Submit a Case Submit Case Find a Neutral Search Neutral

Has the Workplace Become a War Zone?

Publication Banner

Has the Workplace Become a War Zone?

Source: Bloomberg Law Reports
Date: July 2011
________________ © 2011 Bloomberg Finance L.P. All rights reserved. Originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. in the Vol. 5, No. 30 edition of the Bloomberg Law Re- ports—Labor & Employment. Reprinted with permission. Bloomberg Law Reports® is a registered trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P.    This document and any discussions set forth herein are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice, which has to be ad- dressed to particular facts and circumstances involved in any given situation. Review or use of the document and any discussions does not create an attor- ney-client relationship with the author or publisher. To the extent that this document may contain suggested provisions, they will require modification to  suit a particular transaction, jurisdiction or situation. Please consult with an attorney with the appropriate level of experience if you have any questions.  Any tax information contained in the document or discussions is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties imposed  under the United States Internal Revenue Code. Any opinions expressed are those of the author. Bloomberg Finance L.P. and its affiliated entities do not  take responsibility for the content in this document or discussions and do not make any representation or warranty as to their completeness or accuracy.   Has the Workplace Become a War Zone?  Jerry P. Roscoe, JAMS, The Resolution Experts   The nature of employment in the United States has  gone through a sea change since the 1960s. While  employees used to stay with a single employer until  they were ready to collect their pensions, they are  now almost expected to have several employers, if  not careers, in their lifetimes.  Some  attribute  this  to  lack  of  employee  loyalty.  Others believe that scarcity of resources, pressure  on profits, and outsourcing have led to the disap- pearance  of  the  career-long  employer.  In  either  case, the increase in numbers of employee lawsuits,  including growing numbers of class actions, leads to  a growing concern:  Has the workplace become a war zone? If so, there  are casualties on all sides.  From the perspective of a dispute resolver, there is  both good and bad news. The good news is that  employment disputes are not so complex that dis- putants have developed their own set of behavioral  rules and negotiation theories. These disputes are  driven by the same generic barriers to resolution  that create and perpetuate most conflicts. The bad  news is that the perception in the workplace of dis- parity of interests tends to generate more disputes.  While there may be some disparity of interests be- tween employers and their employees, much of it is  more perception than reality, a product of  "zero  sum" thinking in the workplace. Zero sum thinking is  based on the perception that, in any given relation- ship, there is only a fixed quantity of something,  whether it be money, good will, or reputation. As in  the game of poker, a zero sum thinker has con- cluded that, whenever someone gains in the rela- tionship, someone else must lose.  There is nothing inherently wrong with zero sum  thinking, so long as it is applied to zero sum situa- tions. Where we get into trouble is when we apply  zero sum theory to non-zero sum relationships, es- pecially in the employment arena.  For example, when my two teenagers were 4 and 6  years of age, they would ride peacefully in the SUV,  sitting  side  by  side.  However,  whenever  my  son  turned to his (younger) sister and said, "I'm looking  out your window", she would get very upset. At age  4, she had already adopted a zero sum view of the  world: the perception that her brother had gained  something, a view out her window, led her to con- clude that she must be losing something. Her confu- sion as to what she was actually losing served only  to heighten her upset and the associated turmoil in  the back of the car.  Adults often operate the same way. Due to eco- nomics in the workplace, some environments have  become akin to a game of musical chairs, with every  employee worried that they will be the next to lose  the chair, whether it be in the form of continued  employment  or  a  performance  reward.  When  someone receives "the chair" in the form of an ac- colade, promotion or raise in pay, others may feel © 2011 Bloomberg Finance L.P. All rights reserved. Originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. in the Vol. 5, No. 30 edition of the Bloomberg Law Re- ports—Labor & Employment. Reprinted with permission. Bloomberg Law Reports® is a registered trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P.   that they have "lost" the same benefit. This pheno- menon is enhanced in a workplace where recogni- tion is conferred on the basis of perceived value as  opposed to real value. Conversely and perversely,  there is a dark side of this theory at play in the  workplace:  sabotage.  