. You may not get anywhere.

“But if there are ethical concerns or if she’s making the environment such that you can’t get your work done, spell this out to the manager,” Keary said.

Keary also said the worker “should suggest a 360-degree evaluation” at the company, a type of work review in which everyone can rate co-workers, subordinates and bosses, as opposed to the more common top-down evaluations that managers do annually at many companies.

“It’s a good way to get feedback, and it can be anonymous,” Keary said.

Joni E. Johnston, a psychologist for WorkRelationships Inc., a Del Mar, Calif., firm that advises clients on employment and legal issues, said that one thing the worker should not do is start other back-stabbing conversations about the boss.

Rather, she said, the worker ought to “document the instructions the boss gives you, so you can show exactly what she asked you to do.”

Johnston also said that some firms “empower employees to go around that person, to human resources, to a mediation system or an ombudsman” to seek some kind of resolution of the conflicts.

Aside from that, however, Johnston said, “I’d be looking for another job. There are many things we can put up with, but trust is a pretty fundamental requirement.”

Q. How do you deal with a boss who won’t leave you alone? I have been to human resources and I have filed complaints, yet she refuses to change. She doesn’t think that I will quit, but what if I threaten to? I know that I’m valuable and she would get in a lot of trouble if I did quit since her boss is aware of her “problems.” Should I threaten to leave? She’s always on my case, micromanages everything.

Threats rarely produce a worker victory in the office, Johnston said.

“It’s a no-win situation,” she said. “Make sure she has another job. Never threaten unless you’re willing to follow through and do it.

“The micromanager needs to feel on top of things,” Johnston said. So the worker ought to “take charge of the micromanager so that [the boss] does know everything that’s going on. Try to negotiate some kind of strict feedback system” to keep the manager abreast of the worker’s progress.

Keary added, “I’d probably sit down with the boss and say, ‘I’d really like to understand your expectations better. If I know that better, then I could complete this work to your satisfaction. If you tell me when it has to be done, then I’ll get it done.’ ”

With that plan in place, Keary said the worker then may be able to fend off the micromanaging boss since both will know what the expectations are.

Q. I have a question about a previous manager who was fired. I had a good working relationship with this manager, but she had problems with higher-ups and was let go for related reasons. Now she has moved on and is having a difficult time finding another job. I am hoping to use her as a reference in the future, but I am worried about using someone with this sort of employment history. Am I worried for nothing?

Both Johnston and Keary said this worker should have no worry about using the deposed manager as a reference.

“If she’s used as a reference,” Keary said, another employer is “not going to ask what her job history is.”

Johnston said, “If the manager can attest to the good work qualities of the worker . . . I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Appropriate Workplace Behavior (Online Training Courses)

What are the Appropriate Workplace Behavior training courses?

The Appropriate Workplace Behavior training courses are online courses designed to teach managers and employees how to effectively behave at work and to help them eliminate workplace behavior that creates legal risks or that disrupts work relationships.

The courses are designed to help employers meet the “good faith effort” required to prevent harassment and discrimination and to help promote and create awareness for safe workplace dating, good communication and effective use of workplace humor.

How will these training courses help your company?

I don’t think I have ever come across a company that had employees who acted appropriately at work 100% of the time. These courses are designed to help employers address the issues associated with inappropriate workplace behavior in a non-threatening and effective way. The course is designed for, and would be effective for all levels of employees and management. These training courses can help bring awareness to issues that most people don’t even realize they have problems with and to encourage employees/managers to be more aware of their comments and actions. The appropriate workplace behavior courses can go a long way to keeping your company out of legal hot water.

What courses are available?

The training series covers a variety of different workplace behavior topics, which are:

  • The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: The Continuum of Workplace Behavior
  • Humor That Works at Work: Effective Humor Guidelines
  • Surviving Office Romance: Safe Dating Strategies
  • Don’t Be Discriminating: Discrimination and the Law
  • Some People Want to Be Sexually Harassed (and other tall tales)
  • How to Say “Knock It Off” and Be Heard-Individual Response Strategies to Offensive Behavior
  • The Buck Stops Here: Managing Offensive Behavior
  • Appropriate WorkPlace Behavior Certificate Series

The Appropriate WorkPlace Behavior Certificate Series consists of seven classes that address the full range of workplace behavior issues. To total time it takes to obtain the certificate is approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours. Each course ranges in length from 15 minutes to 45 minutes.


To go through the entire series of courses the cost is as follows:
Managers: $149.00
Employees: $99.00

To takes the courses individually the price ranges from $19.95 to $39.95 depending on the length of the course.

What I liked about the courses

The length of the courses is perfect. A lot of training courses or seminars you sit through are way too long and lose the interest of the employee/manager about half way through. These training courses offer material that is presented in an easy to read format, with an instructors voice guiding them through and only last about 15 to 45 minutes. I also liked that the instructor addressed the fact that most people are not crazy about training and stated why training is necessary. I think this helps eliminate misconceptions right away.

The courses were also extremely interactive, which also holds the participants attention. Throughout the courses the employee/manager reads scenarios and answers online trivia and quiz questions. These questions do not simply involve the click of an online button; the employee is required to enter an explanation for choosing that answer. The employees/managers are also presented with tips and insight on how to effectively behave at work and on how to implement the training they are receiving into their everyday lives.

I also thought that the set up of the training screen was effective, because it allowed the employee/manager to go through the course at their own pace. The employee/manager could move forward when they were finished with the screen or flip back if they needed to refer to something.

What could be improved?

I thought it would be nice if the employee had a print option for the material that was presented. Some of the tips provided could act as great inspirational quotes that employees could hang up at their desks, or if employees wanted to keep the material for future reference the print outs would come in handy.


As far as online training courses go I think that the Appropriate Workplace Behavior Series is effective and useful. The courses provide information that every company should be teaching their employees. Work Relationships, Inc is providing a valuable resource at a very reasonable cost.

Company information

For over a decade, WorkRelationships has helped companies in Canada, the U.S., Finland, Mexico and New Zealand reduce legal risks and increase profits through effective work relationships.

From harassment/discrimination prevention to interpersonal skills for technical managers, WorkRelationships (858-481-8625) can helps companies eliminate inappropriate workplace behavior and be more effective managers and employees.

