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Forgiveness In The Workplace


I can’t help but write on a totally separate topic this week, forgiveness in the workplace, though I’ll link this all back to employment law, I promise. All week, I've been reading Jeannette Walls  The Glass Castlea memoir. The book is amazing on so many levels. Jeanette was one of four kids who suffered incredible, and arguably unnecessary, hardship due to extreme poverty. Her parents were drifters, her father a brilliant and self-destructive alcoholic, and her mother a narcissistic but well-intentioned artist who refused to give up her calling to properly take care of her children. Both parents had uncanny ideas on raising children but also loved their kids very much and arguably did the best they could. Both parents refused to hold down a job, or couldn't, so the kids spent cold winters in Appalachia without adequate food, heat, plumbing, medical treatment, etc. The kids suffered tremendously, although they also had the gift of great intelligence and thinking parents.

My jaw dropped the entire time I read this book. I kept chuckling, thinking about my father who would sooner die than not provide for some physical, emotional, or even financial need of his children. Once when I was working as a legislative assistant at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, my dad visited my highly secure office. In order for a visitor to gain entrance there, he needed a key pass to ride the elevator, then had to be buzzed in to the lobby area of the office, and could not enter a second door to get into the main office until the first secured door closed behind him. An armed security guard encased in bulletproof glass oversaw all of this. My dad was thrilled. “Oh Honey," he gushed, "I wish you could live like this all the time!”

Growing up with my dad, I saw how every tricky life situation was a possible life-threatening danger to his daughters, and his great job in life was providing for and protecting them and his wife. If I could ever convince my father to read this book, he simply would not be able to comprehend the kinds of risks to which Jeanette’s parents exposed her.

To name just one, when Jeanette was only three years old, she caught on fire when she was broiling hot dogs over an open stove (her mother had no objection to Jeanette’s “cooking” quite often). Jeanette had third-degree burns over her entire body, almost died, and yet her father smuggled her out of the hospital after six weeks. Jeanette’s neighbors in the trailer park commented about her subsequent willingness to get close to fire, even to be infatuated with it. Rather than trying to stop this tendency, Jeanette’s dad boasted about it. He commented that of course his daughter shouldn't be afraid of fire: she’d battled with it and won! I was thinking that my poor father would have had a heart attack just imagining that such a father existed.

Perhaps what is most amazing about the book, and I think the point of my blog, is that Jeanette does not seem the slightest bit bitter about her experience. Even when her parents become more and more self-destructive, essentially abandoning all parental responsibility, she relays vignettes that reveal their deep humanity and love for their family. You can’t help but feel for them, even as you are simultaneously angry at how they treated their children, all of whom seem amazing.

I am deeply moved by Jeanette’s ability to forgive and more. She is able to accept her flawed parents for the people that they were.

In those moments when I find myself really disliking my job, it is because I am dealing with the infinite anger on the part of either the employer or employee directed at the other. I thought yesterday about the attorney for the employer who claimed my client was lying, and my client who claimed the employer was lying. I felt impatient with both of them and their lack of professionalism. If more of my clients could put aside their personal animosity and understand that the person on the other side is just doing their best 99% of the time, resolutions would happen more quickly and be so much more satisfying. The workplace somehow seems uniquely positioned to create lasting and deeply rooted conflicts that serve no purpose and impair employers and employees from seeing clearly. I want better for my clients, whichever side they’re on.

If someone like Jeanette Walls could forgive her parents, the two people in life whose sole job was to protect and take care of her, for neglecting her as they did, certainly my employee clients can forgive their employers for firing them. After all, these employers have a business to protect. Likewise, my employer clients surely should be able to understand the incredible amount of self-esteem that is threatened when someone loses her job, or the fear that is generated when a person is laid off. Those things could make anyone litigious. I will be a better lawyer if I can impart to my clients some of what Jeanette Walls has taught me.

EditorialDiana Maier