Time for a proactive dialogue on the health of the workplace

Michael Zeytoonian Collaborative Processes, Dispute Resolution Resources

(First in a Series & Dialogue)

Much of my work in preventive law and dispute resolution involves workplace situations and disputes.  I have many great business and non-profit clients and many individual clients who are employees.  I’ve never liked the idea of being pigeonholed as an “employer’s or management side” or “employee’s side” lawyer any more than I wanted to be labeled a plaintiff’s attorney or defense attorney.  Representing both sides has helped me counsel clients better as I understand the perspectives of both sides, along with the views of the other “stakeholders” in workplace issues – families, communities, subcontractors, lawmakers and the consumers of the business products and services involved in the dispute.

Many of my employer clients treat employees wonderfully, even in this challenging economy and an ever changing workplace.  But lately I have been hearing too many stories and fielding too many inquiries and phone calls that reflect an increasingly troubling trend – that of laying off people to cut costs and then expecting those who remain employed after the serious cutbacks to do much more to compensate for the work of those who were laid off.  Those that are left behind are increasingly overworked, under-appreciated, under-compensated and incredibly stressed out, given the extra burden they have assumed.

It’s one thing to see this happening but also know that some corporate and high level executives are doing their part by foregoing raises, bonuses and high profits and sharing the burden with their employees.  But it’s another thing to witness what’s happening to these employees and at the same time notice that executive level compensation and corporate profits are either staying level or increasing, at the expense of the employees – both those who have been laid off as well as those who are still employed but now tremendously overburdened.  That doesn’t sit well with our collective moral compass.

Whether we admit it or not, this is a huge and steadily growing problem.  How we respond to that problem as good and decent executives, leaders, business owners and management people will define us, our businesses and define the future workplace.  What will communities do in response to watching their members lose their jobs or be so overworked that they cannot contribute to civil and volunteer life in the cities and towns where they live?  Studies and many media articles have reported about the rising indirect costs of stress, medical and mental health care and time off from work.  A work force which is tired, uninspired, drained and worn down takes its toll on the services and products their companies offer and produce, along with the environment and energy levels in the workplace itself.

Can we really afford for this to go on for a prolonged period of time?  The quality of service and production has already and will surely decline, resulting in reduced income, increased stress and lack of pride in what businesses do or produce.  The atmosphere in the workplace has become more and more unsatisfying and stressful, the employees less inspired and more unmotivated.

If we are preventive and proactive in what we do, this should show in the workplace.  When we are not, the results are already becoming evident.  Where does it end?  Needing to unionize white collar workers?  Increased claims against employers?  More and more companies going out of business, losing money or functioning in an uninspired, flat-liner and often toxic environment?  More well-intentioned laws that often have the practical impact of crippling small businesses under the burden of compliance?

These are things we need to get beyond just noting or complaining about and start acting to correct the situation, before companies and businesses self-destruct or end up in a workers’ revolt.  That same “Tea Party” spirit that focuses a laser beam on government will soon aim its spotlight on the workplace and some of the abuses festering within the workplace. Many of them don’t yet rise to the level of legal claims, but new laws are being developed to address things like workplace bullying, unfair recruiting and interviewing practices, and to put limits on background and credit checks.  Existing laws like wage and hour laws are being given more teeth – offering relief like treble damages and attorneys’ fees for violations.

The time has come to replace these reactive responses with a healthy, transparent and productive dialogue amongst employers, employees and the varied community stakeholders, with a goal of achieving some proactive changes and positive results.  Let’s begin the dialogue here with comments and responses.

The floor is open for comments ….