Journalist Gail Sheehy once said, “The secret of a leader lies in the tests he has faced and the habits of action he develops to meet those tests.” If true, few industries have given their managers as many opportunities to become leaders as banking ( leadership management ). Banking has gone from an industry that attracts stability-seekers to a revolving door. The combined effects of deregulation, consolidation, and the rapidly advancing technology will continue to redefine the essential skill requirements of bank managers. The bank that transforms its supervisors into interpersonal risk managers will find greater ease at navigating the rapidly changing banking landscape and avoiding the inherent legal and financial risks that go along with it.

Interpersonal Risk Strategy #1: Communicating Through Change

Whether it’s implementing new technology or integrating operations during a merger, bank managers must know how to successfully lead their employees through periods of change. Transitions are a time of high employee stress, uncertainty and fear. This often leads to poor morale, interpersonal conflict, decreased productivity and negative bottom line consequences; in fact, 60 to 75% of all restructurings fail because companies neglect the people factor. Interpersonal risk managers ease their employees’ discomfort during company transitions by:

1) Helping their employees manage stress. One of the most difficult challenges managers face is dealing constructively with stressed-out employees. Stress can easily disrupt work relationships because, when employees are uncertain or overloaded, their communication is driven by an attempt to reduce their discomfort and control the situation rather than responding to the cues, wishes or feelings of others. Interpersonal risk managers minimize the potential havoc this can cause by recognizing stress-induced employee communication patterns and engaging in appropriate crisis leadership management strategies, such as reviewing a workload to make sure it’s manageable or checking to make sure deadlines are realistic. In order to do so, they must have the interpersonal skills to establish internal baselines of their employees’ behavior, implement the unique management techniques required during transitions, and manage their own stress to prevent it from adversely impacting their supervision.

2) Communicating early and often. Managers who communicate clearly, consistently and credibly benefit from lower turnover; lower absenteeism; fewer grievances filed; and better coordination, both inside and outside the organization. During times of uncertainty, interpersonal risk managers articulate a clear vision of the company’s future, including the benefits of change to the bottom line. By creating recognizable milestones for their employees to track, they replace fear with optimism. Interpersonal risk leaders also set benchmarks to measure acceptance of new initiatives, comprehension of key corporate messages and adequacy of their communication efforts. By spending time with their employees, they identify early signs of transition problems such as a significant rise in customer complaints or overt conflicts between employees and departments and take an active role in eliminating them. To accomplish these goals, interpersonal risk managers must have the skill to persuade, motivate, and build trust with their employees .

Interpersonal Risk Strategy #2: Reducing Unnecessary Employment Liability
Employment-related complaints rise in unstable environments. Interpersonal risk managers are leaders in reducing unnecessary legal risks. They know that their actions can be the deciding factor between a satisfactorily resolved internal offensive behavior complaint and a full-fledged lawsuit. As such, they play an active role in reducing unnecessary employment liability by:

1) Understanding their legal responsibilities. Interpersonal risk managers have a clear understanding of harassment/discrimination laws, understand their role in preventing and responding to offensive behavior, and have the skills to respond effectively to offensive behavior complaints. They are also aware of .the influence their position of authority has on the expectations and perceptions of employees and understand that an employee who sees his or her manager engaging in, ignoring, or retaliating against someone who has complained about offensive behavior is more likely to bypass a grievance procedure and seek outside relief. As such, they use their influence to promote effective humor, teambuilding, and ethical decision-making.

2) Taking appropriate action. Interpersonal risk managers address employee problems quickly, fairly and consistently. They skillfully apply the appropriate use of coaching, counseling and discipline to document their leadership management decisions and motivate their employees toward peak performance. They are aware of the legal and practical issues in performance appraisals and intersperse formal reviews with informal feedback.
Interpersonal Risk Management Strategy #3: Investing in Employees

A bank’s competitive edge depends on outstanding customer service. To achieve it, bank managers must give increasing authority to the people who interface with their customers on a daily basis. Interpersonal risk managers understand the direct link between employee satisfaction and customer service and invest in their employees by:

1) Empowering their employees. Interpersonal risk managers give their employees the authority to make customer relations decisions on the spot. They communicate where they want their bank to go and the strategy to use to get there. Then they invest their employees with the freedom within the limits of their business strategy to act on behalf of the company.

2) Focusing on employee retention. Interpersonal risk managers know how to keep their employees. Understanding that 45 percent of all voluntary termination decisions are made during the first 90 days of employment, they put extra effort into their employee orientation to build organizational commitment. They meet with new employees during the first week and conduct new hire check-ins 30 to 60 days after they’ve been on board. They also conduct yearly job satisfaction surveys and get employee input into recognition and reward programs.

The Bottom Line

Most of us are about as eager to change as we were to be born, and go through it in a similar state of shock. Interpersonal risk management leaders help their banks survive transitions by communicating through change, reducing unnecessary employment liability, and investing in their employees. Interpersonal risk management is the skill set that will enable banking managers to transform risks into opportunities and to minimize the legal and financial risks inherent in a shifting workplace. Not only will it measurably increase employee satisfaction, it will raise productivity. Now that’s money you can take to the bank.

Human resource professionals have a lot to be frustrated about. They have to fight the perception that HR should be at the beck and call of all employees, and juggle roles as diverse as coach and counselor. If that’s not enough, he or she must also be the organizational or interpersonal safety net when there are breakdowns. It’s enough to justify blowing off steam every once in a while.

The problem, of course, is that HR can’t afford to lose its cool, particularly in the heat of employee conflict. Much of human resources’ role in preventing employment lawsuits, for example, rides on their ability to remain calm when dealing with the most difficult or misguided employee. To help you keep your cool, you can use self-regulating strategies in the heat of interpersonal employee conflict to keep your calm and help boost HR’s credibility.

The attribution bias

A manager storms into your office demanding you immediately resolve a grievance about his pay schedule. What are your first thoughts? That he’s having a tough day? That he must really need his wages to feed his family? Or that he’s a demanding, inconsiderate, so-and-so? If you’re like most people, the odds are you’ll lean toward the latter.

All of us strive to understand the causes of events around us, particularly other people’s behavior. An accurate understanding of these causes helps people make appropriate responses. The problem is that most of us err toward attributing other people’s behavior to personality traits or abilities without considering the circumstances.

The more negatively the behavior affects us, the more we are likely to do so. Social psychologists call our human tendency to over-attribute other people’s behavior to internal forces – personality or disposition – and under-attribute it to circumstances the fundamental attribution error.

