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Archive for the ‘Law Office Management’ Category

Fat bias in the workplace

Monday, May 19, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

fat biasIt is likely not a surprise to you that there is a significant public bias against the obese. Frequent flyers are familiar with the feeling of dread as a morbidly obese passenger approaches your row and seems to slow down. But fat bias doesn’t just happen in confined spaces. Workplace incivility is often directed at obese employees–referred to as employee adiposity in this research. Maybe that’s nicer than the other things it’s called.

As a reminder, incivility is rude, impolite or discourteous behavior that does not necessarily rise to the level of open hostility or aggression. Often used examples of incivility include things like not returning a greeting, interrupting a coworker when s/he is talking, failing to refill the empty printer after using up all the paper, and so on. In other words, rather than having a clear intent to harm (as with bullying), incivility is characterized by an ambiguous intent to harm. Therefore, the experience of incivility is at least somewhat dependent upon the target’s perception, and it is often harder to prove, especially if the target is not well liked. A circular problem.

The researchers conducted two studies, one with undergraduates and one with community adults who were employees. The two studies had many of the same findings but we are going to report the results of the community sample here. A sample of 528 community adults (53% female, 68% Caucasian, ranging in age from 20 to 63 years with an average age of 35 years, with tenure in current employment situation ranging from 6 months to 35 years with an average of 6 years, and 70% in non-management positions) was used. Participants provided their height and weight (from which researchers computed their BMIs) and demographic variables (such as sex and race) and also completed measures of workplace incivility, negative affect, burnout, and job withdrawal. And here are the (again, likely unsurprising) results:

Overweight individuals reported significantly higher levels of incivility than did underweight and healthy weight individuals. (Reported scores for incivility toward women were highest in the overweight and obese categories but highest for men in the underweight category!)

Black respondents reported significantly higher levels of incivility when they were underweight or healthy weight (this is surprising) but White respondents reported higher levels of incivility when they were overweight or obese. The researchers say that being overweight or obese is especially problematic for employees who are both white and female–the more overweight/obese–the higher the report of incivility.

Finally, there were links between adiposity and the respondents tendency to withdraw from their job emotionally. While the authors stress they are not blaming the victim, they recommend employers help employees reach and maintain healthy weights and thus have the resulting improvement in negative physical, psychological and professional outcomes associated with adiposity.

This is an interesting study for trial lawyers, law firms, and employers in general. They go beyond potential employment discrimination litigation, and offer a new approach to the evaluation of office culture. We all have biases we need to monitor and for organizations, paying attention to how we respond (directly and indirectly) to differences is a matter of both civility and liability.

Sliter KA, Sliter MT, Withrow SA, & Jex SM (2012). Employee adiposity and incivility: establishing a link and identifying demographic moderators and negative consequences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17 (4), 409-24 PMID: 23066694



avoid generational stereotypesWe’ve written about this a lot both here on the blog and over at The Jury Expert. So it isn’t news to us, but evidently it continues to surprise experts in other fields. Business journals are still urging differing management strategies for members of different generations in the workplace. But, as in other research, today’s authors find their data does not support this popular recommendation. So we offer this research review in the hope that someone will bring it with them to work. Here we go again…

Researchers wanted to test three generational stereotypes in the workplace to see if data would support common assumptions. Specifically, they examined:

Whether Baby Boomers change jobs less often than Gen X or Millennials (“job mobility”);

Whether Baby Boomers comply more with workplace rules than do Gen X or Millennials (“compliance with work rules”), and

Whether Gen X members are either less motivated or lazy, thus less likely to work overtime than either Baby Boomers or Millennials (“willingness to work overtime”).

These are all common stereotypes (i.e., younger employees job hop, they do not comply with rules, and are unwilling to pull their weight if it’s inconvenient) and, stereotypes often exist for a reason. Sometimes it is due to facts. Other times it is due to the holder of the viewpoint being kinda grumpy and annoyed with the subgroup in question. But, other times, stereotypes simply do not accurately describe the nuances, or even the reality of situations.

