My Working Day – or – You can take a horse to water but you canny make it drink…

A slow day today. Home-working, preparing paperwork for submission, examining and assessing evidence, deciding on final strategies and tactical moves.

The reason I am good at what I do? (she said, modestly). Because, above all else, above and before all that adherence to process, I manage the client’s expectations. Calmly. Placatingly. Sensibly and reasonably. So it is that, even as I sometimes feel like shaking them physically, I am smiling and nodding, exuding reassurance and validation, whilst gently probbing their inevitably warped reasoning and beginning the process which will bring them back to themselves.

Cynical? No. Realistic? Yes.

The first rule of my client management is: Let Them Blow. That first meeting, let them do a Vesuvius. Let them exhaust themselves. Let them consume all energies, pouring their bile and their acid; their tears and their snotters; their months of frustration and pain into the calm space of my presence.

Some will come with bulging files of paper: printed emails evidencing workplace slights; perceived bullying treatment; suspect ‘tone’ and discriminatory treatment. For a few, the files will represent several years of a life  which has become invested in sustaining a deep wrath and personal unhappiness. These are the clients who hug their files to themselves – files become life jackets. These are the clients who have annotated the margins of printed-out emails with red inked exclamation marks and row upon repeated row of question marks. The clients whose eyes begin to bulge with the pressing need that you believe them.

Inevitably, all have become attached to their grievance or their disciplinary or their dignity case. It has become the filter through which they experience the world. It defines where and who they are emotionally. It colours every action they take and will be the measure against which they assess their life and the working lifes of others. These are people who are on a mission: to convince me of The Truth.

Ironically, and ‘in truth’, it generally matters not what I believe. The Truth is a subjective mistress who is all things to all people. One man’s bullying is another woman’s performance management. Perception is all. And unless it’s a case about who punched who, or who shagged the 16 year old pupil – in other words, a case about empirically verifiable FACTS – then it is forever a case of ‘he says; she says; he says’. It is Personal Perception.

So, I listen to the noise of their pain and frustration; their repeated calls for ‘justice’ (calls that very often really mean ‘revenge’); I hold their hands through the cataract of anguish and anger – and when they are exhausted, I begin the process of cutting the tumourous mass of filing from them. Delicately avoiding a mass blood-letting. Because what I am really doing for many, is questioning the very basis upon which they have built their recent lives. And that often requires a surgical precision, a delicacy of touch, a keen sense of time and place.

Mind you, for some, there is no tool like the blunt tool. A bald undisguised order that they stop communicating with their employer after I become involved – backed by threat: or else I will withdraw from acting. Or a dismissal of the missive they have drafted with a: It is wholly inappropriate. Now, let us return to our agreed plan.

Some people want the sun and the earth and the moon and the stars. They have lost perspective – and need time to understand that the law does not have a remedy which will heal broken relationships with colleagues nor deliver what they deserve. Nor that stamping their feet in a toddler dance of defiance will achieve anything more than reducing their stock possibly further.

As for me, I cannot afford to become affected by their emotional battles. I cannot be blinded by their views. I must be detached. Objective. Must be able to highlight the unreasonability of their expectations. Always ready to substitute their desires with ‘what the law and legal precedent would indicate is reasonably possible in this case’. Or I do them a great disservice.

What has often struck me, as I do a job like this, is just how many people become trapped in jobs to which they are entirely unsuited – but I also know that it is a dangerous thing to suggest they may be in the wrong job… It often bewilders me how many people make demands of their employers that they wouldn’t dream of making of their partners or families or friends (aka I want a transfer now and it must be within this area or similar) or how many people simply cannot hear that they may have to change their lifetime’s practice or to learn new skills (aka but I have always done it this way).

Of course, I am also aware that my experiences are mediated via the minority of the deeply unhappy; that the vast majority go through their working lives without needing my services; and that work can and does make some people very ill.

Today I prepare the case for a client who cannot accept that he has any professional short-comings. He does not need ‘professional development’. Or at least, he has rejected every management identification of his need for improvement, as ‘motivated by spite and a bullying culture’. Tomorrow I will begin the process of challenge…

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10 thoughts on “My Working Day – or – You can take a horse to water but you canny make it drink…

  1. I had an earlier generation of clients with labour law problems and didn't find them like this at all….with the explosion in wages since my time people must be thinking they deserve this affluence rather than thinking in terms of inflation!

    Mark you I didn't see them unless their case needed more specialist advice than that offered by their unions (as I say, it was another era!) particularly once we started to apply EEC law in the U.K.

    Most were bewildered, more than anything, and overall I had an impression of managers unable or unwilling to communicate while imposing much closer control on people who were accustomed to being left to do their job in peace.

    Management as such, management as a discipline, was coming in and people resented being managed. They saw no point in the processes, thought they wasted time better spent on getting on with their work…and explosive situations arose.

  2. In amongst the ones with warped expectations there are those who blame themselves; who consult too late and who are overwhelmed by a very negative work culture. There remain managers who prefer a command and control model – and this will break some and demoralise others.
    My experience is that that type of manager is gradually being replaced – a more engaging culture becoming the norm.
    I get the intractable cases which are predominantly down to poor inter-personal relationships, poor management skills and poor self-insight – the cases where people have dug in; where positions have polarised and where the extreme is the norm. The cases where managers refuse to see anything positive and employees refuse to acknowledge they have some responsibility for the place they find themselves in.
    The wholly malignant manager is rare (but exists). The wholly incompetent employee similarly rare (though I have met some).
    Both in any case will tend to adopt positions that imply the other is completely unreasonable and totally wrong…
    Whereas the truth is much more fluid…
    I am a mediator at heart. I can – and will – do my adversarial best, playing by the rules and 'winning'. But reality is much greyer – and for every 'winner' there's a 'loser'.
    Add to that some very bizarre expectations from employees of their employers (maybe a measure of just how much progress we have made in the field of employee protection?) and it makes for some interesting conversations…
    EU law has had a BIG impact – it must have been exciting to be involved right at the start.