Here’s how it works. When we are trying to decide whether or not a person’s behavior is because of personality or situational events, we first consider whether the other person’s act was intentional. The act is considered intentional to the extent that the person knows that the behavior will produce the consequences observed and the person has the ability to achieve the consequences he or she intends. So, for example, if you believe your hot-headed manager knows that an angry outburst would upset you and could have behaved differently, you are likely to believe his rude behavior was intentional.

Ironically, we tend to attribute our own less-than-admirable behavior to our circumstances. So, if we are the one called on the carpet for complaining in a loud or offensive manner, we are much more likely to justify our behavior by the circumstances under which it occurred.

There are many psychological mechanisms by which thoughtless behavior toward another can be justified. One can do so by appealing to a higher moral value. Or one can rationalize the behavior – calling hurtful remarks ‘telling it like it is,’ for example. Or one can deny responsibility for the behavior or blame the victim. One can also isolate oneself emotionally or desensitize oneself to the human consequences of hurting others.

How we feel about another person’s behavior is largely a result of how we explain it to ourselves. Being aware of the fundamental attribution bias allows us the opportunity to look for situational causes for another person’s behavior or, at the very least, can inspire us to ask questions before we jump to conclusions.

Call a HALT and take a time out

A friend of mine, who has been involved with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for 26 years, often refers to the HALT strategy of interpersonal relations; never discuss a sensitive topic when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Since self-regulation and self-control take a certain amount of psychological and physiological energy, it comes as no surprise that when people are emotionally stressed, mentally drained, busy with other things, or just plain tired, they find it more difficult to overcome a powerful emotional impulse. This suggests the importance of avoiding potential conflict situations when one is busy, anxious, stressed, or physically tired.

People who have stressful jobs are able to reduce conflict and improve their family relationships by taking brief time-outs after returning home from work. Without a time-out, going straight from a stressful working day to family interactions often leads to argument or dispute. But spending part of an hour by themselves enables these stressed-out wage-earners to calm down prior to dealing with their families, and subsequent family interactions are therefore much more pleasant.

However, even when we’re rested or relaxed, interpersonal conflict is stressful. The situations in which people most need and want to self-regulate and control their impulses as they struggle to resolve conflict tend to be those in which it is most difficult to do so. These are the situations that elicit hot emotional reactions such as intense fear or anxiety.

To understand the processes that enable willpower in executing one’s intentions, two closely interacting systems have been proposed: a hot system and a cool one. The cool system is a ‘know’ system: it is contemplative, slow, rational, strategic, and emotionally neutral. In contrast, the hot system is emotional, simple, reflexive, fast. It is accentuated by stress, whether in the immediate situation or from chronic stress.

The essential ingredient for keeping calm under pressure is to strategically cool the hot system and its impulsive reaction tendencies and mobilize the cool system in pursuit of the long-term goal. For example, while people need to pay attention to their own feelings and to what the other person is saying during times of conflict, this immediate focus can lead to intense arousal and hot responses that are difficult to control. Get caught in the immediate situation without directing any thought or attention to themselves or their own behavior, their conduct can easily stray from their basic goals and intentions. By maintaining focus on these things but focusing on informative rather than arousing features, one may effectively transcend the aggravation of the intolerable present.

When your anger is in overdrive, time outs can be useful, but not if they are used to stew about what was said, to plot revenge fantasies toward the other person, or to replay every stinging comeback that you wish you had said in the heat of the moment. Neither should a time-out be used as a way to avoid the conflict. Before taking a time out, set a specific time to come back to the discussion and resolve the employee conflict.

  • Getting the most out of a time-out can take some practice. Here are four steps that can help you avoid losing your cool when your temper heats up:
  • Learn to recognize the physical signals that indicate you are annoyed or angry; Does your stomach get tight, do your teeth clinch, do you get flushed?
  • If you’re really angry, do a non-aggressive physical activity that gets the physiological response under control before problem solving or revisiting the event;
  • As you cool down physically, begin a cognitive cool down. Remind yourself of the reason you don’t want to lose control, such as wanting to get the problem solved or not wanting to feel guilty; Go back to your original perception of the conflict and look at alternative ways of seeing it.

If you have one person that particularly rings your bell or does the same annoying behavior over and over, plan for your next encounter. Find a way to connect your general goal – resolve the conflict or deal with the person constructively – with a specific implementation strategy – ‘when she complains about her manager, I’All suggest the three of us meet’ or ‘when he spouts off about his performance review, I’ll ask three questions before responding. This helps ensure a preferred response by tying a hot trigger event to the intended response rather than the usual one.

Professional: know and manage thy stress

Especially in times of rapid change – mergers, downsizings, or rapid growth, the HR manager becomes a company cheerleader – or stress confessor. He or she often helps people sustain morale in the face of an uncertain and vulnerable future. He or she may become the messenger, helping employees and supervisors interpret reorganization pronouncements from the management mountaintop.

Certainly it can be emotionally and professionally rewarding to rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronically providing service to angry customers can all too easily result in a case of brain strain. Here are four stress-busting strategies that can help ensure you have the emotional energy to deal with tough interpersonal situations:

1. Strike a balance between helper and manager: work hard to develop a capacity for ‘detached involvement’, that is, being sensitive to personnel issues and individual employee concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home – literally or emotionally – your personal/personnel boundary will start to erode.

2. Don’t be an island: reach out for expert support such as an Employee Assistance Program counselor, especially with seriously disgruntled or dysfunctional employees. For widespread departmental tension consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

3. Shift gears frequently: beware of becoming a solitary HR number-cruncher or an employee rescuer. Switch hats; don’t lose the human touch and make sure you have closed-door time to get your administrative work done.

4. Set boundaries: help others not to be so dependent on your indispensable knowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures, website information, negotiating and self-initiated employee data gathering, for example, is vital in today’s time and task driven environment. Model the stress management mantra, ‘Give of yourself and give to yourself!’

The bottom line

Most people associate willpower with weight loss or smoking cessation. Keeping cool when temperatures rise, however, is a test of willpower that many HR professionals face on a daily basis. In fact, in the world of work, the ability to control your tongue when you feel like childishly sticking it out, may be the first leap to true leadership.

You’ve been a food and beverage sales rep at the same company for the past six years. You haven’t made your quota for the past three, but neither has half your sales team. You were out for six months a year and a half ago due to a serious inner ear disorder that completely threw off your balance. Your health is good now although, when you’re tired, you tend to lean slightly to your left.

