Hard-Won Wisdom

True Stories from the Management Trenches

 Hard-Won Wisdom

Author: Jathan Janove
Pub Date: November 2016
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814437773
Page Count: 240
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814437803

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To build a collection of workplace stories for managers to learn from, I can’t think of a better way than a career in employment law. You get a ringside seat for just about every form of workplace behavior you could ever imagine (or would prefer not to imagine.)

My professional experience began in 1980 as a first-year law student at the University of Chicago. I got a full-time summer job working in the employment discrimination section of a legal aid clinic. The job continued during school years on a part-time basis. My clients were women and minorities who brought harassment, discrimination and retaliation claims against their employers.

I vividly recall my very first client. Tall, handsome and athletically-built, he showed up at the clinic claiming he’d been fired as a hospital orderly due to national origin discrimination.

“What reason did the hospital gave you?” I asked.

“They said I was fondling female patients.”

“Were you?” I asked.

“It depends what you mean by ‘fondling.’”

I thought to myself, “the guy lost his orderly job and now thinks he’s a lawyer.” I said, “Other than as a necessary part of your job duties, did you touch any patient’s private parts, whether on top of or underneath their clothing?”

“Some of them, sure,” he replied.

“Well,” I said, trying to look as lawyerly as a first-year law student can look who still had pimples, “that would most likely be deemed ‘fondling’.”

“But they asked me to!” Trying to avoid sarcasm, I explained that consensual fondling of hospital patients would most likely be considered outside his job description. I asked: “What makes you think your national origin had something to do with your being fired?”

“I don’t know if it’s that,” he said, “but it just doesn’t seem fair.” He added, “It might be something else that I know was held against me.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“My good looks,” he said.


“My ex-boss is short, fat and ugly. He used to make comments like, ‘You must be quite the ladies man.’ Or, ‘Here comes the stud.’ I think he resented me because I was the best looking guy there, and he’s ugly.”

I ended up telling the ex-orderly that he didn’t have a very good case and suggested he drop the claim and spend his time finding another job. I explained that the categories of workers protected under federal and state anti-discrimination laws had not yet been expanded to include handsome ladies’ men. That would be a burden he’d have to shoulder by himself.

Another client taught third grade in the Chicago public schools system. One year, Mr. Johnson’s class included an especially hyperactive boy. The child increasingly got on my client’s nerves. One day, after the boy was at his disruptive worst and refused to return to his seat, Mr. Johnson picked him up and threw him into the chalkboard.

Although he didn’t lift the child over his head and toss him World Wrestling Federation style, the impact caused a small cut on the boy’s ear.

The school responded by firing him. Mr. Johnson’s internal appeals to the school board were denied. As a result, he came to our clinic for representation. I took his case to court.

Because there had been a big outcry by parents, including the Parent Teachers Association, the school board took this case very seriously. My opponent was a distinguished, silver-haired veteran of the bar who was probably older than my father. His monogrammed shirt probably cost more than my suit, shirt, tie and shoes put together (but not my law school tuition!)

The hearing took place in a musty courtroom in downtown Chicago. The judge had an unusually large head and was nicknamed “Moose”, although no one dared call him that.

Somewhat nervously, I looked up at Judge Moose in his black robe and conceded that throwing a third grader into a chalkboard wasn’t desirable teacher behavior. But I then proclaimed, “However, Your Honor, my client’s conduct does not merit career capital punishment!”

I argued that since Mr. Johnson was the only teacher in the school who was a minority—the other teachers, the principal, the students and the parents were white—race must have influenced “this rush to judgment against my client.”

You might think my argument flimsy. But not Judge Moose. He ordered that Mr. Johnson be reinstated with full teaching privileges. But like King Solomon, Judge Moose split the baby. He ordered reinstatement without back pay. “That will be punishment enough,” he said.

On the way out of the courtroom, the silver-haired school board attorney pulled me aside. “Son,” he said, “Nice job. Now find out your client’s price and give me a call. We’re prepared to pay whatever it takes for him to go away.” He then clutched my elbow. Looking me in the eye, he said, “Understand one thing. Your client will never teach in our school system again. Never.”

I shared this conversation with Mr. Johnson and added what I thought was his good economic fortune under the circumstances. “You can get a substantial sum of money right now to tide you over while you find a teaching job elsewhere,” I said. “And I’m sure they’ll agree to give you a neutral reference as part of the deal. On the other hand, if you insist on reinstatement, they’ll fight you in court for years and you could easily lose.”

Mr. Johnson’s reaction surprised me, “How dare you suggest such a thing? I’m in the right! They must return me to my classroom! Maybe what I need is a real lawyer. Not some kid.”

Ouch! So much for ego gratification.

After experiences like these—representing a consensual patient fondler and a self-righteous third-grader thrower—a sensible person might have switched from employment law to something more sane and sober like tax. But I was hooked, including on studying why people in the workplace do what they do.

For this book I’ve selected 46 stories about how to behave in today’s workplace, and how not to behave. The stories come from the following sources: (1) My former career as a labor and employment law litigator; (2) My subsequent work as an organizational consultant, executive coach and workplace leadership trainer; and (3) Personal experiences, including as a manager myself. Topics run the gamut: hiring, firing, performance management, employee engagement, succession planning, conflict resolution, documentation, information flow, harassment, discrimination and downsizing. Although these stories are based on real events, to protect people’s privacy, I’ve changed not only names but other details as well. Other than myself, I don’t identify anyone directly or indirectly and any resemblance should be deemed coincidental. Also, the ‘Moral of the Stories’ is not intended as legal advice.

Some stories will resonate with you more than others. Perhaps it will be the glass-eating trial lawyer who cringes at the thought of confronting his secretary (“Tough Trial Lawyer Turns Timid”). Or the email-addicted CEO who decides to fire his CFO (“Discharge From 4 Doors Down”). Or perhaps it will be a story about one of my own professional missteps (“The Stupid Switch-Part One”). Maybe it will be a communications tool you find especially valuable such as the “Same Day Summary” (“Texas Wes”), the “Star Profile” (“Beating The Coin Toss”), or “verbal Aikido” (“A Midnight Encounter At A Portland Pub.”)

You can read the book cover-to-cover, select sections, pick story titles that grab your attention, or just let the book fall open and start reading. However you approach reading the book, my goal is to provide you leadership, communication and management concepts and tools you’ll use to good effect. After each story you’ll find a moral that will help you apply its lessons to your own workplace.

Every manager has both the ability and the opportunity to step up his or her game. I hope this book helps accomplish that result for you.

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