The researchers used a huge sample of 8,128 people who applied for jobs at two different hospitals located in the southeastern United States. The sample was composed of Baby Boomers (N = 1,641, 20.2%), GenXers (4,972, 61.2%), and Millennials (1,515, 18.6%). On average, Boomers were 48.5 years old, GenXers were 30.8 years old and the Millennials were 21.5 years old (these are tilted toward the younger end in all 3 groups). The group was racially heterogeneous with 301 Native Americans (3.7%), 116 Asian/Pacific Islanders (1.4%), 237 Hispanics (2.9%), 3,955 African-Americans (48.7%) and 3,211 Caucasians (39.5%). A total of 308 (3.8%) did not disclose race. The sample was 83.2% female, 15.8% male and 1% did not disclose their gender. So, although each of these demographic cells is large enough for meaningful interpretation, the profile doesn’t perfectly match the national profile or the workforce. Asian and Hispanic participants are under-represented, African-Americans are over-represented, and it is a much more a female sample than a male sample. But with that said, a study this big allows for skewing like that without sacrificing validity.

As part of their application process, participants were required to complete a questionnaire on their historical workplace behaviors, and researchers used this data to identify their findings.

This research, unlike most prior research on generations at work, focused on historical job behaviors self-reported by the applicants (as opposed to a self-report of individual attitudes and values). While there were differences in the three areas assessed, the differences were small. The authors caution readers to understand that the typical recommendation to apply different management strategies to each separate generation in your workplace is likely not a good use of funds for improving your particular workplace. In other words, this study (of more than 8,000 people) did not support the idea that you should practice different management strategies for employees from different generations–the differences found were just too small statistically.

Here is what the researchers found about the common generalizations held about the various generations in the workplace.

Job mobility: Boomers actually do stay in jobs longer than GenXers and Millennials and it isn’t just that they are older and no longer moving about for their careers. On average, Boomers stayed at a job a bit more than 2 years longer than GenXers, and 4 years longer than Millennials.

Compliance with workplace rules: Older employees do have a slight tendency to adhere more to workplace rules concerning attendance and appearance. They also have less experience with having been fired (or quitting in lieu of being fired). However, this difference was not so much about generation per se as it was about age since individuals in all generations tended to comply more with workplace rules as they get older (and presumably matured).

GenXers will work less overtime: This one is also actually true (and we’ve written about how GenXers are actually living out their values). GenXers were less likely to work overtime than Boomers and Millennials. (There was no difference between the Boomers and Millennials in terms of a history of working overtime hours.)

The researchers emphasize that the differences in the target workplace behaviors don’t warrant different management strategies for different age groups. The differences are simply too small statistically. Instead, the researchers recommend that HR representatives build in flexibility to HR practices and strategies to address the needs of all employees rather than a single generational group. It’s what consultants often say when they are training managers about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Good management is good management. You don’t tailor based on generation. You manage based on the individual and the demands of the job.

It bears repeating: Good management is good management. Stereotypes are not good management, even when well-intentioned.

Becton, J., Walker, H., & Jones-Farmer, A. (2014). Generational differences in workplace behavior Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (3), 175-189 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12208



body-odorMaybe I shouldn’t have bothered. I spent thirteen years consulting with managers and nothing could turn them into anxious giggling adolescents faster than figuring out how to talk to an employee about offensive body odor. Somehow, it felt more “personal” than addressing issues like tardiness, inappropriate or disruptive behaviors, poor work performance, or the myriad other issues that arise when you are managing a diverse group of adult employees. Typically, a manager would get complaints from members of the person’s workgroup or their customers. They would seek advice on how to handle the situation, using words like “stinky”, “disgusting”, “gross”, “nasty”, “rude”, or “totally unacceptable”. We had to identify less emotionally laden words to describe the bad body odor (made worse by enclosed work spaces) in order to raise the manager’s comfort level with the difficult conversation, and to keep them from being either hurtful to the employee or sparking an outburst. 

New research says maybe unpleasant body odor doesn’t disgust after all. Instead, maybe bad body odor elicits pity and makes people help the smelly person more. This certainly was not my experience over more than a decade of helping managers have difficult conversations. But, here is what the researchers found. First, you may wonder how they developed an “unpleasant body odor” for the research. They did not rely simply on not bathing or engaging in activities that resulted in profuse sweating. This was science. So, to mimic an unpleasant body odor, they soaked a T-shirt in a “solution of human sweat, beer, hydrogen sulfide, and fart spray”. Really. (They didn’t identify where they acquired the ‘fart spray’, which seems like a research design flaw to me.) And in between experiments, they checked the odor of the T-shirt to make sure everyone would have the same level of wafting scent (and added the stinky solution to the T-shirt as necessary).

