Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co. He is also immediate past president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
A lawyer friend told me a story last week about a case she had been working on. Turns out that years ago, one of the employees at her company was severely injured in a tragic plant accident while on the job in South Carolina. The case settled long before her tenure at the company began. Because of a bookkeeping snafu, the company continued to make payments for medical coverage for the injured worker for years after the settlement, payments that it had no obligation to make. Recently, upon discovering its error, the company decided to discontinue making the payments. My friend, the company lawyer, was tasked with communicating the decision to the former employee.
The former employee was well respected and very well liked. Her injury impacted many of the people with whom she worked as well as those in the administrative offices who handled the subsequent lawsuit, human resources issues and workers’ compensation claims. The company bent over backwards and went far beyond its legal obligations in assisting the employee at the time of the injury and, as it turns out, after the matter should have concluded with the settlement. Even decades later, people at the company who worked with the former employee tear up when discussing the case.
You might guess that it was difficult for my friend to manage the case because of the emotional elements surrounding the injury and the impact it had on the injured worker’s life. However, lawyers deal with many “emotional” issues and must separate themselves from the personal aspects of cases such as this one. She handled the matter as she would any other personal injury case – in a very business-like and professional manner. No problem there.
However, the real challenge came from within the company – from those who worked closely with the former employee. Because she was so well-liked, the emotional scars that remained were aggravated after all the years. My attorney friend experienced pushback from some of the employees with whom she needed to work to resolve the cessation of the gratuitous medical benefit payments. To her, it was simply a part of her everyday business/legal work. But to those with whom she worked, the case tore open long since hidden wounds and emotional trauma that evoked very emotional responses.
As in-house lawyers, we often deal with emotional issues. To preserve our sanity, we disassociate from the emotional elements of the matter so that we can make an objective legal decision. However, once we have done that, we must invoke our emotional intelligence skills in order successfully implement the recommended action, especially when working with others who may not be used to doing that. A lawyer’s “business as usual” manner may well be off-putting to those unaccustomed to turning off their emotions in this way.
In a situation such as this, to help ensure that such an emotionally charged task goes smoothly, the first thing one should do is reach out to those involved in the original case to get a handle on how the company dealt with the emotional issues at the time of the accident and the emotional impact that it had on the work force, paying particular attention to the people who were directly involved and their feelings at the time. Then reach out to those still with the company, and who would be assisting in effectuating the change, to assess their current emotional state regarding the incident. Clearly, as it turns out, they were still very much impacted by what had happened to the former employee. According to my friend, there may have been undue feelings of guilt associated with the accident and a general feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality. This may have accounted for the generous manner in which the matter was resolved in the first place many years ago. Whether these resurrected feelings are appropriate or not, they exist and must be taken into consideration when formulating a plan.
If you are tasked with carrying out such a charged assignment and you take the time up front to assess the emotional environment, you will be that much better able to implement a plan that accounts for the feelings of those who would be needed to assist in getting the job done and help them handle it without so much additional upset. In other words, you would empathize with those with whom the former employee worked, acknowledge their feelings and address the resolution of the matter in a proper tone and manner, taking into consideration their feelings about the matter, rather than adopting a “business as usual” approach. The objective would be the same but by accommodating the current employees’ feelings, you will make the job much easier for all involved and likely minimize pushback.
The lesson of the day is to be aware of the emotional impact your legal recommendation may have on your client base and communicate your advice so that it is received not only with an appreciative intellect but with a welcoming heart.