That's What She Said

Taking a Twirl on the Big Stage

Litigation Value: $0. For the second week running, our favorite paper company largely avoided any obvious liability on the employment law front. In fact, Dunder Mifflin may have a (nominal) claim of its own against Michael Scott and his road-tripping entourage, based on their unauthorized limousine frolic.

If this were a securities or bankruptcy law post, last night’s episode of The Office would provide ample material for a discussion of a corporation’s duties to its shareholders and creditors in the midst of creeping insolvency. But we’ll leave those topics to other bloggers. Given our focus, we’ll instead look at the experiences of three characters — Michael and Oscar attending the DMI shareholder meeting in New York City, and Jim minding the shop back in Scranton — to identify some common employee relations issues that have the potential to become employment law issues.

Aspirations Versus Binding Promises
Michael’s pride about being invited to attend Dunder Mifflin’s shareholder meeting in the Big Apple was surpassed only by his excitement about getting to ride there in a limousine (and not just a mere Town Car). While his instinct to share that “perk” with some of his employees was admirable, the seemingly random manner in which he selected those who rode with him raised questions. For example, why were no women asked to make the trip? Could it be that Michael wanted the on-the-road banter to include bawdy remarks (such as Andy’s question about past activities in the back of the limo)?

Whatever the case, Michael clearly saved his worst missteps for the big stage. Seated with Dunder Mifflin’s upper management before the assembled shareholders, he let his desire to be liked — or at least not disliked — get the better of him. Just as many managers tend to do with their employees, Michael told the company’s investors what they wanted to hear, as opposed to the truth. He compounded his error by making specific promises (e.g., about a nonexistent 45-day plan), followed by the unqualified statement:  “You can take that to the bank!” In an employment setting, such lofty talk might ease short-term fears among the rank and file, but in the long term it can invite claims that binding promises were made and broken.

Grousing Versus Protected Activity
Unhappy with the state of affairs at his employer, Oscar coined a new translation of the company’s acronym:  “Dummies, Morons and Idiots.” Although his accounting perspective caused him to question some of management’s financial decisions, Oscar’s initial disapproval of the limousine expense became muted when he was chosen to ride along. To that extent, it could hardly be claimed that he was punished or singled out by Michael for speaking his mind.

During the shareholder meeting, however, Oscar’s previously stated concerns about the company’s direction were grossly mishandled. Michael, in an attempt to support the unfounded promises he had made (see above), put Oscar on the spot by summoning him to the executive suite. With no prior warning, Michael asked Oscar to share with Dunder Mifflin’s top management his thoughts about how things should be run.  Understandably, an embarrassed Oscar declined that invitation. That awkward scene demonstrates the importance of giving employees a means of voicing their good-faith concerns in a confidential manner, without fear of retribution. For a publicly traded company like DMI (whose stock had fallen precipitously by show’s end), such complaint procedures are particularly important in light of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other laws that provide whistleblower protections.

Motivating Versus Constructively Discharging
Meanwhile, back in Scranton, Jim was flying solo in his co-manager’s absence. Faced with questions about his authority — even from Pam, his own wife! — he struggled to motivate the workforce in a climate of flagging morale. Ryan, the Tetris-playing temp, openly questioned whether there was any reason to perform the tasks requested of him if the company was going under. Jim tried to persuade him otherwise, but to no avail.

After losing patience with one of his employee’s complete lack of productivity, Jim resorted to a different approach: He moved Ryan’s work space into a closet, announcing the relocation in front of all the other employees. While that seemed to have an immediate impact on Ryan’s outlook, it’s probably not a best practice for real-world managers. Even though Jim did not fire him outright, Ryan might argue that he was constructively discharged, in that no reasonable person would work (or at least goof off) under those conditions.

The Upshot
In their own ways, Michael, Oscar, and Jim all had the opportunity to step up and take a twirl (or is it a “spin”?) on a bigger stage last night. While some managers and employees relish such opportunities, they should be offered and handled with care. As Dwight’s “Recyclops” character showed in the opening segment, even a laudable goal can lead to destructive consequences.