Some  feel  that  they  will  create personal gain by damaging others, thus look- ing relatively "better" than the one whose work or  reputation was sabotaged. Those tempted to en- gage in this practice beware: in resolving disputes  for almost 30 years, this mediator has never come  across  a  situation  where  hurting  one  has  helped  another.  Zero sum thinking is but one barrier to more pro- ductive workplace relationships. Another barrier is  the possibility that we have lost sight of the fact  that the workplace is a relationship at all.  It is Not "Us" vs. "Them"  Employers and employees have lost sight of their  common interests. Employers might be surprised to  learn that workers are just as motivated by efficien- cy and productivity as they are. A significant morale  generator is the sense that one's work is meaning- ful, or even appreciated, and that one's time and  energies are being used productively. When an em- ployer adopts the view that employees are "lazy"  "takers," whose interests are adverse to efficiency  and profit, the employer has stopped listening to  the  employee's  views,  needs,  or  suggestions.  Ac- company this with a workplace transition from in  loco parentis where co-workers bonded as family,  celebrating one another's birthdays, to a workplace  of economic uncertainty in which workers feel like  generic  widgets,  and  the  effect  is  exacerbated.  There  are  casualties  on  all  sides:  employer,  em- ployee and even consumer as potential synergy is  lost when a perceived gap develops between "la- bor" and "management." Lack of collaboration and  communication may evolve into a more permanent  alienation that reinforces stereotypes and inhibits  the exchange of information that may be critical to  both workplace process and outcome.  The Solution: create opportunities to learn which  employee  motivators  relate  to  productivity  and  profit.  Sometimes Yes Costs Less Than No  When  the  workplace  has  devolved  to  an  "us  vs.  them" mentality, there is a temptation by manage- ment to deny employee requests. This is only natu- ral  when  requests  are  viewed  as  additional  de- mands, a dynamic that is very well developed in  labor negotiations. By rigidly refusing employee re- quests, employers may be missing an opportunity  for gain. For example, in a heated contract negotia- tion, a performer may ask for a limousine to take  her to her nightly performance. Many negotiators  might view the limo as a costly concession and re- spond  with  a  quick  no.  Such  a  reaction  deprives  management  the  opportunity  to  realize  gain:  it  might be in the negotiator's interest to control the  timeliness  of  the  performer,  management  could  benefit from the image of her arriving at the venue  in a fancy limo, and the performance may benefit  from a performer who is in a better mood because  he or she feels more appreciated and cared for. The  same approach may apply to requests for telecom- muting,  workplace  dress  options,  and  workplace  conveniences as simple as onsite healthy snack ma- chines.  The Solution: Before saying no to a request, ask the  key question: "How could we gain from saying yes  to this?"  Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt  Communication  is  rarely  perfect,  particularly  in  many workplaces. As a result, it is quite common to  witness  behavior  for  which  there  is  no  apparent  explanation. In such circumstances, people often fill  the information gap with a negative assumption –  the brain must make sense of the world and there- fore cannot tolerate information gaps. While filling  the  information  gap  with  a  negative  assumption  seems to be human nature, it stands to reason that © 2011 Bloomberg Finance L.P. All rights reserved. Originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. in the Vol. 5, No. 30 edition of the Bloomberg Law Re- ports—Labor & Employment. Reprinted with permission. Bloomberg Law Reports® is a registered trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P.   not all behavior is driven by negative intent. In fact,  most behavior is probably driven by one's intent to  be productive and meaningful. An assumption to  the contrary may lead to deteriorating relationships  and lost productivity.  Solution: When you observe something you don't  understand, assume that the motivation for it was  positive. You may be surprised by how often you  are correct.  By the time a workplace dispute gets to a mediator,  it may be too late to repair the damage. However,  much may be learned from dissection of the origins  of employment disputes that may be put to good  use in a workplace that is designed to take advan- tage of that which drives employers as well as em- ployees: a sense of productivity and relevance.  Jerry P. Roscoe, Esq. serves exclusively as a mediator  and  arbitrator.  He  brings  over  20  years  of  expe- rience in the resolution of complex, multi-party mat- ters including Supreme Court cases and internation- al conflicts. He can be reached at jroscoe@jamsadr  .com.   

