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A Better Partnership


Jul 2006
July 28, 2006

Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Clients

I practice employment law. In nearly 20 years of practice, I have seen hundreds of businesses and how they operate from a human resource standpoint.

Making lawful employment decisions does not guarantee a successful business. The law says, “Thou shall not beat thy wife.” It doesn’t say anything about loving her. The mere fact that there is no spousal abuse does not guarantee a good marriage. In the same way, a business may make lawful employment decisions. It doesn’t guarantee a successful relationship with employees, however.

Sins of Commission and Sins of Omission. Before I was a lawyer, I worked for nearly ten years in the financial and automotive industries. Often, in these large organizations, I saw employees who had learned the fine art of doing nothing. They survived because they were never criticized for failing. In other words, risk taking was not rewarded, it was punished.

When I entered the practice of law, I immediately had the opportunity to work with small business entrepreneurs like Greg. His business, started in this father’s barn, was growing dramatically. One evening at dinner, Greg explained how his father, a farmer, had actively participated in Greg’s youthful efforts to fix things around the farm. This meant that his father would actually help Greg fail, because not all of Greg’s young ideas were sound. But it was a terrific learning experience.

This experience carried over to Greg’s leadership style. Employees who make an effort, but fail, are often asked, “What did you learn from the experience?” After the new knowledge is analyzed, the Company moves on with the new-found information. Meanwhile, the employee who does nothing (i.e., the non-risk taker) is not employed long.

In baseball, a great hitter fails 70% of the time, either striking out or hitting into an out. But a hitter who never swings the bat will never get a hit.

In entrepreneurial organizations, sins of commission – repeated trying with some episodes of failure – are tolerated because eventually there will be success. Sins of omission – never trying – simply are not tolerated.

Follow Me. A number of years ago, Mark, a small business owner, asked me to meet with him and his management team to discuss sex harassment in the workplace. The client had not experienced any problems, but recognized that his business was growing, so there would be more employees and he did not want to have a problem down the road.

I met with the owner and his small band of supervisors in the breakroom. After explaining the law, one of the supervisors asked, “Is that OK?”, as he pointed to an item on the wall. I looked over my shoulder to see a clock hanging on the wall. It showed a scantily clad woman with her arms around the face of the clock. I said that the clock was inappropriate. Without saying a word, the owner moved his chair to the wall, stood on the chair, removed the clock and dropped it into the garbage. His actions said, “Follow me.”

This client had concluded that he could expect the highest ethical behavior from his employees only when he himself openly demonstrated this behavior. Today, the business is a success.

This type of top-down commitment carries across all types of employment issues: safety, profitability, and dedication to the business. For example, the manager who wanders through the plant without his safety glasses should not be surprised when his employees do not work safely (and are ultimately injured).

What Will the Other Employees Think. I met with an owner and his managers who had worked for years to develop a trusting relationship with their employees. Many of the employees have been with the Company for years. We met to discuss a troubling situation. A long-term employee had engaged in inappropriate conduct, which had caused another valuable employee to quit.

From a legal standpoint, I was comfortable with a discharge decision. But the business owner was uncomfortable. After all, this was a long-service employee. And while the other employees in the business recognized that the employee should be disciplined, the owner was not convinced that the other employees would think a discharge was appropriate.

Simply put, the business owner was concerned for the culture that had taken years to nurture. In the end, we decided on a long, unpaid suspension and written warning. It turns out the owner was right. The other employees believed the discipline given was appropriate, but not heavy-handed. The culture had been protected.

Conclusion. Good employment practices require more than mere compliance with the law. With an unemployment rate hovering near zero, employees have other options. Wages and benefits are not the only things that matter. Dignity, trust, respect, and other human-relations issues are becoming more important in the recruitment and retention of employees. Employers who recognize this are more likely to win the battle for a shrinking pool of talent.

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Louis C. Rabaut is a partner in the Grand Rapids office of Warner Norcross & Judd LLP. He specializes in employment law. Lou may be reached at 616.752.2147. Because each business situation is different, this information is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice.

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