You and your boss have never gotten along; he thinks you’re arrogant and you think he’s stupid. Three months ago, you were so incensed about what you believed was an ignorant remark he made during a sales call that you went over his head. Big mistake; your boss and his play golf together and the two of them had quite a talk about your “insubordination.” Since then, you think your boss has been gunning for you. He’s made several sarcastic remarks about your selling techniques and, last week, when he noticed your balance was slightly off, he joked to the sales group that he wasn’t sure if you were tired or “had one too many cocktails at lunch.”

Today, when you got to your office, SURPRISE! You were met by a human resource professional who tells you that you have been terminated for “performance reasons.” Wrongful discharge? Disability discrimination? This employee certainly thought so, and, in real life, filed a lawsuit claiming both. In this article, we’ll take a look at the legal issues in wrongful discharge, the psychological impact of being fired, and how to stay safe on the firing line.

Getting It All Wrong

In many states, unless an employee is hired for a specific amount of time, the employee is an “at-will” employee, and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all – but not for a bad reason, like discrimination. He also cannot be fired in a way that causes personal injury or without good cause if he is under a contract. In essence, then, wrongful discharge cases restrict an employer’s right to terminate an at-will employee.

A number of courts recognize a wrongful discharge claim for termination in violation of a well-established public policy, including discriminatory discharge and retaliatory discharge. Discriminatory discharge claims are on the rise; in fact, they almost exclusively account for the 40% rise in wrongful discharge claims since 1992. Other examples of public policy retaliatory discharge lawsuits involve employees claiming they were terminated for “whistle-blowing,” filing workers’ comp claims, cooperating in a governmental investigation involving the employer or fulfilling a legal duty such as serving on a jury or testifying under subpoena as a witness. The most common form of wrongful termination lawsuits alleges that an employer breached a contract, whether formal or informal, not to terminate employment except for “good cause.” If an employer expressly or implicitly agrees, orally or in writing, to hire an employee for a specific period, to discharge only for just cause, or to abide by progressive disciplinary procedures, that agreement may be determined by a court to constitute an enforceable employment contract. Courts have permitted individual employees to sue for breach of contract simply on the basis of informal promises made orally by managers or other individuals in positions of authority. Even when no promises were made, some courts have determined that there was an implied contract because of:

  • language in employee handbooks that state employees will be provided an initial probationary period
  • language in disciplinary policies that states employees will be discharged only for particular offenses
  • language in progressive disciplinary policies that states employees will receive chances to improve their performance
  • language in handbooks or records that states fairness or special consideration will be given to employees because of longevity or seniority
  • an employee’s work history that reflects merit raises
  • good performance evaluations, praise and promotions
  • the employer’s practice of discharging employees only for good cause

Finally, wrongful termination claims may arise when the employee alleges that the discharge was carried out in an intentionally degrading or humiliating manner, the employer falsely accuses the employee of misconduct (or makes false or damaging statements to coworkers), and other various injurious behavior. Thus, an employee who wishes to sue for wrongful termination must show either,

1) that his employment contract, either expressly or implicitly, included a promise that he would not be fired without cause (contract cases); or,

2) that his employer fired him for a reason that violates a fundamental policy expressed in either state statutes or constitution (public policy cases), including laws against unlawful discrimination (discrimination cases), or

3) that the employer committed a tort, like defamation, invasion of privacy, or intentional infliction of emotional distress (independent tort cases).

Clues to avoiding wrongful termination start with a look at what causes it. The common themes in the above are treating employees fairly, consistently, humanely, and honestly.

Rejection That’s Hard to Take

Think back over romantic breakups that have been especially hard to get over. Odds are, the breakup met at least one of these criteria:

1) the rejection came as a complete surprise

2) the person had been threatening to end the relationship for months (with no follow-through) and finally did

3) you got mixed signals from this person and then were abruptly dumped

4) the person made disparaging remarks about your character, etc.

The same is true for involuntary terminations. No employee should be surprised by a termination because s/he should have received verbal and written warnings with a clearly documented performance improvement plan, including a deadline. No employee with a pattern of good performance appraisals should suddenly be fired (unless it is for a serious conduct offense). And, termination meetings should focus on the specific reasons for termination and should never veer off into name-calling or disparaging character remarks.

A firing or a resignation on poor terms can have adverse psychological effects on the individual concerned (embarrassment, shame and anger) and the remaining staff (rumors, resentment and fear). The former can be reduced by politeness and consideration, treatment consistent with that given to other fired employees, and, if possible, generous severance arrangements. Legal claims can be reduced by the same, especially if accompanied by fair and consistent performance management policies and procedures.

Parting Ways on Good Terms

Avoiding wrongful discharge claims starts in the hiring process. Supervisors and managers must know how to offer a job without implying an employment contract.

Employment handbooks and job applications must contain an “at-will” statement. Then, it’s a matter of managing performance by:

1. Providing specific written notice of all problems with job performance, and give the employee a fixed period of time to correct the problems.

2. Keeping careful records of each employees’ job performance.

3. Keeping specific, detailed, files on employee performance and reviews. For instance, don’t note: “Frequently leaves early,” or “Work has numerous errors.” Record the dates the employee left early (and how early) or describe examples of error-filled work.

4. Include in the file written summaries of any warnings given to employees about their performance problems. Use a documented system of progressive discipline, escalating from oral warnings to written warnings to suspension to termination.

5. Mete out discipline evenly. Don’t overlook problems in one employee for which you discipline another.

6. Have an employment policy book setting out examples of offenses that will lead to termination.

7. Never make the decision to fire somebody out on impulse. If an employee’s behavior pushes a manager to the boiling point, give the employee the rest of the day off and ask the manager to go back in his/her office and cool off. If the employee’s behavior is seriously inappropriate, put him or her on immediate leave pending an investigation.

8. Run terminations past a lawyer so s/he can examine the worker’s history and membership in any potentially protected group as well as the company’s past practices and adequacy of documentation.

Lessons From the Firing Line

Why do you think our food and beverage sales rep was fired? Poor performance? Disability discrimination? Neither, in my opinion. I think our sales rep was fired because of the longstanding personality clash he had with his supervisor, with the triggering event being his decision to go above his supervisor’s head. However, the way the manager handled his employee – making inappropriate remarks, firing the employee abruptly and with no verbal or written warnings, not disciplining other employees for failure to meet their quota — virtually begged for a wrongful termination claim.

The bad news is that wrongful termination awards have risen dramatically over the past ten years. The good news is that many of the steps that help companies avoid wrongful termination also help companies hire and retain the best workers. And that’s a win-win for everyone.

