Can workplaces be joyful?

Another big global law firm — in this case New York-based Dewey & LeBoeuf, with 1,300 lawyers around the world — is facing extinction, a victim of its own ambitions and, perhaps, some of the very avarice that has fueled the economic meltdown. Google the firm’s name and you’ll come up with plenty of articles offering anticipatory obits.

A brief passage in one piece especially caught my eye. Peter Lattman, writing for the New York Times, quoted a Dewey employee about what it’s like to be there right now:

“Law firms aren’t very joyful places even when things are going well,” said the Dewey employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “How would I describe the atmosphere now? The first word that comes to mind is funereal.”

How interesting: Even when the money is rolling in, these law firms “aren’t very joyful places.” To anyone familiar with the world of what prestige-obsessed lawyers and law students love to call “BigLaw,” this isn’t a surprising characterization.

Hard work

Think what you will of lawyers and the legal profession, but practicing law is hard work, and doing it well requires plenty of time, intellect, and attention to detail. Important rights and obligations often are at stake. So I understand if the typical BigLaw office lacks the atmosphere of a Broadway musical or a World Series champion ticker tape parade.

Nevertheless, something is wrong when smart, talented people who have so many occupational choices find themselves coalesced in such joyless places to earn a living. The sad story of Dewey and, quite likely, other corporate law firms on the brink, is that they haven’t learned any of the deeper, quality-of-work-life lessons coming out of what we’ve been through during the past four years.

The NWI Eightfold Path

Dear Reader, I ask your indulgence. Let’s steer away from the joyless world of the typical corporate law firm and imagine what workplaces could be like. Three years ago, I offered what I call the New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” to a psychologically healthy workplace. Here it is, once again, for your consideration.

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, I suggest asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

6 responses

  1. “Can workplaces be joyful?” Good question. If anyone knows of a great place, could you let me know? I never want to relive what I went through.

  2. I hear you Been There, I understand completely how you feel. No-matter what your next job may be…I hope it is one that you have a passion for and consists of compassionate and caring people. Don’t ever let others steal your joy. Blessings to you.

  3. My particular issue is restricted just to my department. I have a manager who even the director doesn’t want in this position, but I am at a loss. She is smart, but not knowledgable in how the department runs every day, has no clue to the workload or workflow, and has chosen to project the blame onto me, the one person who CAN and DOES the work every single day. I worked my way up before we were purchased by another company and she came in as my immediate report. I chose to keep my duties but take a step down, and I am content with that job, have been for 6 years. She was demoted into my previous position, then promoted when the manager left. It took over a year to fill that position because everyone in town knows this person and won’t work here, and I did not want it as I felt I needed a buffer between the two of us. They hired a supervisor that me and my co-lead got along with very well. But then the manager seemed to build resentment that we worked so well together, as well as becoming paranoid that we were always talking about her behind her back. She undermined us all to the staff to the point that they all went to her with complaints, even little snide things that weren’t worth our time to deal with, until about five of the employees began to use this as a means to voice their trvial issues. She listened to each and every one, for hours on end (literally!) and if they involved me, she spent many more hours trying to find any piece of dirt on me to blame me for whatever she could. (Note: I am very good at my job, and I believe she is intimidated by me because I can do this job and she has no clue how to. Also, I make more money than she does and I think that gets her goat as well.) She has also discussed me to other subordinates behind my back, does not support me to anyone (though she will tell me to my face whatever she thinks I want to hear), and allows the bullying and mobbing to continue. Now the supervisor has stepped down and took a subordinate position. There is no position for me to step into, though. I have to wait until someone else leaves, but I don’t think I can wait that long! In six months, we have three people leaving, but I have an appointment with my doctor this week to discuss the stress and possible burnout. I have taken my concerns to my director and HR, and the director listened and might be doing some things in the background, but the HR rep is on record in HR (I have a friend in there who fills me in) with saying she will always support management, even if they are wrong! That doesn’t help at all, so I went to the HR director last week. She was very accomodating – she always seemed to like me – and said she would talk to all parties, but wanted to start with the previous supervisor. I was elated. No one has gotten her side of the story because it always gets twisted when it’s passed through the manager’s filter. Even the director gave me a lot of “I didn’t know that” or “I wasn’t aware” when I spoke with her two months ago. There have been issues in this department for quite awhile and the manager would tell the supervisor it was me, and “you just don’t see it”. Well, no, she didn’t see it because that’s not the way it was happening! And the manager is NEVER in the department so she can’t possibly see it! I have repeatedly told her to get all sides of the story, that there is always at least two, but to no avail. I really do like my job, I do. Even my duties as a lead. But because I have the EI to recognize what’s best for me, I want to step down and take a third shift job. I just have to wait for an opening. In the meantime, I hope they can get the manager straightened out. I just heard the director is trying to figure out what to do with her, because God forbid they demote her again into the supervisor’s job! Thanks for letting me spill… I really enjoyed your comments.

  4. It is so unfair that the people who are good and ethical and hardworking and who actually like their jobs are the ones who have to leave. We just have to believe that our next positions will be better.

  5. It is unbelievable the length at which unethical management will go to in order to carry out their goals to eliminate employees through sabotage and bullying. Those targeted are usually very good at their jobs and those who witness it get get a glimpse of just how cruel the work place can be. No one can fully understand the impact of such abuse unless you have actually been through it. HR does not have the ability to protect you because they must do what the employer tells them to do and often side up with management. I challenge those in HR positions to stand up for what is eithical and help employees being abused. Very rarely will some one claim to be abused for the fun of it… take any and all pleas for help seriously. Those who continue the abuse over and over again (because you can get away with it)… I plead for mercy…just STOP!!! You would not want to be treated that way… so why do you treat others that way??? We are all human beings and I think you can figure out right from wrong. Dare to Care… Dare to stand up for what is right. Those suffering – you are in my thoughts and prayers. Know that you are not alone… there are others out there that understand and care. One day… these abuses will be seen for what they are – unethical, cruel… and UNACCEPTABLE. Those guilty of such abuses should be terminated… not the poor folks being abused. Zero tolerance. Blessings, Moi

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