THE DANGERS OF DESENSITIZATION

“If he stops moving, take the pillow off his face.” 

I uttered these words to one of my sons just the other day as I passed through the living room and continued on to the bedroom.  As I closed the door behind me, I thought perhaps I’ve become a little too desensitized by living with three very active boys.  “Boys will be boys” is simply a convenient justification that makes my world run more smoothly.  Not to downplay the potential suffocation of one’s offspring, but the idea got me thinking about the little things we become accustomed to in the workplace because they’ve gone on so long.  Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it?”  In the employment setting, that complacency can be a dangerous thing.

Readers of this website have heard from the Employment Essentials Team ad nauseum about the dangers of horseplay and shop talk.  I was in a workplace just the other day, seated in a waiting area, when I heard from the open-windowed reception office behind me, “feel better now that you’ve drained the main . . .” well, you get the picture.   I’ve never heard this spoken outside of a movie and certainly never in the public area of a business.  Did this employee mean anything by his vulgarity?  Of course not.  Would he have said it if a female co-worker had been present?  Gosh, I hope not. 

But, alas, this is the problem.  Getting along with your co-workers in a friendly, we’re-like-a-big-dysfunctional-family kind of way is great, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that you are in a place of business.  Harassment law says that you must look at the particular circumstances of the workplace to determine if a harassment claim is legally viable.  Noogies, wedgies, and vulgarity may not be unusual in some work environments, but that doesn’t mean an employer should become desensitized to this behavior.  An important client overhearing the potty talk I heard might just walk, and that’s not good for business.  If this type of behavior gets out of hand on the shop floor (and it has a tendency to do just that) then the potential lawsuit you could face is likewise not good for business.  Training keeps your employees sensitized to proper behavior, and that is good business.

Another type of training that gets overlooked is training for new managers.  Giving introductory training to new employees is often called “onboarding,” and a similar formalized process should be used when new managers are hired.  From my view, you need to remember that these folks are potentially your witnesses in a lawsuit.  They are also individuals whose knowledge may be imputed to you – the employer – in an employment claim.  Your expectations for them should be and often are very different than for rank-and-file employees.  They have to know and enforce your workplace rules.  They may have to fill out forms on performance.  They have to lead.  These are among the many reasons why they must be trained. 

Without this training, verbal abuse from managers is something which employers and employees alike tend to become desensitized about.  In fact, employers often just attribute this to a manager’s “management style”.  I’ve been horrified at many a kids’ baseball game by the treatment of players by certain coaches.  Isn’t that behavior just as repugnant on the ball field as it is in the workplace?  It is in my view.

My last thought on desensitivity at work came about when I read our piece on the DC Circuit’s decision on the National Association of Manufacturers’ challenge to the NLRB posting rule.  If you haven’t read that, you should check it out HERE.  Front and center in that dispute was a notice about unions and employee rights that the NLRB tried to require employers to post.  Of course, employers have a whole array of items they are required to post at work – typically on a bulletin board or the like where employees can read them.  Sometimes, these posters become important in the defense of lawsuits.  Almost always, they have a purpose of conveying a message – just like regular advertisements.  I have a friend who uses a billboard to advertise his services.  I drove past it almost every day for at least a year – until recently, that is, when I drove by and didn’t see the advertisement any longer.  When I asked my friend why he’d moved his signage, he explained that he was afraid that he’d become part of the landscape.  In other words, folks were desensitized to seeing the sign in its spot, and it was no longer serving its purpose to draw in business. 

This might be an interesting concept for an employer to apply to the required postings board.  People walk past the board and no longer see what’s there because it has become part of the landscape.  I can’t help but think of the hay I could make in a case where the posted rights become an issue if I could say to a jury: “We want our employees to know their rights.  This is important enough to us that we move the posters around on the board occasionally so they catch our employees’ attention and are more likely to be read, rather than allowing them to become part of the workplace landscape.”

Don’t become desensitized to your landscape at work.  We’re all one trip over an extension cord away from a lawsuit.  In my view, being aware of your surroundings is just as important at work as it is when you’re a parent.  What do you think?

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
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