A journalist participates in some peculiar conversations and must learn how to be jilted and keep a sense of humor. A phone call this summer stands out for how the other person on the line went about treating a subordinate like a bucket of body parts. Given the position of authority of person on the phone, I fear for those working in this bone-chilling organizational climate.
There are negligent, lazy, unimaginative bosses. Then there are those who rob oxygen from co-workers.
Here is the background. I learned a few years ago about a mid-level employee of a Mid-Atlantic state agency who possessed an in-depth knowledge of a question in which I was keenly interested. How do states determine if, for the purposes of workers’ compensation coverage, a worker is an employee or an independent contractor?
I had written about the topic before, because states have been trying to crack down on what they saw as excessive zeal of employers, especially contractors, to call their workers non-employees. That way, they get out of paying workers’ compensation insurance. And they evade unemployment compensation payments and a bunch of employee protections often called wage and hour rules.
State and federal agencies apply different tests to find if a worker is an employee or not. If you stare at this topic for a while, it dawns on you that to really understand the subtleties of a single test, it is very helpful to have some knowledge of other tests. That allows you to better see ambiguities and make hard decisions, which inevitably pop up.
This individual, having learned several independent contractor tests in the past, unrelated federal and state jobs, had remarkably valuable insights. Careful to be accurate, she was comfortable about sharing them.
I often invite this kind of participation of experts, who help me, on or off the record, one hundred times a year. This is lube oil for business journalism.
I phoned her a few months ago. I invited her to work with me on a column that would illustrate how different tests work. The individual responded positively. We talked about how the column might best coach the reader. We ended our call with her noting that she had to talk with an individual to get approval to participate, on or off the record.
She shortly wrote me to say that I need to get the information from persons other than her. I called her. It was easy to pick up a tone of disappointment and humiliation in her voice. She told me by phone that the chief of staff of her agency had ruled against her talking at all.
I then called the chief of staff. She told me that she had prohibited her co-worker from speaking with me about anything, including her personal knowledge and prior work in other agencies, even off the record.
She was so assured and sweeping in her ban, that I got the impression that she monitors the social media activity of agency employees.
She brushed aside my comments that neither the name of the individual, nor agency, nor state would be mentioned. “Just because they walk out the door after work, does not mean that we don’t have any concern about them,” she said in a tone of someone enjoying a victory lap.
It’s fair to suspect that employees of this agency may be thwarted in performing their jobs, much less serving the public and moving forward their careers.
A worker should always feel supported in developing her or his skills. Doing so requires more than performing the tasks at hand.
The worker needs to see the broader context. She needs to know more than the tasks require. She needs to use curiosity and personal judgment in order to grow in performance. She needs to have the mental freedom to frame what she does, not just as a jobholder, but as a citizen and a professional. This may seem true just for public servants, but applies to all.
The top interviews I’ve done have been with individuals who work hard to advance their employer but think for the industry. To bar such a worker from discussing her knowledge of broader subjects with members of the public, at conferences or with journalists, is worse than an act of bad faith. It’s an act of destruction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Rousmaniere is widely known throughout the workers’ compensation industry, both for his writing and consulting experience. Based in the picture perfect New England town of Woodstock, VT, he is a regular on the conference circuit, and is deeply in tune with trends and developments within the industry. His passion is writing and presenting on issues largely related to immigration, and he maintains a blog on the subject at www.workingimmigrants.com.
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