In the 1930’s, British author Allan Massie said: ‘We are responsible for actions performed under circumstances for which we are not responsible.’ He could be speaking for corporate UK today. The employment relationship is becoming increasingly complex. With the convergence of European Union regulations, the obligations of employers in relation to employment law in the UK is becoming increasingly onerous.

As companies open subsidiaries and operations beyond their borders, they are encountering regulations and exposures with which they may be unfamiliar. Globalization of business, such as the development of the European Union, is dramatically affecting the exposure many international companies face in their routine operations.

Unfair dismissal, sexual and racial discrimination claims are becoming more common. This has been happening in the US for some time and now claims are also happening here in the UK. Human resource professionals and CEOs now find themselves in the unenviable position of scrambling to anticipate, prevent, and defend a myriad of perceived employment wrongdoings, both real and imagined. Perhaps a look at what savvy U.S. employers are doing to reduce employment practices liability can save UK managers some of the headaches their American counterparts have suffered.

The Long Arm of the Law

We’re all familiar with laws that protect employees from unfair treatment on the basis of sex, race, religion and disability. Employment practices claims can arise from the alleged violation of these laws by just about anyone in a company – from the director to low level employees. Among the issues included are unfair dismissal, discrimination, harassment, libel and slander, emotional distress, and employment-related misrepresentations as well as retaliation against anyone for complaining about any of the above.

Practically speaking, most Employment Practices Liability (EPL) litigation falls into three basic categories:

  • Unfair dismissal: In a wrongful discharge suit, the person complaining alleges that the company unfairly dismissed him or her, either by breaking an implied or written contract or by firing him or her for performing a legal duty or exercising a legal right. Many employers are lulled into a false sense of security by the at-will doctrine, which holds that employment can be terminated at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. However, in the U.S., many exceptions to the at-will employment rule have been created and the courts are continually limiting the parameters in which an employee can be legally terminated without cause.
    • Common triggers of unfair dismissal claims: Misleading statements of job security or inaccurate comments about the financial strength or permanence of the organization during the hiring process, misleading (i.e., inconsistent or overly nice) performance reviews followed by termination, inconsistent application of discipline across employees, mishandled termination meetings.
  • Sexual harassment: Essentially, in a sexual harassment complaint, the person complaining alleges that unwelcome sexual conduct interfered with his or her job in some way. The ‘unwelcome sexual conduct’ can take many forms, ranging from inappropriate sexual comments to a manager requiring sex as a condition of employment. Over the past three years, U.S. courts have shifted the corporate liability standard from one of negligence (did the company know? Or should they have known? And what did they do if they had known?) to vicarious liability (what steps did the company take to prevent this from happening?). The good news is, with company-wide prevention training, effective policies and procedures, and top management support, companies can shift some of their corporate liability to the offending individual should a complaint occur.
    • Common triggers of sexual harassment claims: Inadequate or mishandled inappropriate behavior investigations, a narrow or restrictive complaint reporting policy, ignorance regarding sexual harassment law, multicultural communication breakdowns, stress as a result of rapid growth, poorly handled layoffs.
  • Discrimination: Employment-related claims of discrimination have historically arisen out of allegations of failure to hire, promote, or treat a person equitably due to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability. As obvious cases of intentional discrimination decline, companies are seeing more and more discrimination cases arise as a result of ineffective supervisory practices, which either offer evidence of adverse impact (through exclusion or ignorance) on a particular group or create the perception of discrimination (for example, through lax or flippant attitudes toward offensive racial or ethnic comments).
    • Common triggers of discrimination claims: Discriminatory comments, asking illegal questions in the hiring interview, a manager’s misguided attempt to be ‘affirmative’, poorly communicated or delineated promotion criteria, excluding older employees from training or career development programs, inconsistent discipline across employees, the perception of inequity (for example, a labor pool demographically segregated by job title, limited recruitment avenues).

Reducing Claims Through Interpersonal Risk Management

In my experience, 80% of all employment-related complaints are due to relationship failures. Not surprisingly, relationship failures also account for virtually all voluntary turnover, job dissatisfaction, and low organizational commitment. Companies who proactively manage interpersonal risks not only reduce unnecessary legal liability, they can measurably increase their company’s revenues through reduced turnover and increased productivity. Companies who follow certain risk-reducing policies, procedures and practices avoid hiring and, if hired, identifying and terminating problem employees. Here are just a few ways companies are reducing their corporate employment related risks.

Interpersonal Risk Management Practice 1: Smart Hiring Procedures. Sometimes your best hiring decision is the decision NOT to offer someone a job. Given the fact that 95% of employment-related litigation is initiated by as little as five percent of the workforce, the majority of wrongful termination claims are in essence wrongful hiring practices. The chance of hiring a problem employee can be reduced or eliminated by training your managers and recruiters in the following smart hiring practices:

  • Draw From Alternative Applicant Pools: Relying on multiple recruiting sources not only provides the best odds of finding ideal candidates, it also makes it easier for companies to develop a diverse employee base. Savvy employers rely on a number of referral sources, ranging from trade and vocational schools to existing stellar employees to the Internet.
  • Use Detailed Employment Applications: Carefully review answers applicants give about their prior employment history and background. Using an application that asks detailed questions (and has at-will language as well as, potentially, an arbitration statement) is important, but interviewers must also understand how to spot “red flags” that signify a potential problem employee and know how to gather more information about them.
  • Collect Multiple Sources of Revealing Interview Data: Asking probing questions enables the employer to gather crucial information; however, no matter how perfect the candidate seems to be for the position, objective data must be gathered. Background and reference checks are critical ways of checking the veracity of the applicant – and potentially avoiding a negligent hiring charge.

Interpersonal Risk Management Practice 2: Effective Policies and Procedures. Creating and documenting the implementation of clear and comprehensive human resources policies are key components in preventing employment practices claims. The existence of an employee handbook, especially if accompanied by a signed receipt of acknowledgement by the employee, can provide crucial evidence in defending many kinds of employment lawsuits. For example, a handbook can disprove an employee’s allegation that he or she was unaware of the organization’s rules, policies and procedures. Some of the must-haves in the employee handbook should:

  • contain a list of work rules and identify the ones that, if violated, can result in discipline, including termination;
  • avoid stating specific progressive-discipline procedures;
  • clearly communicate a policy of zero-tolerance regarding sexual harassment and drug use;
  • communicate state and laws governing working conditions, employee leaves of absence and return-to-work policies. In addition, management should be continuously updated on policies and procedures. Untrained or improperly trained managers can create needless legal exposure by not taking the appropriate action when disputes arise.