    An aside – but I wonder how much the 'value for money' agenda, the need to justify every decision and penny, the continual emphasis on 'public accountability' has actually detracted from the ability to get on with the job in hand. When you are too busy recording and tracking and monitoring actions (an industry in itself), action itself becomes difficult, fraught and ever more cautious. No easy answer to that – because we are all accountable to someone and shouldn't be taking actions we can't justify…

  3. I don't think it was so much the command and control model that bothered people…it was the perception that someone was interposing themselves between the worker and the company….the door to the boss's office was no longer open….there was 'management' and 'structures'.

    I used to trace the rot to the point when the personnel department started to call itself human resources and changed its role from that of being something between an almoner and a mediator to that of an manipulator of labour law in a time when employment had started to become more precarious.
    People felt betrayed – and were – when they were still working on the old personnel department model…and finding a human resources reaction.

    By the time things reached me it was well past the possibility of mediation…that's how the system worked…so I was committed to attack and you will not be surprised to learn that a fair number of cases were won in advance because of sloppy 'management' procedures!

    It was super being in on the start of EEC law in the U.K. and it was to prove a buckler of employee rights in the Thatcher years.

    The tracking, monitoring and reporting is to me a waste of time.
    Replacing it all with more robust auditing of where the cash is being spent and by whom on what will give real accountability.

    And, on a personal note, I would hate the modern touchy feely 'management' style!

  4. Thank you for visiting my blog – I see The FLY is a visitor here too – so no slip ups with her eye on what you say!

    I was taken by the comment about how many people are in inappropriate roles and companies – that is my observation too. But I think also that that many companies operate with putative 'values and behaviours' that are far removed from normality of human interaction, and more bluntly, how we would actually want to work together. They are guided instead by text book bollocks (read 'best practice') with large side helpings of legislative fear and corporate governance.

    I've said enough, but shall no doubt return…

  5. What a brilliant analysis of your role and of how some people feel when they are locked in these conflicts.

    Just awful when it goes on for years. Best advice is get out quick. Go for a speedy resolution if possible or it will eat your life – as you describe.

    I went through a Constructive Dismissal case and the authority settled before we reached the Tribunal. The whole process took eleven months and that felt too long. I had an amazing lawyer battling for me – he is my hero. And the settlement I received has allowed me two years of writing time so a happy ending.

    Your work is important.

  6. Managing expectations.

    Right after graduate school I took a job at a firm…Trial Lawyers. It was just something to do while we decided if I should continue my studies.

    One of my jobs was to take phone calls from people whose cases had been dropped.

    I'm sure they'd been promised the world by the firm as they went about gathering as many potential clients as possible. After the medical exams, they'd send out letters to the people that didn't “pass”…You have no injury!

    Ha! Most of took that as a personal challange. I had a collection of furious voice mails that, right or not, would put me on the floor in tears.

    One lady said that the medicine had made her blood run backwards.

    A nasty business.

  7. Fly – there is so much we agree upon here. I deal with the cases which need a TU hand to reach resolution. Mostly the cases are murky narratives of interpersonal difficulties where no one is wrong but everyone is wrong (if you know what I mean)- or they are cut-and-shut fair dismissals. Only the very few are bona fide unfair dismissals – and I enjoy getting my teeth into those. Personally I prefer a manager who doesn't want to be my friend – a manager I can aspire to be like! So far I've had only two of those – but too many of the other kind.
    The Bike Shed – welcome! Yes, too often our workplaces become strewn with the bodies of the victims of textbook doctrines… Mind you – sometimes what you and I might think is common sense and decent human interaction is actually another person's bullying or dignity at work case… I have stopped being surprised, honest!
    Chloe – Constructive dismissal is the most difficult of cases to take and generally the most unsuccessful. I shudder to think what you suffered prior to lodging your ET1 and am stressed to consider what it cost you in personal, emotional and health terms to endure the strain of the legal action. Your compromise agreement has set you free – to entertain us! So there was a great positive!
    e.f. – There are times when I want to BE you. You have this ability to turn experience into real quality narrative… Yip – lawyers can be ambulance-chasing mean big corrupt Bs. This is the type of legal practice I despised and avoid. It's also responsible for extortionate insurance and a litigious culture that looks to the courts to resolve every little battle or suspected slight. But you've got to hand it to that lady – her blood ran backwards!! Haha. You NEED to write a book. It'll be a best seller!

  8. You really are too kind.

    You don't want to be me ma'am…you already write extremely well and you don't want to be in my head. 🙂

    I have this conversation with Martha, about writing, everyday…it's as if everybody thinks I'm wasting my time by selling chicken wings to curb stores and prisons.

    🙂

    Thank you.

  9. You write so beautifully, and I am in awe at how completely you understand the people you are helping:

    “Inevitably, all have become attached to their grievance or their disciplinary or their dignity case. It has become the filter through which they experience the world.”

    It's not every lawyer who has, on the one hand, the capacity for empathy, compassion and hand-holding – the understanding that clients are literally trusting you with their lives – and on the other hand, a sharp mind that can see the situation for what it is and how it is likely (or unlikely) to be resolved legally.

    You are a rare and precious gem among lawyers.

  10. Katriina you lovely kind woman – you've made me smile.
    Mind you – you wouldn't have thought any of the above yesterday…I was caught with my proverbial legal pants down during a capability case and am still smarting from the kick to my derriere… I've had to do a lot of repair work today. I am truly mad with myself – am still beating myself up in fact.
    Ah well. At least I've time to make the kick work for me.

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