The myth of the disgruntled employee

By Marvin Krakow

Removed from the distant wars currently in the news, it is easy to see how neighbors alike in so many ways must dehumanize one another in the midst of conflict. It’s a form of blindness that is common not just to war, but to all conflict – and one that I see all too often in my practice.

Let me introduce you to the people who come to our law office for help.   Many have worked for the same employer for long years, often for decades.  Most feel strong and warm connections to their employers and co-workers.  They struggle, as we all do, with the challenges of life, with their health, with family responsibilities, with financial reversals, and with their careers.  They come to see us, because their bosses have disrupted their work, their source of income, their identity. They are not irrational.  They are not trying to game the system.  They work with a seriousness of purpose.

Who are they?  They do every kind of work: executives, janitors, public servants, truck drivers, waiters, teachers, and artists. They come from every imaginable background.  They have advanced degrees; they did not learn to read.  Their families are established; they are recent immigrants, accompanied by their children who translate. Some are old, some young, some rich, some poor.  They are straight. They are gay.   They have strong religious beliefs.  They have no religious beliefs. They are breadwinners with obligations to pay college tuition or to support an elderly parent.  They are men and women near the ends of long careers who need another few years of work, because they cannot afford to retire.   They are from every racial and ethnic background.

If they share anything in common, it is that they are not happy to find themselves in a lawyer’s office.  When I ask potential clients about their previous dealings with lawyers, the most common response is that they have never hired a lawyer, and have never been involved in a lawsuit.  Most of them come to us reluctantly, and they apologize for doing so.  They will explain that they would prefer to consider all other options instead of filing suit.  They come, despite that reticence, because they feel they have been seriously hurt and profoundly disrespected by their employers.

Who brings a lawsuit?  Here are a few examples from my own recent experience: a store manager falsely accuses a 60-year old retail assistant of failing a drug test, and fires him.  New owners replace a worker who successfully led a computer software development department for over thirty years and replace her with a less qualified, younger man.  An executive needs time off to care for his dying wife; the owner fires him a week after she dies.

In each of these cases, the prevailing myth of the “disgruntled employee” hides the reality of our common humanity. It is impossible to hear the adjective “disgruntled” without filling in the noun “worker,” and conjuring an image of a madman spraying bullets from an automatic rifle.

The myth serves intertwining legal and psychological purposes for employers and their counsel.   A long term, productive employee is viewed as damaged.  He or she suddenly becomes a “complainer,” “a trouble maker,” “not a team player,” “unable to communicate,” “uncooperative,” “unresponsive to constructive criticism,” “an alarmist,” someone who “games the system,” “insubordinate.”  Managers targeting these employees sometimes send lengthy and detailed emails documenting “deficiencies” which were neither observed nor noted before the employee raised questions of discrimination or harassment on the job.  As part of this management mythology, employers assume that an employee who complains does so out of a failure of character: the employee must be permanently and irrationally dissatisfied by his or her lot in life, and with his or her workplace in particular.  They believe, or claim to believe, that the employee is dangerous.

Management’s goal is to cast the person as fundamentally unlikeable, less worthy of respect, “less human.”  Ultimately, management lawyers who demonize the worker who reports a problem by treating them as quasi-criminals, put the entire workforce at risk.  When the starting point is that complaints come mainly or exclusively from defective personalities, employers fail to take reports seriously.  They fail to remedy problems before they grow more serious.  They ignore warning signs of sexual predators.  They fail to correct safety hazards.  They allow mistreatment of older workers.  They make it harder for a parent to care for his or her children.

There is a better way.  When a manager puts aside defensiveness and character assassination, and  sees the care and loyalty driving an employee complaint,  he or she is likely to recognize issues that are critical to the well-being of the employer’s enterprise. Unfortunately,  conflict feels less troubling when the enemy isn’t quite so human.  I sometimes think these employers missed a chance to get to know my clients in all their humanity.  But perhaps it is simply easier for them to forget the people they once knew.

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