Sunday, November 7, 2010

Betrayal in the Workplace

In my mystery, A POINTED DEATH, the heroine, Nola Billingsley, is betrayed by an employee who works in the start-up company she founded. Roger Chen takes advantage of Nola and her colleagues during a time when they are extremely vulnerable. He embezzles from their dwindling reserves of capital when they are distracted by a web developer problem. Taken by surprise, Nola pulls herself together quickly and gets rid of the bad egg before he can do any more damage to her fragile enterprise. Of course, Nola takes Roger's crime personally; she is a founder of the company, and the creep's actions harm the reputation of the firm just as they are beginning to attract significant business.

Unfortunately, crime in the workplace is not an uncommon occurrence. Beyond frank malfeasance, we also face a lot of behaviors that destroy the atmosphere of trust so necessary to a productive work environment or shatter the willingness of employees to work together as a team. It is worthwhile planning in advance what you would do if confronted with a situation like Nola's.

When you first discover that an employee or colleague has betrayed you, you experience shock and disbelief. Nobody wants to accept that they have been working day after day right next to a crook or a liar. It offends our sense of safety and well being. What happens next is akin to what we experience when told we have a terminal disease. We go through the five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining and depression, followed by acceptance. The important thing is that you have to move through this process quickly so that you can get to where you need to be as a responsible employee, supervisor or manager -- the proactive phase where you analyze and act to protect yourself, other employees and the business.

First, it is important to analyze the betrayal and assign it to the right category: 1) law breaking and/or significant damage or threat to the operation of the business; 2) counterproductive behaviors such as acute or chronic petty damage or misappropriation of resources, reducing productivity, ignoring or violating policies and procedures; 3) chronic badmouthing, backstabbing and rumor mongering that destroys trust and undermines teamwork; or 4) personal animosity directed at you.

The first category requires prompt legal action and involves the assistance of various internal professionals, including the security department, and possibly law enforcement. The second and third necessitate the assistance of the human resources department. People in these categories need to be processed out the door, utilizing the proper procedures established by corporate policy. The fourth category might involve the human resources department and your supervisor, or it might be something you can resolve yourself by confronting the individual. It is important to be fact-based and objective. Escalating a personal matter between you and a coworker to business threat status is going to reflect negatively on you. Take a deep breath, step back and take stock.

The purpose of this post is not to provide and HR lecture, but to lay out a playing field for authors who are trying to create authentic workplace plots. The wonderful opportunity for writers presented by the discussion above, is that human beings don't always use their heads. Real people act in haste, blow things out of proportion, get angry, indulge in revenge fantasies and fail to call in the experts. Even the cool-headed folks can be thwarted by other parties to the process who don't follow through or follow their own agendas.

As you create your characters and your plots, you can achieve high drama or hilarious comedy by exploiting the typical betrayals unfolding every day in the modern office. With skill, planning and a little research, you can stir up a cauldron of conflict that will mesmerize your readers.
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