Interpersonal Risk Management Practice 3: Accurate Job Analyses and Descriptions. Accurate job analyses are the building blocks upon which human resource management is built. The information obtained forms the basis for recruitment processes, hiring procedures, the identification of training needs and the development of training programs, the creation of job descriptions, and the improvement for such activities as performance appraisal and career development. They can also buffer you from legal claims, such as disability claims. Therefore, it is critical for employers to have detailed job descriptions for all jobs that

  • clearly define the skills and performance requirements for each position;
  • list the essential physical functions and psychological qualifications required;
  • clearly define the results that the company expects employees to achieve;
  • be specific and, where possible, quantified in terms of dollars, numbers, percentages, time, etc.

Interpersonal Risk Management Practice 4: Manage and Monitor Performance. Clarity as to what is expected when a worker is hired, as well as throughout the employment relationship, is critically important for both the employee and employer. When descriptions contain both job quantity and quality measurements, it is possible to carry out effective performance management. When these measurements are clearly linked to rewards, the employee is more motivated to self-manage as well. In fact, employers who allow employees the opportunity to share in the success of the company and who provide incentives for continuous learning have lower turnover rates and higher producing workers.

Once the performance criteria are set, employees must be given regular and consistent feedback. Risk-reducing guidelines for performance reviews include:

  • performance reviews should be carried out twice a year;
  • performance ratings should be accompanied by specific behavioral examples;
  • managers should be required to keep performance notes in between
  • performance reviews to avoid letting recent events dictate the performance rating;
  • cited areas of improvement should be accompanied by an improvement plan and target date;
  • all performance evaluators should receive training on the performance management system.

Interpersonal Risk Management Practice 5: Protecting Your Downside With EPL. While good human management can significantly limit exposure, it can never remove the risk completely. We rely on people to carry out our policies and procedures, and people make mistakes. Just as fire protection doesn’t alleviate the need for safety procedures or smoke detectors, it should never be used as a substitute for policies and procedures, nor for building a corporate culture that grows powerful relationships. What it can do is significantly reduce your financial exposure, a valuable contribution given the legal cost of defending an employment claim, even an unfounded one can be substantial.

So, what’s the lesson learned? Perhaps the best lesson is that many of the risk management strategies that protect companies against employment related claims are good business. Also, that relationship failure is the common theme underlying many of the problems that get shuffled off to HR. Finally, that companies who proactively take steps to reduce their employment related risks can give more time treating their employees as assets rather than worrying about them becoming liabilities.

“A weak man is just by accident. A strong but nonviolent man is unjust by accident.” Mohandas K. Gandhi

Take it from someone who has heard more than her share of plaintiff’s stories, employee complaints, and human resource nightmares. Create a climate of organizational justice and you’ll make a significant dent in employee retention, poor morale, workplace assaults, and employment liability. You’ll have emotionally committed workers who are less stressed out and willing to go the extra mile. Yet, for some strange reason, organizational justice is one of the least understood and underutilized tools to create a better and more effective workplace.

Of course, organizational justice in general – and interactional justice in particular – are complex concepts that require some serious work. They’re certainly harder to implement than fancy perks, paid sabbaticals, or hefty bonuses. Yet, without a sense of perceived fairness, employees judge financial rewards less positively, and multiply the negative impact of challenging events (layoffs, difficult project deadlines, organizational chaos). In this article, we’ll focus on interactional justice, look at its impact, and offer strategies for creating a climate that will help employers reap the rewards and reduce their risks of their human capital.

The Three Faces of Organizational Justice

On the surface, organizational justice seems to be a pretty simple concept; was a company or management decision fair? However, it’s not just the outcome of a decision that matters; it’s also how the decision was made and communicated.

These three forms of organizational justice are known as distributive, procedural, and interactional justice.

Distributive justice refers to the “bottom line” of justice, i.e., was the outcome of a decision fair? This assessment of fairness generally involves a comparison between what an employee is experiencing to what is happening to others in the organization. Procedural justice focuses on how the decision is made, i.e., were the procedures used to set goals, make decisions, or investigate a grievance fair? Determinants of procedural justice include consistency of application, unbiased decision-makers, information accuracy, avenues for appeal, input from affected parties, and prevailing moral standards.

Interactional justice is up close and personal. It pertains to the behavior of the organization’s leaders in carrying out their decisions, i.e., how they treat those who are subject to their authority, decisions, and actions. Research shows that the effects of interactional justice are independent of individuals’ evaluations of fairness regarding the outcomes they receive (i.e., distributive justice) or the procedures used in allocating those outcomes (i.e., procedural justice) and, in some contexts, may be more important.

Determinants of perceptions of interactional justice: Explanation: Did the manager emphasize aspects of procedural fairness that justify the decision?

Social sensitivity: Did the manager treat the employee with dignity and respect?

Consideration: Did the manager listen to the person’s concerns?

Empathy: Did the manager identify with the person’s feelings?

Why Supervisors Control Your Business

Interactional justice is a key to employee motivation, retention and organizational commitment. In a survey of 225 employees at two large U.S. paint manufacturing companies, for instance, researchers found justice trumped job satisfaction in motivating employees. However, it wasn’t interactional justice in general that was the key; it was the employee’s faith in their supervisor and the fairness implicit in day-to-day transactions. Employees, it seems, view the organization through their supervisor.

It is the supervisor who most often explains the organization to the employee and explains the employee to the organization. It is the personal assessment of a supervisor’s honesty, impartiality and integrity that causes employees to go the extra mile past where they had to go to get their jobs done. In it simplest terms it is the answer to the question: Can I count on this person’s integrity?

In one study, supervisors who were regarded as fair or unfair in situations where they recommended higher or lower pay, based on merit, for work performed. Unfair supervisors commanded little commitment, even from higher-paid workers. Fair supervisors, on the other hand, commanded much more commitment — even from those who were paid lower. In addition, workers chose to remain with a supervisor who enacted procedurally fair behavior and they chose to leave the supervisor who did not — regardless of the supervisor’s assessment of their performance and the pay outcome associated with it. Another study, reported in the New York Times, found that employees’ productivity and their length of stay at their companies were determined by their relationship with their immediate supervisor.

