How to Apologize At Work

Humility is a virtue.  And, for most of us, it doesn’t come easily.  Particularly for those of us who want to be good at our jobs and to please to whom we report, owning up to a mistake at work can be a difficult task.  Management professor Robert Sutton offers advice about how to deliver a truly effective apology in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.  A recent article about Sutton’s advice summarizes it in three steps. I'm sorry_thumb

1. Own It

When you make a mistake at work, own your actions.  And own them completely.  Don’t combine your apology with an excuse.  Omit the word “but” from every apology.  For example:

Do:  “I apologize.  I sent the shipment sooner than I should have.”

Don’t:  “I apologize.  I thought you said to send it out yesterday.”

The second example sounds more like blame shifting than an apology.  Own up to the error fully.

2.  Don’t Overdo It

The apology should be commensurate with the mistake.  If you miss a big meeting, you should make your apology in person.  If you are 15 minutes late to the meeting, a less formal face-to-face is probably required.

3.  Offer a Solution

Employees who offer a solution for the problem that they’ve caused come out looking like problem solvers-a positive attribute in any workplace.  Can’t solve the problem?  Then explain what steps you’ve taken to try to solve it.  Just dumping the problem onto another person (particularly your boss) is not a good idea.  At the same time, make it clear that you intend to ensure that the problem not occur again.  Be clear that you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Advertisements

Are Your Employees Takers or Givers?

Employers should hire nice people.  That’s according to Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, anyway.  Grant writes that there are three types of employees: Takers, Matchers, and Givers.  And he advocates that employers should focus their hiring efforts on the last type-Givers are good, in other words. logo_from_dev

Takers, as you may have guessed, are people who put their own interests first.  Workplace bullies fall into this category, of course.  Matchers believe in quid pro quo-something for something.  Most employees fall into this category.  Then there are Givers.  Givers do nice things for others with no expectation of reciprocity, writes Seth Stevenson at Slate.com.

The problem with Givers, though, is that they can be too nice.  More often than not, they are so selfless, they spend too much time helping others and, as a result, are overlooked for promotions and other opportunities.

But that is not the case for all Givers, says Grant.  Some Givers make it all of the way to the top.  Takers and Matchers, on the other hand, get stuck in the middle.  Why? According to Grant, Givers will because people like them for all of those selfless acts.

So, in a sense, what Grant is saying is that success is a type of long-term popularity contest.  He is also saying that employers should hire nice people. What he doesn’t say is that employers should take care to help the Givers avoid getting run over or falling behind because of their commitment to kindness.

Have a nice day.

See also:

Is Your Boss a Bert or an Ernie?

Workplace Revenge and the Equal Opportunity Jerk

Management Monday: Quit Oversharing

Management Monday: Quit Oversharing

Supervisors and their direct reports are not equals.  If you are a supervisor, I advise that you keep this golden rule in mind.  When you are required to communicate a decision to your subordinate, understand that communicating does not mean “explaining.”  Employees do not want to hear the full story behind the decision. telling secrets_thumb

You are not your employees’ equal.  You are the boss.  And, as the boss, your employees count on you to be the one who holds the ship together.  By over-explaining the reasons for a decision, by seeming too apologetic, you have failed your employees.

This does not mean that you must be aloof and reserved.  But it does mean that you should quit oversharing.  When you try to explain the behind-the-scenes politics, you confuse employees and lead them to believe that there are unanswered questions within the organization.  This can be a costly endeavor.

Employees with doubt emanate their doubt  and doubt is contagious and infectious.  We all have our crosses to bear-supervisors should not share the burden of their own crosses with their subordinates.  Subordinates want their bosses to be in control, to have the answers.

Of course, it’s rare that we, as supervisors, do have all of the answers.  But it is our job, as supervisors, not to reveal this inevitable fact.  Instead, it is our job, as supervisors, to put on the brave face of control and act as if everything is under control.

Sometimes, the “full-disclosure” route is very much the wrong route.  We, as supervisors, fix problems, not merely share the weight of those problems.  Supervisors should keep in mind this mantra the next time desire the need to share the burden of responsibility.  Don’t do it.  Seek advice from your higher ups.  But do not shoulder the burden with your direct subordinate.  Not, that is, if you want to keep your position and any semblance of true authority.

