One of my mother’s many pearls of wisdom handed down over the years included this Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
As an angst-ridden teenager, that advice rang pretty true. It’s been equally helpful for me as a young lawyer, a church member, a youth baseball coach, and even as a partner navigating firm politics. And, as employment law and HR professionals, it’s often our challenge to gracefully convey that message to the employees who pass through our doors.
The situations present themselves in many ways; from who is sitting with whom at lunch…to who was put on the company picnic organizing committee…to the impact of race, age, or workplace injury on various employment decisions. We all inexplicably tend to believe that every action of our co-workers and supervisors is carefully considered, platted out, agonized over, and revisited several times before announcement. Of course in reality, most decisions aren’t made only after exhaustive consideration of all relevant factors and potential ramifications—nor should they be. Productivity would grind to a halt if every one of hundreds of small- and medium-sized weekly workplace decisions required the hours of focus and attention I devoted to whether my date for the prom would prefer a traditional or a wrist corsage. (wrist corsage, by the way; it was the ‘80s).
The fact is, we all spend considerably more time speculating on what others are thinking about us than we allot for our own decisions that affect others. That’s the human condition. At its most problematic, we see it in EEOC charges and lawsuits where plaintiffs assign deep meaning and sometimes even malice and ill will to every action, off-hand comment, and sideways glance. At trial, we argue to the jury that plaintiff was seeing ghosts; attributing motivations that were never intended nor even considered. Juries often understand, but sometimes not. Regardless, every time employers get a lawsuit filed or, God forbid, a jury submission, it’s a loss at some level. Far better and more efficient to help employees understand and make peace with processes on the front end.
To be sure, it’s a delicate line to walk. The message absolutely cannot be that nobody ever thinks about you, you insignificant cog in the wheel. Employees must feel important and valued, but they’ll be happier and more satisfied if they can be made to understand the bigger picture and that they don’t have to shoulder the burden of everything revolving around them. One size doesn’t fit all and there’s no template or boilerplate. The tone and language and approach must be carefully tailored to each employee and each situation. And that’s where great HR professionals—quietly and without fanfare or much recognition—make a huge difference.