Teaching Interactional Fairness to Managers: Interpersonal Skills + Leadership

Supervisors with transformational leadership style are better able to influence employees to perform extra duties by creating more procedural justice and trust. Researchers think this is because transformational leaders are able to inspire and appeal to their employee’s since of fairness and trust, which compels employees to work harder and more conscientiously, make suggestions, perform extra duties, and help others.

Such leadership styles are characterized by:

  • Clarification of responsibilities and expectations
  • Explanation of tasks that must be performed and benefits to self-interest
  • A contingent reward system
  • Followers have a positively reinforcing relationship with the leader
  • The leader only intervenes when things go wrong
  • A lack of personalization of the working relationship

In addition to a transactional leadership style, employees judge their manger’s sense of fairness on the following interpersonal skills:

Consistency— the extent to which a subject treats staff consistently and does not play favorites

Decision-making— the extent to which a subject is unbiased and impartial in making decisions

Empathy— the extent to which a subject can see things from the perspective of his or her staff

Equality— the extent to which a manager treats employees like equals rather than as inferiors

Relative fairness— how fair the manager is relative to other managers within his or her organization;

Supportiveness— the extent to which a manager provides substantive, symbolic and emotional support to employees

Transactional fairness— the extent to which a manager is fair and non-exploitative in resource exchanges with employees

Treatment— the extent to which a manager is respectful and sensitive in interactions with staff

Voice—the extent to which a manager is open to the advice and feedback of staff.

Organizations who hire or promote managers and supervisors strictly for their technical skills, or who fail to provide an interpersonally oriented management development program as part of the promotion process, are missing a critical opportunity to simultaneously increase employee retention, improve management effectiveness, and reduce the risk of employment lawsuits.

The Straw That Breaks the Camel’s Back: Workplace Violence, Theft and Other Forms of Revenge

Failing to provide critical information on a project. Spreading malicious rumors about coworkers. Destroying or stealing company equipment. Giving classified product information to a competitor. These are just a few of the ways I’ve seen employees retaliate toward a company for perceived injustices. Plaintiffs don’t talk about distributive justice (I’m suing because I lost my job or because I was sexually harassed) nearly as much as they relate stories of interpersonal inconsideration and abuse (no one took my complaint seriously, I was marched out the door accompanied by a security guard).

In a work environment, revenge occurs in response to violations of trust, i.e., when expectations concerned another person’s behavior are not met, or when that person does not act consistent with one’s values. Violations of interpersonal justice tend to evoke the strongest emotional responses, ranging from anger to moral outrage. There is evidence, for example, that dismissals or terminations do not provoke violence in and of themselves. Rather, vengeful attitudes and behaviors result from the humiliation that occurs when terminations are conducted in an abusive and insensitive manner. In fact, numerous studies have found a relationship between distributive justice (being terminated, for example) and retaliation only when there was low interactional and procedural justice.

Over 80% of the cases of workplace homicide involve employees who want to get even for what they perceived as their organizations’ unfair or unjust treatment of them. This is not to deny the role of individual differences and how they interact with different workplace situations. An employee who explodes may have a higher level of aggression to contribute to the outburst.

In addition, various conditions in the workplace play a role in heating up tempers at work. Downsizing, layoffs, cutbacks in wages and benefits, and outsourcing all increase pressure at work; however, layoffs, disciplinary actions, or dismissals do not provoke violence by themselves; it is the wounded pride and loss of face that occurs when actions are conducted in a demeaning manner. It’s the interaction between distributive, procedural and interactional justice that leads to retaliation; unfair or unjust treatment during the termination interview may be the “last straw” or the final “push” that moves the terminated employee from retaliatory thoughts to actual retaliation.

Retaliation at work doesn’t just occur in response to interpersonal abuse or humiliation; it can also result from the perceived violation of a psychological contract, i.e., beliefs in paid-for-promises or reciprocal obligations. For example, unrealistic sales projections to a candidate during a hiring interview, for instance, can lead to a sense of betrayal and injustice. Violation of the psychological contract is a process that contains elements of unfulfilled promises that deprive employees of desired outcomes (distributive justice) and elements that affect the quality of treatment employee’s experience (procedural justice).

Unfortunately, this happens all too often. In a study of 128 MBA students, who had already accepted an offer of employment, 54.8% of the subjects reported that their employer had violated their psychological contract. This violation was significantly related to low scores on a measure of the employee’s trust in his or her employer and to low scores on a measure of employee satisfaction. The results also suggested that employees who left the company reported a greater degree of contract violation than those who had not left their employer.

Apparently, these violations spanned all areas of employment (e.g., training, compensation, promotion, nature of job, job security, feedback, management of change, responsibility).

Improving Your Fairness Quotient

Any organization that wishes to excel must make sure that the employee-employer relationship is cast outside the economic relationship into the emotional arena. Human resources can play a vital role in organizational justice by:

Check all policies and work rules to assure that there are procedures that create fairness. The important ones center on pay, diversity, etc. Look at decisions made in implementing these rules and general working practices to assure that fairness and equality is explicit in all supervisory and management decisions about employees and their work.

Include leadership and interpersonal skills in your management development program, including 360-degree evaluations by subordinates, coworkers and management.

To guard against unintentional psychological contract violations, make sure all candidates are provided with “realistic job previews” (i.e., providing an accurate description of the job, organization, and opportunities, including both positive and negative features). The degree of honesty shown for employees during the selection process will shape perceptions of support and justice among those who are ultimately hired.

Because employees are most likely to engage in revenge either to restore equity or express feelings of outrage, provide multiple avenues for employees to deal with grievances (and the feelings associated with them). For example, in addition to formal grievance procedures, engage your EAP to give informal talks during corporate transitions and offer outplacement services during layoffs.

The Bottom Line

Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “Justice limps along . . . but it gets there all the same.” Organizations who create a sense of organizational justice will reap the human capital rewards in improved motivation, retention and fewer employment lawsuits. Unfortunately, companies who don’t may find themselves limping while their competition sprints ahead.

Imagine what’s it’s like. Walking time and again into a room filled with sour, annoyed, or fearful expressions. Trying to ignore the looks that suggest I have either a baseball bat or a termination slip hidden behind my back. Overlooking the eye-rolls and snickers that remind me of the ones I gave Miss Griggs in the third grade.