For the first experiment, they had participants smell the T-shirt and asked them to imagine the T-shirt belonged to someone with whom they had to work. The participants then filled out reaction forms to the smelly T-shirt person. In this experiment, the researchers found that participants felt sorry for the smelly person and found them pathetic.

Thus the researchers knew an unpleasant body odor could evoke feelings of pity but wondered whether it would result in helping behavior. And it did. In the second experiment, the same smelly T-shirt was used and the research participants were seated next to a real person wearing the smelly T-shirt. They completed a maze task together and then were asked to privately assign how the “credits” for the experiment should be divided between the research participant and the smelly confederate. Those participants with a smelly partner assigned more credits to their partner than did those with a neutral (i.e., not smelly) partner.

For the third experiment, the participants were asked to wait for the confederate who arrived late for the experiment (wearing the smelly t-shirt). The researcher asked the smelly person why they were late and the person replied either that they “stopped because they wanted a drink” or they were late due to attending “a reception required by my department”. In this experiment, when the smelly person had chosen to go to a bar, they were awarded less credits than when they had gone to a mandated reception.

In other words, say the researchers, if you smell bad but it isn’t really your fault [because you had to go to a reception], others are going to help you.

If it is your fault though [because you chose to go to a bar and drink], they will probably not help you.

This is actually somewhat consistent with what I saw in the workplace. Over time, people would assume the person who smelled bad was either responsible or not responsible for the smell and would become increasingly resentful of the smelly person who was not in financial distress, mentally challenged, or mentally ill. They would give gifts to the financially distressed, mentally challenged and mentally ill of soaps, toothbrushes, shampoos and other personal hygiene items in the guise of seeing a great sale or having extras. And they would talk negatively with each other about those they saw as lazy, willfully disrespectful, or otherwise responsible for the body odor that followed them around and stuck to their co-workers in the enclosed work space.

What isn’t addressed is that the issue appears to be one of virtue, not odor. If people see others in distress, they are more likely to be critical if the distress is related to their own bad judgment. But if the person is troubled in some way, they are more likely to be given lee-way. It might have less to do with odor, and more to do with whether the person is seen as dishonorable, as opposed to impaired.

The challenge for litigation is to clean up the bad smell, or stigma, associated with the conduct at issue. Somehow, restore their dignity or virtue even in the midst of the conflict. Their flaws can be forgiven if the person is seen as “doing the best they can”, or if they demonstrate virtue in another situation (they volunteer at a soup kitchen, teach Sunday School, or donate to charitable efforts). If you can’t take the “smell” away entirely, the alternative involves explaining the offensiveness away by showing that the situation isn’t one of their intentional conduct.

You are more likely to get helping behavior from the jury if your client (who doesn’t quite pass the smell test) is seen as a victim of circumstances than the driver of bad (aka “smelly”) behavior.

Camps, J., Stouten, J., Tuteleers, C., & van Son, K. (2014). Smells like cooperation? Unpleasant body odor and people’s perceptions and helping behaviors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12203



Financial-SuccessHmmm. Here’s research that says the appearance of managing partners’ faces at America’s 100 top law firms is tied to firm “profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partner”. You may want to look at managing partners’ faces before making a decision about that job offer!

We’ve written about first impressions before but this one is a little surprising. Apparently, to predict how successful someone’s firm is (or will be), all you have to do is briefly examine their face. These researchers call it “the look of leadership” and say that “look” may be innate, acquired [through repetitive facial expressions that become permanent], or some combination of the two. Researchers had “naive undergraduates” (an amusing oxymoron) rate faces for both power-related traits (e.g., competence, dominance, and facial maturity) and warmth-related traits (e.g., likability and trustworthiness).

Participants (36 in all, 11 males and 25 females) looked at headshot photographs of Managing Partners from each of the firms in the American Lawyer’s top 100 firms for 2007. The photographs were cropped so they displayed faces only and no clothes were visible. After cropping, all photos were converted to gray scale and standardized in size. Information on financial success of the firm was taken from the AmLaw 100 listing for 2007.

Five traits were being assessed (competence, dominance, facial maturity, likability, trustworthiness) and so each participant saw each face five separate times and rated the face for a single trait at a time. Each trait was rated on a 7-point scale (ranging from 1 “Not at all” to 7 “Very Much”). The researchers hypothesized the power-related traits would be related to firm financial success and warmth-related traits would not.

You likely have surmised their hypotheses were supported. They were.

