That's What She Said

Words Matter (More than Lithium)

Litigation Value: A plaintiff (and high school) class consisting of “Scott’s Tots,” each of whom could claim entitlement to four years of college tuition — less an offset for the value of a laptop battery. (Thanks, Mr. Scott.)

Greetings, faithful readers! You know the summer’s going fast and the nights are growing colder — at least in some parts of the continent — when this blog circles back on itself not once, but twice. While watching the most recent repeat of The Office, I seemed to recall writing about someone else within Ford & Harrison who had previously written about this episode. Or maybe I just read his or her prior post. Whatever the case, the fact that I can’t remember how many levels in we are (can you say “Inception”?) suggests that it’s high time for a new season!

With the past as prelude, we can cite tonight’s dual-track plot as a helpful reminder that words can matter, particularly in an employment law setting. Whether you’re speaking in baby talk or using your best Elvis voice, what you utter can and will be used against you. Indeed, those of us who practice law — along with the judges, arbitrators, and mediators who help our clients resolve their disputes — spend a great deal of time and energy focusing on the spoken and written word. (On that note, who among you had ever juxtaposed the facially similar terms “tuition” and “intuition” before Michael attempted that ploy?)

Do statements sometimes get taken out of context? You bet. But that shibboleth may not apply nearly as often as certain shame-faced public figures would have us believe. Yet, there is no denying that on occasion truly innocuous comments and notations can be spun far beyond their intended meaning. With Jim’s (or Dwight’s, or Andy’s) employee-of-the-month contest in mind, we can all appreciate how seemingly objective standards can be (mis)applied to serve inherently subjective ends.

So, what is a human resources professional, in-house lawyer, or other decisionmaker to do? Choose words carefully, and when possible (or prudent), document them in a manner that will minimize opportunities for impeachment or misinterpretation at a later date.  Of course, that would necessarily exclude the kinds of “empty promises” made by an up-and-coming Scranton businessman a decade ago. (As Stanley mused, “Has it really been ten years?”)

Perpetuating the movie references, while keeping it (mostly) about Steve Carell, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not . . . .” To prove the contextual point in the preceding paragraph, look at the ellipsis in this one.  It makes all the difference.

And, even without an “emergency morale transplant,” was anyone else reminded tonight (by the plaque outside the reading room) what Michael Scott’s middle name is? As his character’s final season approaches, I’ll leave it to the devoted among you to do your fact-checking.