In the Trenches: Acme learns that employees react differently to praise

Oct. 2, 2009
In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme learns that different personalities have different responses to success.

Acme’s empirical HR research revealed that the best workers are much like Rose Ahriebede, a shy, quiet, competent worker who had no interest in being in the limelight. This class of worker didn’t make waves and, thus, tended to minimize the workload in Acme’s HR crew. Rose’s attitude was simply to get to work on time, do the job as well as possible, keep her head down, be pleasant to coworkers and go home at the end of the shift, all this with the aim of staying employed during these economic hard times. She represented an extreme end of the sociability spectrum.

Other employees were, shall we say, a bit more gregarious than Rose. Acme didn’t run a sweatshop, after all. For some people, the ability to interact with coworkers provided a psychic reward that compensated, to some measure, for the eight hours a day they remained voluntary captives on the plant floor.

One such person was Polly Urataine. She worked two production steps downstream of Rose in the same department. Polly was confident in her outgoing manner and felt she was a great friend to everyone she met. She tried to be Acme’s biggest booster. A regular people person, it was common for Polly to go nearly giddy when Earl Gratey, the department supervisor, publicly praised her coworkers for doing a better than average job. She’d cheer and hug the lucky person unashamedly. Most responded in kind, grateful for the additional recognition.

One day, Earl appeared on the floor to gather the department together to announce that something Rose had done was over and above the normal job demands. He congratulated her, which only embarrassed Rose. As was her custom, Polly appeared out of the crowd to offer her celebratory hug to a thunderstruck Rose. Rose shrugged off the physical contact and moved away from a confused Polly.

Later that day, Polly snuck up on Rose to gave her a hug and a back rub, then got real close and whispered “I love you, sweetie.” Rose then left her work station and walked to Earl’s office to complain about the unwanted attention. Earl wanted to keep things cool and arranged a meeting with the two women to settle the matter.


But, Rose still felt that Polly was hanging around her much too closely for comfort. When an additional complaint to Earl didn’t make a difference, Rose filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It wasn’t long before everyone plugged into the Acme grapevine knew of Rose’s situation and hoped it would be resolved during the scheduled mediation sessions planned for the following week.

Still, mediation was unsuccessful in resolving Rose’s complaint. Of course, the morning after mediation concluded, Rose’s coworkers wanted to know the outcome of her sparring match with the mighty Acme. Rose now found herself to be somewhat of a company-wide celebrity. Uncomfortable with the attention, reluctantly she told people about her adventure and her disappointment at coming off like a complete idiot. The more that people bugged her about it, the angrier she became at Acme, Polly and her job, finally saying that she felt like popping somebody in the nose.

Not long thereafter, Acme suspended Rose for a week without pay, claiming that she disclosed information about the mediation proceedings in direct violation of the confidentiality agreement that every employee must sign before they can be hired. Acme also claimed that Rose made violent threats against unspecified Acme employees. Ultimately, Acme fired Rose outright, which prompted her lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should supervisors publicly praise employees? Does management have any obligation to keep different personality types apart? Would it make sense for Acme to institute a “no touching” rule on company property? Could it be enforced? Do hiring-day secrecy agreements cover situations such as this?

An academician says:

As they say, “you get what you reward.” And if you want extraordinary performance, you have to somehow reward that type of behavior, even if it’s just singling a person out for an “attaboy” (or “attagirl”) in a department meeting. Most companies don’t acknowledge exceptional performance and should do a lot more of it. With respect to Rose, I doubt that her “attagirl” in front of the group was much more than a slight embarrassment, and she probably was secretly pleased that she was recognized.

So, the issue wasn’t the recognition, rather it was Polly embrace that was the problem. This is a difficult situation for companies — one person’s “normal” behavior might be another person’s “offensive” behavior, and it’s difficult to keep both sides happy.

My approach would be to explain to Rose that Polly’s behavior wasn’t meant to be offensive and actually meant to be supportive of Rose. And then to tell Polly in fairly blunt language that while she was well-intentioned, Rose is a very private person and likes her space. Further, given that fact, Polly was to keep away from Rose — no comments and no contact. If that doesn’t handle the situation, Acme’s next action is to move Polly, or Rose, or both, such that they wouldn’t have any contact with one another. That’s probably what most companies do when a so called “personality conflict” arises among employees. This usually works well enough to keep the peace (out of sight, out of mind).

What if this doesn’t work to Rose’s satisfaction? Then Acme will just have to deal with Rose’s issues and complaints. They would have dealt with the situation in a reasonable way and have made a reasonable accommodation to address Rose’s concerns. That is usually what the EEOC is looking for in a company’s response to an employee complaint. And given that Acme has some evidence to back up their charges against Rose, my take is that that Acme would have a pretty solid case in their favor.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

Of course supervisors should praise employees publicly. Positive reinforcement is one of the few things that costs nothing to the employer and provides great incentive for employees. Apart from those unusual employees like Rose, most people enjoy public praise.

Rose isn’t likely to get very far with her sexual harassment claim. Apart from two hugs and a back rub, accompanied by an “I love you,” she has little to complain about. Given the fact that there was no threat or hostility accompanying these well meant gestures, it’s not likely that a court would find Polly’s conduct created a hostile work environment. The law considers whether the conduct would be offensive to a reasonable person, not a hypersensitive introvert like Rose.

The standard type of confidentiality agreement that employees sign at hire, requiring them to keep company information and trade secrets confidential, is not likely to cover the proceedings at an EEOC mediation session. Nevertheless, Acme’s displeasure at Rose revealing information about the mediation wasn’t misplaced. The confidentiality of settlement discussions, including mediation sessions, is sacrosanct.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A plant engineer says:

This situation could and should have been avoided. If Earl simply respected Rose’s wishes (which weren’t unreasonable at all) to stop unwanted contact from Polly, the incident is over and Acme continues to have a great employee in Rose.

The question of public praise is one that could be argued either way. I believe it’s best in a manufacturing environment to praise someone by bringing them to the supervisors office, giving a positive write up and placing it in their personnel file. By doing it in private, the employee knows that they are doing a good job and are performing above the “call of duty.” If the employee chooses to share that information with others, it’s their decision. Polly should have kept her hugs to herself. Had the hugging employee been a male giving unwanted hugs to a female and whispering “I love you” in her ear, we would be discussing a sexual harassment claim. The workplace isn’t the place for hugging — handshakes will suffice.

A company has no obligation to keep different personality types apart, but if they recognize the differences, it may be best if they can arrange their personnel to best serve the company’s needs. Having people work together without personality clashes would make them more productive. If Acme institutes a “no touching” rule, it would be a knee-jerk reaction to this problem and possibly bring more unnecessary problems in the future. A handshake is touching, a hug is touching, bumping into someone while working is touching. What we’re looking at is the hugging and whispering of “I love you” from one employee to another. That goes beyond just touching.

These two could have continued to work as they had in the past if Acme kept Polly at her work station and away from Rose. Without knowing the hiring-day agreement that Rose signed, I couldn’t say if it would cover this or not. I’d assume that most hiring-day agreements are more for company information such as product structure and manufacturing processes. Acme lost a good employee because they wouldn’t take the steps necessary to protect her from unwanted advances in the workplace. If this had been a male making unwanted contact and advances towards the female, the male quickly would have been fired.

Jeffrey L. Strasser
Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656
[email protected]

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