The research participants ratings of managing partners’ faces assigned more “power” to the faces of managing partners at more financially successful firms. Managing partners who “looked” powerful, were at more financially successful firms.

But, ratings of warmth (i.e., likability and trustworthiness) had no relationship to law firm financial success. Managing partners who looked “warm” were at both successful and unsuccessful firms but there was no relationship between a “warm” managing partner and how successful financially the law firm was.

So, is it that managing partners with powerful faces lead firms to financial success or that financially successful firms hire managing partners with powerful faces? It’s one of those chicken and the egg questions but if you are looking for a job, it’s a question that really doesn’t matter to you. [Although you probably do want to take into consideration the small sample size--just 36 rater-participants--in this study!]

The headshots used in the experiment were downloaded from firm websites and so would be readily accessible to anyone. You may think your own assessment of the “power traits” in someone’s face could be in error, but we hear our mock jurors make surprisingly accurate inferences over and over about witnesses and parties based on a few minutes of videotaped deposition excerpts. If you don’t want to rely only on your own assessment, ask a few friends, family members, colleagues, or head to a college campus and look for some “naive undergraduates”.

The inference is, of course, that if you want financial stability and success, you do not choose someone who looks likable and trustworthy (at least, based on this research). And that those rule-outs of the likable and trustworthy (looking) managing partner will probably have implications for the “feel” of the work environment you choose, so make sure you do not choose “power” and then resent the fact there is little “warmth” directed at you.

Rule, NO, & Ambady, N. (2011). Face and fortune: Inferences of personality from managing partners’ faces predict their law firms’ financial success. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 690-696 DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.05.009

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita


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morally ambiguousSo you need to ask someone to do something and that “something” lies in the morally murky or ambiguous realm. We won’t offer examples of what that favor may be, but you know what we mean. You may wonder when is best to ask. Right after you’ve begun the day (and they’ve had ample coffee)? At lunch? At the end of the day? When?

Science to the rescue! While we know you would never use science for evil (or even the morally murky), consider this an interesting tidbit for cocktail conversations. You’ve probably seen the study about hungry judges and decision-making. When judges get hungry, they just say ‘no’ to parole. Once they eat, the likelihood of parole returns to where it was at the beginning of the morning session. Aha! You say. Asking for that morally murky favor is best right after lunch.

The answer is kind of, sort of. As it turns out, we are more likely to behave morally or ethically earlier in the day. Self-control, it would seem, is a finite resource and when we are tired or depleted, we cannot easily access that self-control. Researchers completed four separate experiments and consistently found evidence supporting higher levels of “moral behavior” in the earlier part of the day. The findings were consistent whether the participants were the ubiquitous undergraduate sample or people of varying ages who were recruited online.

Participants in all four experiments were given the opportunity to cheat, and those completing the experiments in the afternoon were more likely to cheat than those completing the experiments in the morning. Oddly, those who self-reported higher levels of morality (the researchers describe these people as “least likely to morally disengage and thus expected to generally behave more ethically”), were most likely to fall prey to the afternoon decline in moral behavior (as indicated by rate of cheating).

The researchers discuss this work as a contribution to the body of work on “bounded ethicality”. This is an area suggesting unethical behavior is “due in part to psychological processes and cognitive biases that lead people to engage in certain behaviors without consciously recognizing the ethical implications”. As we get increasingly tired throughout the day, we are more prone to simply act, without seeing the potential repercussions (or the ethical implications) of our actions.

The authors suggest the following to help “good” people avoid doing “bad” things:

Organizations may want to have increased vigilance for unethical behavior (of both customers and employees) in the afternoon as compared to the morning.

Individuals may want to complete morally relevant tasks in the morning rather than in the afternoon or evening. Delaying decisions on morally relevant tasks until the next morning might produce a better result.

Time of day isn’t really an excuse for engaging in morally questionable or clearly unethical behavior, but it’s helpful to know that we are more likely to make bad choices when we are more tired or, as the researchers say, depleted.

So, if you were the sort of person who would ask someone to do you a morally questionable favor, this research would say the end of the day (or maybe that mid-afternoon slump) is the best time.

If you are not that sort of person (like the vast majority of our readers) it is a powerful insight to not agree to do things in the late afternoon when you are tired but, instead, to put off those decisions until the next morning! Preferably after your coffee.

Kouchaki M, & Smith IH (2013). The Morning Morality Effect: The Influence of Time of Day on Unethical Behavior. Psychological Science PMID: 24166855

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita