To kill Atticus Finch? HR pros aren’t afraid of the truth

It’s been a long time since I, like nearly any person educated in the United States, read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, like many other readers out there, it’s back on my bedside table since Ms. Lee consented to publication of her other manuscript, Go Set a Watchman. I haven’t tackled it yet, but I’m eager to see what’s new from Scout and, of course, Atticus Finch.

The reviews I’ve read, however, let me know that I’m in for a surprise. Everyone recalls the heroic image Ms. Lee painted of Atticus in Mockingbird, where he was the brave and upright defender of a wrongly accused black man in the Jim Crow South. Gregory Peck personified Atticus in Mockingbird’s 1962 film rendition, which solidified Atticus in our minds as one of the better angels of our nature.

Well, it turns out that Atticus had (or grew) some warts. Watchman is set a few decades after Mockingbird. Scout is grown and Atticus has developed what sound like some pretty unsavory convictions. He is not the man who stood up for Tom Robinson; in Watchman, he stands in the way of integration and suffers Scout’s anger. In fact, Lee created this Atticus first and later authored Mockingbird after her publisher rejected Watchman. Some people are refusing to even read the book because of the ugly streak it draws across Atticus.

I won’t be one of those people.

Any employment lawyer worth his or her salt conducts an investigation and builds a case with the full history of the people involved. After all, what is an employment dispute if it is not the story of people and their personalities, their quirks, their strengths, and their weaknesses all coming together to produce (more often than not) an unfulfilling conclusion? Human resource professionals will see this from us in a number of different ways:

  • We’ll ask for the full story–and we’ll need it. If you get a lawsuit or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge, beware the lawyer who wants only the documents related to the termination. We want the full personnel file. We want all of the e-mails. We want the phone records. In short, we want everything that goes into the story.
  • We’ll want to talk to everyone–and we’ll do it at length. Sure, we enjoy your company (honestly, we do). But we also have a job to do, and that job requires us to know who you are and what makes you tick. Are you going to be tough on the stand or can folks get under your skin? Are there some things in your past that have changed, for better or worse? If so, let’s hear it.
  • We have to get the truth (or, to avoid an undergraduate philosophy seminar about “truth” breaking out in the comments, your honesty and candor). We can deal with the truth. If the truth is favorable, we’ll fight for a just end to your dispute. If the truth hurts, we can try to work something out to minimize the damage. However, we can’t deal with surprises. If we see your warts for the first time at your deposition or your trial, we can’t do much to solve the problem that late in the game.

So let me see this other side of Atticus. It may take him off a pedestal. It may shatter some illusions. Who knows, it may make the Mockingbird version of him seem even braver. Either way, none of us is beyond fault, and faults are an ingredient in every story, even those that have a favorable ending.