When I began doing harassment/discrimination prevention training eleven years ago, I was ambushed by this less-than-enthusiastic reception. Who, me? I’m a shrink, for goodness sake. I know the health benefits of humor. While I might never host Saturday Night Live, I’ve been known to crack a joke or two. Heck, one of my best friends considers herself a “laughter therapist.” Why would anyone think that I’m the humor police?

Today, I’ve come to expect the still-too-often misperception that harassment/discrimination prevention boils down to eliminating all fun at work. In fact, I enjoy watching the relief wash over trainee’s faces when they realize that I’m not there to remove their funny bone – just fine-tune it. In fact, understanding what is appropriate humor at work can help all of us make the most of a great stress-relieving tool without worrying about creating more stress for ourselves.

I Could Use a Good Laugh

The average child laughs 300 times a day. The average adult? Who knows, but I bet most of those laughs don’t happen at work. Which is a shame; employees are being asked to adapt quickly to change, work harder and faster, be more creative, and keep up with the latest information pertinent to their work. The need for stress relief and creative inspiration are two benefits humor can offer, not to mention the health benefits. Research shows that laughter stimulates the immune system, decreases “stress” hormones, and increases endorphins. In the workplace, humor and fun can increase productivity, enhance team building, and thus improve esprit de corps.

The right humor, that is. Apparently, not all humor is created equal. Research has shown that there is a distinctive difference in the health benefits of positive and negative humor. Negative humor, i.e., humor that is exclusive or offensive, does not have the same positive physiological effects on one’s body and mind. Apparently, our bodies are as sensitive as our feelings; we physiologically respond to hurtful as if our bodies were under attack. Which, in some ways, is true.


In general, strive for humor that is inclusive, creative and captures our human essence. All of us know that sexist, racist, ageist jokes and crude humor are not only inappropriate, but can lead to sanctions, termination or even lawsuits. In addition, be sensitive when telling jokes involving terminations, RIFs and personal tragedies. Their hurt can linger long after the fact. In addition:

1. Pay attention to clues about your co-worker’s mood

One of the most important aspects of using humor effectively is knowing when it is appropriate to use humor. If used at the “wrong” time, humor can backfire and offend, distract, or upset the people with work with. I read an article the other day where a manager sang a few bars of “Laugh While the Whole World is Crying” as he was laying off his employees. I’m not sure where he developed his sense of humor, but it was not the time to display it. An apparent attempt to lighten a stressful situation was perceived as insensitive and callous and the employee felt angry enough about it to blast it all over the Internet.

If something has really upset a coworker and s/he tells you about it, you should adjust your humor accordingly. Similarly, if a coworker comes into work crying, tread lightly. Just because someone is angry or upset does not necessarily mean that you should avoid using humor altogether; humor can help alleviate these feelings. However, you might want to be especially careful about how you use humor.

2. Start slowly

There is no way to predict exactly how a coworker will react to humor. Therefore, it is important to start using humor gradually in order to “test” how they react. If you take the time to build a trusting relationship with a work colleague, the odds increase that you will have an idea of his or her humor style. Perhaps more importantly, if you unintentionally offend someone, that person will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt based on your history of treating them with respect.

3. Trust your intuition

If a coworker is offended, distracted, or upset by your use of humor, you will most likely be able to “sense” his or her feelings and change the way you use humor. Most people can sense if something is wrong and will naturally decide to discontinue excess attempts at humor. This doesn’t mean we have to be mind readers; simply asking “what’s up” when a joke or comment doesn’t get the response you were looking for can quickly enlighten you on how your attempt at humor was perceived.

4. Take yourself lightly – sometimes

Self-deprecation is an excellent tool, but be careful to use it in moderation, especially when you are around authority figures or people who don’t know you. Being seen as a clown or as insecure, rather than a talented employee who doesn’t take herself too seriously, is not exactly a good career strategy.

5. Use humor as the icing, not the cake

Humor in business should be a lightening agent; in other words, it’s sugar to help the serious work go down. The most effective humor at work is used as a seasoning, not a main ingredient.

6. Avoid playful insults

In general, avoid sarcasm or cynicism. While it may indeed be funny, it also can leave a bitter taste or feeling in the workplace. This is a hard one for many people to avoid, but if you can be funny without being overly dependent on negativity, your professional image will be much higher.

IX The ExcusesNay (Nix the Excuses)

Most people have no desire to offend anyone. The number one reason humor backfires at work is when a manager or employee makes the dangerous assumption that everyone is like s/he is. It’s easy to assume that everyone has our sense of humor, to believe that a person will react the way we would, to think that anyone who looks like us has same values and beliefs. Here are the five most common forms of this assumption – and why they don’t work.

She Has No Sense of Humor . . . I’ve been around the block a time or two and I’ve never met anyone with no sense of humor. I have, alas, met people who didn’t have my sense of humor. While laughter is universal, humor is not; it varies from person to person.

I Hope This Doesn’t Offend Anyone . . . Few of us would think prefacing a punch with “I hope this doesn’t hurt” gives us permission to slug someone, but often we think a warning our colleagues that we are about to tell a risky joke alleviates us from its impact. While this preface might have good intentions, it doesn’t let us off the hook in a work environment. Much better to err on the side of caution and, if you think it might offend someone, save it for the Friday night bowling league.

But I Thought We Were the Same . . . I was once in a meeting where the leader looked around the room, noticed there were no individuals of Asian descent in the room, and proceeded to tell a very racist joke. What he didn’t realize is that his customer – also in the room – was the proud mother of a darling Chinese girl. Needless to say, this humorous attempt backfired and the manager had to eat serious crow to repair the relationship.

But We Were at Happy Hour . . . Yes, I know we all have our personal lives to lead and some of actually like to hang out with the people we work with. However, just because we’ve left the building doesn’t mean we’ve left our work roles behind. Managers, in particular, may fall prey to the temptation to show their employees that, outside of work, they can party hardy with the best of them. The problem is that their employees often don’t understand the same distinction between work and play and may see a manager’s rowdy humor at happy hour as “permission” to repeat it in the office first thing Monday morning.

The Bottom Line on Humor

So what is the most effective humor at work? Humor that takes a stressful work situation and makes light of it. Humor that focuses on the commonalities among people rather than the differences. Humor that includes everyone in the audience.
I’d like to hear more laughter in the corporations I work with. However, as Samuel Butler once said, “It is tact that is golden, not silence.” We don’t need less humor at work; we just need to make sure it’s the kind of humor that makes hard tasks easier, collaborations fun and certainly make workdays go faster. Use humor effectively, and the work world still laughs with you!