Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

What Not to Do at Work

May 20th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

I’ve recently become a fan of the TV show “What Not to Wear.” (There’s both a British version on BBC America and an American version on TLC–aside from the different hosts and the difference in American and British sensibilities, the two are otherwise the same). The premise is this: well-meaning friends identify someone who needs serious fashion help, and submit surreptiously-taped videotape to the show’s producers. Those selected for the show get a considerable sum of money ($5000 US /&pound2000 GB) to throw out their old clothes and select a whole new wardrobe. They also receive a hair and cosmetic makeover to complete their new look. The conditions of the gift are, however, that they use the money to buy more flattering outfits, chosen according to the fashion rules established by the show’s co-hosts. Most find it difficult to break their old fashion habits and follow the new rules, but do make a considerable effort to try new and different types of clothing, in the end generally achieving the dramatic and more flattering results hoped for by the show’s hosts and the guest’s friends and family.

The other day, when reading a published appellate decision for inclusion in our site’s “This Week in the Courts” feature, I devised an idea for a new TV show called “What Not To Do at Work.” The premise is similar to “What Not to Wear.” Well-meaning family members or coworkers identify a talented worker whose job is in nonetheless in jeopardy due to the choices he or she makes in the workplace. The show selects workers whose talents are valuable and whose jobs are worth saving, who agree to work with the show’s co-hosts, an attorney and a job counselor, to determine “what not to do at work.” My show would be much less expensive to make, as it wouldn’t involve an expensive shopping spree. In fact, employers would save money by not having to face a messy termination, potential lawsuit, or severance pay–in fact, maybe employers should pay me to do the show (like that’s going to happen.)

The point is that even the most determined employee advocate (and I place myself firmly in that category, as you would expect of an employee of an organization called Workplace Fairness) occasionally is confounded by certain appellate cases, and can’t help but wonder how certain situations escalated so far as to reach a federal appellate case. Admittedly, there are at least two sides (and often more!) to every story, and the version you read in the opinion may not adequately represent the full story, either because certain relevant evidence was inadmissible and thus could not be considered by the court, or because key details took place in private “he said/she said” situations that could only be related by biased parties. But nonetheless, it’s possible to hear about certain cases and wonder why friends and family members didn’t insist “you’ve gotta let this one go.” (Perhaps they did, and the employee was just too entrenched or stubborn to listen.) These are the kind of cases that make it harder for other workers to be taken seriously, however, so intervention at an early point really does benefit everyone.

The case that triggered my TV production fantasies was Driver v. United States Postal Service. Plaintiff Bill Driver had worked for the U.S. Post Office for 15 years when he was transferred due to a long-running feud he had with another co-worker, Carolyn Markham. Because the transfer caused Driver to lose seniority, he filed a lawsuit against his union for failing to pursue his grievance over the transfer and the Post Office for allegedly violating the collective bargaining agreement. It is clear from the court’s description than Bill Driver and Carolyn Markham did not get along. Not at all. Ms. Markham complained about Driver’s work and demeanor, bothered Driver with phone calls at home and at work, and accused him of sexual harassment and other misconduct; however, the Postal Service found Ms. Markham’s most serious allegations unsupported. Ms. Markham’s husband also became part of the feud, coming into the post office, staring at Driver and others for long periods of time, belittling employees, and accusing Driver — falsely, investigators later found — of stealing post office equipment. Driver, for his part, complained to the postmaster about Markham’s work performance, circulated a petition claiming that work conditions had been “very stressful since the hiring and problems caused by Carolyn Gregory Markham,” and according to other employees, found other subtle ways to antagonize Markham.

Various postal supervisors spent considerable amounts of time trying to determine fault, and when that was impossible, tried to no avail to diffuse the conflict. Customers were aware of the conflict and complained. Union officials, who represented both employees as members of the union, tried as well to diffuse the situation. The conflict went on for over three years–years that were very long indeed for Driver and Markham’s coworkers, who were constantly surrounded by conflict. Finally, both employees were transferred to different post offices, reasoning that even if only Markham were transferred, Markham’s husband was still a customer of the Carthage post office, and would still be able to continue the conflict if Driver remained.

One thing is reasonably clear to me when reviewing this case. If Driver and Markham were not unionized employees with just-cause protections against termination, their employer would never have tolerated their mutual animosity and the office conflict it caused for nearly so long. The union was also exceedingly patient as well: union official James Green testified that he made several trips to the Carthage Post Office to deal with their disagreements, and he spoke with the postmaster “several” times, in the postmaster’s words, and perhaps as many as twenty-five. This was in addition to the more than fifty times he claims to have spoken to each of the two employees themselves about their battle. Both parties are also lucky that both the union and postal service management were able to remain neutral as to the conflict between the two employees, for in other similar situations where fault is unclear, there are instances where management nonetheless chooses sides and accordingly disciplines the employee deemed to be more at fault. But the real question is why no one was able to convince Bill Driver to set aside his animosity towards Carolyn Markham and just do his job, and why Driver insisted in litigating his interpersonal dispute all the way to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

We may never know what was at the heart of this particular conflict; only Driver and Markham do, and their perceptions of the feud at this point are obviously worlds apart. But on “What Not to Do At Work,” Driver would be forced to explain to a career counselor and attorney why participating in and maintaining this extreme level of workplace conflict for several years could ever be worth it, personally or professionally. Even after he was transferred, Driver was unhappy with the long commute, but how could a long commute be worse than the level of conflict he was part of each day in the Carthage post office? Carthage employees greatly welcomed the transfers as well, and said that “the office had become so much more pleasant without Driver and Markham.” and that Carthage had finally become “a nice place to come to work now.”

It really seems that what Driver most wanted was to be officially declared “right,” and have Markham officially declared “wrong.” It shouldn’t take an attorney and a job counselor, however, to get across that while employees have a number of rights in the workplace, there’s no “right to be right,” especially when your interpersonal conflict makes work simply unbearable for your coworkers. So if you’re that supportive friend, family member or coworker, the best thing you can do (until my TV show comes on, that is) is to give that person a reality check, as the likelihood of being declared “right” when you’re participating in extreme levels of interpersonal conflict at work is slim indeed. It just may mean the end of a job.

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