Saturday, July 26, 2008

Self Interest Well Understood

We sat across each other at the negotiating table. He had his talking points in front of him on a yellow pad, scribbled hastily as if he did it during his break time. At the table with us was a mediator who was there to keep the peace as much as help us negotiate a solution. I knew my boss supported me in whatever decision I would come up with and I was prepared to give some ground in the interests of keeping the peace and simple sympathy.

Two weeks ago I had fired my whole department. Twenty-two people were told they had two weeks to find other jobs and/or reapply for their old positions. In the meantime I had restructured the whole department and had all new job descriptions approved. I was hired to clean house get the shipping and receiving department’s accuracy from 50% up to 99%. People had taken the warehouse jobs thinking they were gravy jobs. They drove a forklift all day. Jobs were given based on seniority not on interviews or past performance and so accuracy had become a joke.

The former employee started by attacking me personally. The negotiator stopped that after a few rants and she asked for specific grievances that he had. He began to rant against my restructuring and that I only did it so I could hire women. I was being accused of prejudice against men and only wanted women in my department. It was an interesting coincidence that the only former employees that I hired back were women, but they simply were good employees who happened to be women. When it came to my turn I offered an out for him, I offered to keep him in his job for another month so he could find another job within the company or prove me wrong with his performance. He was so fixated on the grievance and so sure he would win he never applied for any of the many open positions that he could have gotten with his seniority, so if the grievance didn’t go his way, he was out of a job. He threw it back in my face as if it was a smelly rag.

The mediator really had nothing to mediate. He had no real grievance and just thought if he blew enough steam my way I would relent. He left the company that day.

Alexis de Tocqueville said in Democracy in America that Americans had mastered the concept of “self interest well understood.” His definition was that we understood that we had to give up a small portion to others in order to get a large portion of what we want. We understood that we had to think of everybody once in a while instead of just ourselves and when we did that, we would get MOST of what we wanted.

This former employee lost sight of that concept. I was willing to keep him around and give him a chance to either prove himself as indispensable or have another job in the company. He didn’t understand and so lost both. I wonder if Tocqueville would say the same thing about America today. I wonder if we would be willing to give up some or ALL of our self interest for the interests of the whole. Is your self interest well understood?

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