Workplace Revenge and the Equal Opportunity Jerk

Being a jerk is a legal defense, so to speak.  An “equal opportunity jerk” is a boss who treats everyone badly, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  If his subordinates sue, alleging an unlawful hostile environment, they’ll likely have trouble establishing that the jerk was more of a jerk to one particular group of employees based on a protected characteristic.

It is a defense that defense lawyers prefer to not to have to invoke. Nevertheless, when the facts are there, even an unattractive defense can be a winner. Take, for example, the Third Circuit’s decision in Clayton v. City of Atlantic City. 
people backstabber_3The plaintiff was a police officer in the Atlantic City Police Department, who alleged that she was subject to the sexual advances of a senior officer.  This went on for a number of years until, eventually, she came under his direct supervision.

As her supervisor, she alleged, he gave her a less desirable work schedule and singled her out for various minor policy violations.  Another senior officer also disciplined her and reprimanded the plaintiff for other policy violations, which the plaintiff alleged were common practice throughout the Police Department, such as leaving the city limits without permission for lunch and for rolling her eyes during roll call.  She was eventually transferred to a different unit, which resulted in a pay decrease.

The plaintiff alleged that she was transferred because of her gender.  But she also testified to what she described as a “revenge management” culture in the department.  That culture, as she described it, meant that if you were not liked by a superior, regardless of gender, it was common for the superior to attempt to undermine your career.

It was this “culture of revenge” that resulted in the dismissal of the plaintiff’s suit.  The court reasoned that an attitude of “revenge” is not unlawful, provided it is equally applied without regard to race, religion, gender, etc.  Here, there had not been gender discrimination because males and females alike were subject to the punishments of dissatisfied supervisors.

Although this case makes an excellent teaching example, it’s not exactly one I would recommend as “inspirational.”  Equal opportunity jerks may not be in violation of the anti-discrimination laws, but, boy, they sure do get sued a lot.

Clayton v. City of Atlantic City, No. 12-4273 (3d Cir. Sept. 12, 2013).

Dealing With Difficult People

We deal with difficult people everywhere, really. At work, we may have to deal with difficult people as co-workers, as customers, as vendors, and as bosses, just to name a few.
Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. The street bully is the difficult person who are yells and throws insults to get his or her way. The silent killer uses passive-aggressive tactics to wage wars based on sabotage. In today’s post, though, I have in mind the rough and rude bully type–the difficult person who pushes his or her way around like a bull in a china store and expects everyone to jump into action at his or her command.

The ABA Journal recently asked its readers how they deal with difficult people of a particularly difficult variety–opposing counsel in litigation. As a general rule, I have had very positive relationships with opposing counsel. In fact, many of my opposing counsel have become very good friends of mine, whose friendship I value tremendously. Particularly in Delaware, where we value civility and professionalism as a foundation of the practice of law, my interactions with the lawyer on the other side of the table is a positive one more often than not.

That said, there certainly have been times when I have had to deal with a lawyer on the other side who, it seems to me, insists on being unreasonable or who routinely uses bully tactics in an effort to get his or her way. These interactions trouble me a great deal and, unfortunately, tend to change the way the case is litigated. Perhaps it is because this happens so infrequently (thank goodness), that I have given these bullies a good deal of thought once the interaction or case is over.

There are a few mantras that I do my best to remember when getting screamed at by another lawyer or having to deal with a lawyer who uses threats as strategy. I share them here both as a reminder to myself and in the hopes that readers may be able to put them to use in their time of need.

Mean people are scared people.
If my opposing counsel is yelling at me, I know he’s scared of something I’ve said or he thinks I am going to say. Either I have an actual advantage or he thinks I do. I’m happy to have either.

A lawyer who can’t control his temper can’t control his case.
If my opposing counsel spends hours writing lengthy letters and multiple emails filled with ridicule and scathing commentary, he is not spending his time preparing his case, reviewing the facts, or coming up with new legal arguments and strategy. A distracted opponent is fine by me.

