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Managing Principals by Julia KramerWronging a Right

When are someone else’s rights wrong? Here’s what you do when faced with a situation where the rights of your workers are mutually exclusive.

By Julia Kramer

It’s rare when an ethical issue puts me between a rock and a hard place. If there is no “right” answer, I’m able to find a compromise. But sometimes there seems to be no acceptable solution; sometimes, no matter which direction you turn, that feeling of having a satisfying choice eludes you.

An interesting example comes from an unlikely source. Recently, a friend and I went to the movies. A couple sat right behind us, chatting as the movie began. To our relief, they soon settled into appropriate silence. Unfortunately, during the first quiet scene, the man again began talking to his wife. And, during the second wordless scene (I believe there was kissing involved) the man rather loudly added his own dialogue. My friend and I shot the man looks of disgust. To no avail. Throughout the movie he was an unending source of distraction, prompting us and others to ineffectively “shush” him, all the while developing feelings akin to road rage.

Finally, the movie ended and we stood to leave, turning to give the man one last withering stare. It was then we saw the seeing-eye dog quietly seated next to his visually impaired wife. Evidently, her husband had been interpreting those scenes that had no dialogue so that she could follow the action.

Later, I tried to come to terms with my strong, conflicting feelings of anger, annoyance, empathy and guilt. I still don’t have a clear answer. What does one do when faced with a situation in which the rights of the individuals involved are seemingly disparate and/or mutually exclusive?

The question is an important one for managers. We face similar, although less extreme, conflicts of interest at work. If we recast my experience we see similarities—the theater becomes the employer, the blind patron an employee with needs differing from the norm, and my friend and I the co-workers. You can see how “all the world’s a stage” and why it’s important to figure out how to deal with these conundrums.

Let’s focus our camera on the workplace, including disability situations but also the vast number of other problems with which we deal. Let’s explore that possibility that we can resolve most conflicts with the following script: prepare, communicate and compromise.

Preparation includes ensuring that the firm is acting in harmony with non-discrimination and civil rights laws and readying the physical workplace. These steps both protect the firm and support the employee. But they’re not enough. To wit: the theater did what it legally had to do—it provided physical access to the disabled patron in a non-discriminatory fashion, but it ignored the rest of us. Don’t make the same mistake. Include communication in your preparation.

Communication is the best way to ensure that staff is supportive and comfortable with a new situation. If your firm hires an employee with unusual needs and provides an accommodation that may affect others (the new employee gets the largest cubicle since it’s the only one that can accommodate a wheelchair) or one that has been given certain benefit accommodations (alternate work schedule), then clue in everyone before the employee arrives. Meet with staff, explain why John gets that cubicle and minimize resentment. Review the alternate schedule, tell why it was approved and answer questions.

Compromise Sometimes a compromise can be reached that helps everyone accept a deviance from the norm. If your firm allows parents to bring their children to work in an emergency, make sure you compromise on what that means. Business can’t be as usual. Set aside a conference room for parents to work alongside their children. Don’t let the children run around and disturb other employees or you’ll both irritate your employees and reduce productivity.

Although the theater couldn’t have arranged a compromise between the disabled patron and the rest of the audience without legal risk, think how much better it would have been for others if the theater could have opened up the possibility of cooperation. What if they could have said: “This couple needs to talk during the movie. Feel free to change your seats before the movie begins so that you can better enjoy the show.” I would have moved—and would not have felt the same resentment having been told up front what the situation was and what to expect. Your firm has the opportunity that the theater did not. Don’t waste it.

We all want to effectively and compassionately manage those with physical and psychological challenges and those with anger and emotion-management issues, inappropriate language, hygiene or clothing, or those with sensitive, personal struggles. It can be difficult. But I’m confident that you can tackle most of your dilemmas. Practice using the preparation, communication and compromise script, and I think you’ll find that there is a happy, or at least not so dramatic, ending to almost any story.

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer.
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