Jun 2, 2017

3 Things ‘The Office’ Taught Me About Employment Law (Part 1)

3 Things ‘The Office’ Taught Me About Employment Law (Part 1)


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Summary: Using examples from the popular TV show The Office, this three-part series highlights several important points for dealing with employment issues in the workplace and in litigation. This article is focused on why timing and good documentation are critical aspects of every employment case.

One of the best television shows ever created was The Office. (I’m mainly referring to the U.S. version, but the original U.K. version is also fantastic.) Episode after episode, the shenanigans of Michael Scott, Jim Halpert, Dwight Schrute, Pam Beesly, and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin employees had me doubled over with laughter.

Since becoming an employment lawyer, I’ve watched the entire series two or three more times all the way through. While it’s just as funny every time, I’ve also learned some important lessons, especially from everyone’s favorite Regional Manager, Michael Scott (and of course the Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dwight Schrute). These are lessons that everyone should take to heart.

In this three-part series, I’m going to use some examples from the show to demonstrate several key points and concepts. Today I’ll talk about one of the most important things that every employment lawyer learns early in his or her career, using one of my favorite episodes of the show to illustrate.

Lesson No. 1: Timing and good documentation are everything.

Over the course of the show, Michael Scott had an on-again-off-again relationship with his direct report, Jan Levinson-Gould, the Vice President of Northeast Sales at Dunder Mifflin. Their relationship started when Michael won a huge account for the company over drinks and baby-back ribs with a prospective client that Jan thought Michael could never win over. Caught up in the spirit of victory (and in the spirit of spirits from her many margaritas), Jan kissed Michael.

Michael of course called his mom and told her Jan was his girlfriend, and then Michael relentlessly pursued Jan over the course of several episodes. Around the time they finally made their relationship official, Jan was terminated from the company. (Jan was kind of crazy. Just watch the episode Dinner Party and you’ll be all caught up on Jan’s brand of cray.)

She decided to sue the company for discrimination. Michael was one of her key witnesses in the case. He was prepared to testify about the general culture of harassment and discrimination at the company.

Michael and Jan had already disclosed their relationship to human resources (in a letter that Michael had framed) several months earlier, and Michael testified unequivocally that the letter reflected when their relationship started. In order the discredit Michael’s testimony, however, the company’s lawyer introduced as an exhibit a date-stamped picture of Michael and Jan at the beach well before the relationship was disclosed.

Michael of course began to waver on when the relationship started. In response, Jan then produced a copy of Michael’s personal diary she took without his knowledge containing his thoughts about when the relationship actually started, which was in fact around the time that their relationship was disclosed to human resources.

The company then produced a performance review for Michael in which Jan had some not-so-nice things to say about Michael. The performance review was dated after the start of Michael and Jan’s relationship.

Feeling betrayed by Jan for disclosing his diary to everyone without asking his permission and for trashing him in his performance review, Michael did an about-face and testified favorably for the company. This tanked Jan’s case.

The lesson to be learned here is that in employment cases, whether we’re talking about a non-compete and trade secrets case or a discrimination and retaliation case, timing and documentation are everything. Establishing who did what and exactly when they did it is absolutely critical, and this is what wins or loses almost every case.

It’s therefore of the utmost importance for managers to create clear, cohesive, and accurate records of events when dealing with employees. Most employment lawsuits take years to resolve from the point in time at which the events giving rise to them occurred. In the meantime, employees leave, memories fade, allegiances change. Establishing an accurate timeline and narrative of the facts in an employment case can many times be very difficult for these reasons. Speaking from experience, however, good documentation fills in gaps in memories and jogs recollections like nothing else.

Look at Jan’s case. What was the most important evidence in the case when establishing the timing of their relationship? Michael Scott’s spotty memory obviously was not. It was the written documentation — the date-stamped beach picture, the performance review, and the diary — that won over hearts and minds.

So, take it from Michael and Jan: Timing and good documentation are everything in employment cases.

Evan Gibbs is an attorney at Troutman Sanders, where he primarily litigates employment cases and handles traditional labor matters. Connect with him on LinkedIn here, or e-mail him here. (The views expressed in this column are his own.)

Original source: http://abovethelaw.com/2017/05/3-things-the-office-taught-me-about-employment-law-part-1/

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