Sticks ‘n stones may break my bones (and even hurt my feelings), but they won’t affect my client’s case.
At the end of the case, nasty comments and raised voices are irrelevant. The outcome of the case–whether by settlement, by verdict, or by judicial decision–will not include a scorecard of baseless accusations made or declare a winner for worst-mannered, most uncivil lawyer. The case will be decided on the application of the law to facts, as argued by the more effective lawyer, so it’s best not to focus on anything else.

So, turning back to the question posed by the ABA Journal, “how do you deal with rude opposing counsel?” My answer is easy. I win.

A Really Bad Boss and a Really Awful Invasion of Privacy

This lawsuit, which we’ll file in the category of “Ultimate Jerks at Work,” was reported by Kashmir Hill on Forbes.com. Here’s the story, as alleged in the lawsuit.

Jonathan Bruns was working for a staffing agency when he was placed with a company in Houston, Texas. According to the complaint, Bruns asked if he could charge his cellphone in a wall outlet. His supervisor, Pete Offenhauser, obliged.

Apparently, after Offenhauser approved the request, he unplugged the phone from the wall and into his laptop. Once the phone was connected, Offenhauser had access to the pictures Bruns had stored on his phone. Among them were photos of Bruns’ fiancee.

In the photos, Bruns’ fiancee was, er, uh, nude.

What did Offenhauser do next? Oh, come on, I think we all know. He called everyone in the office over to his laptop. Once the whole group was gathered ’round, he showed them Bruns’ photos. Bruns walked in and saw the goings on. When he asked what all the excitement was about, he was greeted with “laughs and inappropriate comments,” many of which were made by his boss.

Bruns and his fiancee filed suit against the company, alleging invasion of privacy. This is not exactly a surprise, I’d say. But why not sue the supervisor, Offenhauser, individually? Well, presumably, because he was acting in his capacity as a supervisor at the time of the alleged conduct. But the alleged acts were, after all, tortious in nature, so there would likely be a claim against him, as well as against the company. The company, however, is more likely to have the money to pay.

And that, dear readers, is how the pixels crumble.

Fighting Back: Bullies and Obesity

Some people are real jerks. Anyone who deals with the general public for a living knows that this is an indisputable fact. For those who work in sales or service positions know that the theory “the customer is always right” can be a bitter pill to swallow. Every waiter, store clerk, and receptionist has had a moment where they had to swallow very hard to resist firing back at an irate and/or irrational customer who’s decided to take out his or her frustrations on whoever happens to be in their line of vision. Most of the time, it is not possible or not wise to fight back.

But, sometimes, it is.

Take, for example, Jennifer Livingston, a TV news anchor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. A viewer with, apparently, way too much time on his hands, took it upon himself to write Ms. Livingston a note to express his displeasure with her weight. “Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain,” wrote the viewer. “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

I think it’s fair to say that Ms. Livingston didn’t find the viewer’s “concern” all that heartwarming. Heck, it may have even hurt her feelings. But, instead of hiding her pain, she elected to take a different approach and responded to the comments on the air. Her response took the form of an articulate call to arms in which she accused the viewer of being a bully.

I think the story is inspiring for a number of reasons but it also highlights a few different current issues in employment law.

First, there’s the continuing discussion surrounding bullies in the workplace or, as I like to call them, “jerks at work.” Legislation has been introduced in numerous states over the past five or so years that would, in short, make it unlawful to be a jerk at work. I think there are obvious problems with trying to legislate “jerkiness” but I also recognize the high costs that jerks can have on workforce morale, creativity, and overall productivity. This post at Above the Law provides a recent summary of the various legislative efforts.

Second, there’s the as-yet-unresolved question of whether obesity is a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Historically, courts have been unwilling to include obesity as a protected disability. With this precedent in mind, some employers have refused to hire applicants who are obese and charge higher health-care premiums for overweight employees. But the EEOC has said that the ADA does protect individuals who are morbidly obese. A case filed last year by the EEOC asserting that “severe” obesity was a protected disability under the ADA, recently resulted in a $55,000 settlement for the employee. And a recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court seems to further support that the trend has shifted towards protecting obesity as a disability.