The nature of employment in the United States has gone through a sea change since the 1960s. While employees used to stay with a single employer until they were ready to collect their pensions, they are now almost expected to have several employers, if not careers, in their lifetimes.

Some attribute this to lack of employee loyalty. Others believe that scarcity of resources, pressure on profits, and outsourcing have led to the disappearance of the career‐long employer. In either case, the increase in numbers of employee lawsuits, including growing numbers of class actions, leads to a growing concern:

Has the workplace become a war zone? If so, there are casualties on all sides.

From the perspective of a dispute resolver, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that employment disputes are not so complex that disputants have developed their own set of behavioral rules and negotiation theories. These disputes are driven by the same generic barriers to resolution that create and perpetuate most conflicts. The bad news is that the perception in the workplace of disparity of interests tends to generate more disputes.
While there may be some disparity of interests between employers and their employees, much of it is more perception than reality, a product of "zero sum" thinking in the workplace. Zero sum thinking is based on the perception that, in any given relationship, there is only a fixed quantity of something, whether it be money, good will, or reputation.

As in the game of poker, a zero sum thinker has concluded that, whenever someone gains in the relationship, someone else must lose. There is nothing inherently wrong with zero sum thinking, so long as it is applied to zero sum situations. Where we get into trouble is when we apply zero sum theory to non‐zero sum relationships, especially in the employment arena. For example, when my two teenagers were 4 and 6 years of age, they would ride peacefully in the SUV, sitting side by side.

However, whenever my son turned to his (younger) sister and said, "I'm looking out your window", she would get very upset. At age 4, she had already adopted a zero sum view of the world: the perception that her brother had gained something, a view out her window, led her to conclude that she must be losing something. Her confusion as to what she was actually losing served only to heighten her upset and the associated turmoil in the back of the car.
Adults often operate the same way. Due to economics in the workplace, some environments have become akin to a game of musical chairs, with every employee worried that they will be the next to lose the chair, whether it be in the form of continued employment or a performance reward. When someone receives "the chair" in the form of an accolade, promotion or raise in pay, others may feel that they have "lost" the same benefit. This phenomenon is enhanced in a workplace where recognition is conferred on the basis of perceived value as opposed to real value.

Conversely and perversely, there is a dark side of this theory at play in the workplace: sabotage. Some feel that they will create personal gain by damaging others, thus looking relatively "better" than the one whose work or reputation was sabotaged. Those tempted to engage in this practice beware: in resolving disputes for almost 30 years, this mediator has never come across a situation where hurting one has helped another. Zero sum thinking is but one barrier to more productive workplace relationships. Another barrier is the possibility that we have lost sight of the fact that the workplace is a relationship at all.

It is Not "Us" vs. "Them" Employers and employees have lost sight of their common interests. Employers might be surprised to learn that workers are just as motivated by efficiency and productivity as they are. A significant morale generator is the sense that one's work is meaningful, or even appreciated, and that one's time and energies are being used productively. When an employer adopts the view that employees are "lazy" "takers," whose interests are adverse to efficiency and profit, the employer has stopped listening to the employee's views, needs, or suggestions. Accompany this with a workplace transition from in loco parentis where co‐workers bonded as family, celebrating one another's birthdays, to a workplace of economic uncertainty in which workers feel like generic widgets, and the effect is exacerbated.

There are casualties on all sides: employer, employee and even consumer as potential synergy is lost when a perceived gap develops between "labor" and "management." Lack of collaboration and communication may evolve into a more permanent alienation that reinforces stereotypes and inhibits the exchange of information that may be critical to both workplace process and outcome.

The Solution: create opportunities to learn which employee motivators relate to productivity and profit. Sometimes Yes Costs Less Than No When the workplace has devolved to an "us vs. them" mentality, there is a temptation by management to deny employee requests. This is only natural when requests are viewed as additional demands, a dynamic that is very well developed in labor negotiations. By rigidly refusing employee requests, employers may be missing an opportunity for gain. For example, in a heated contract negotiation, a performer may ask for a limousine to take her to her nightly performance.

Many negotiators might view the limo as a costly concession and respond with a quick no. Such a reaction deprives management the opportunity to realize gain: it might be in the negotiator's interest to control the timeliness of the performer, management could benefit from the image of her arriving at the venue in a fancy limo, and the performance may benefit from a performer who is in a better mood because he or she feels more appreciated and cared for. The same approach may apply to requests for telecommuting, workplace dress options, and workplace conveniences as simple as onsite healthy snack machines.

The Solution: Before saying no to a request, ask the key question: "How could we gain from saying yes to this?" Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt Communication is rarely perfect, particularly in many workplaces. As a result, it is quite common to witness behavior for which there is no apparent explanation. In such circumstances, people often fill the information gap with a negative assumption – the brain must make sense of the world and therefore cannot tolerate information gaps. While filling the information gap with a negative assumption seems to be human nature, it stands to reason that most behavior is probably driven by one's intent to be productive and meaningful. An assumption to the contrary may lead to deteriorating relationships and lost productivity. Solution: When you observe something you don't understand, assume that the motivation for it was positive. You may be surprised by how often you are correct.

By the time a workplace dispute gets to a mediator, it may be too late to repair the damage. However, much may be learned from dissection of the origins of employment disputes that may be put to good use in a workplace that is designed to take advantage of that which drives employers as well as employees: a sense of productivity and relevance.

Jerry P. Roscoe, Esq. serves exclusively as a mediator and arbitrator. He brings over 20 years of experience in the resolution of complex, multi‐party matters including Supreme Court cases and international conflicts. He can be reached at

JAMS Neutrals

Resolution Centers

Practice Areas