Years ago, I saw a memo written by a law firm partner who was renowned for mistreating junior partners, associates, staff, and lost children who wandered in the front door looking for their parents. But this memo showed a whole different personality. The memo was directed to a practice leader who had solicited comments about how best to expand the practice. (In case you’re wondering, the memo was distributed widely by mistake. The practice leader told his assistant to gather in one document all of the comments about how to improve the practice, so the comments could be shared and everyone could discuss the ideas at an upcoming meeting. The assistant then took all of the unedited inbound memos and assembled them in a single packet that she distributed to the entire group. Voilà! There was the ogre’s memo, for all to read.)

The ogre’s memo was breathtakingly — what’s the right word here? — “solicitous” to the practice leader: “I’ll satisfy your request for suggestions about how to expand this practice area further, but we should first acknowledge what you’ve achieved to date. When you were appointed to lead this practice ten years ago, everyone thought you’d been sent on a fool’s errand. No one thought it was possible for our firm to compete in this space. We had no cases in the area and none of our lawyers had any expertise. But you’ve defied all the odds. You’ve made this practice one of the great success stories in the firm. You deserve endless praise for what you’ve done, and I want you to know how much we respect — indeed, admire — you.” And so on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the fine art of sucking up. (I’m not much good at it, but I understand it.) And I appreciate the wisdom of people like the ogre who try to do their sucking up in private. But I don’t understand folks who do these things publicly. Can’t we control at least the public manifestations of unequal treatment being accorded to people who matter to you and people who don’t?

What am I thinking of?

Among other things, I’m thinking of opportunities. If it makes sense for you personally to spend money to try to seize some opportunity, then it should often make sense for others presented with similar opportunities to have the same access to money. In the law firm setting, if it makes sense for the practice leader to fly first class to Istanbul to give a talk to fifty people in some industry, then it probably also makes sense for someone else in the practice to fly to New York to talk to fifty people. If you find yourself authorizing expenditures for yourself and your favorites, but not for others, then you’re not treating people with equal dignity.

The equal dignity rule also applies to personal interactions. If you’re talking to the CEO or the global managing partner, you probably don’t pull out your Blackberry and start typing away into the high-ranking person’s face. If you don’t do this to people above you in your institution’s hierarchy, then don’t do it to people below you. If it’s rude to ignore the CEO when she’s talking to you, then it’s equally rude to ignore the person three rungs beneath you in the bureaucracy. Treat people with equal dignity.

How about picking up the phone when someone’s sitting in your office talking to you? I have an easy rule for you to consider: Don’t. If someone’s in your office (discussing a business matter), then ignore the phone. This rule worked just fine for me in the decades before caller ID existed: If you were in my office, you received my undivided attention. I didn’t answer the phone, check the computer, or, in the old days, flip through the inbound Fed Ex packages, faxes, or mail. The person sitting in my office came first; everything else came next.

Suppose a client was calling about a crisis? That’s why God created secretaries. If a client called with a crisis, the secretary could field the call, realize that the matter was a crisis requiring immediate attention, and interrupt the meeting. That’s polite, and that’s fair.

Suppose a family member was calling about something urgent? That’s another reason why God created secretaries. If your spouse or kids call to talk to you, the secretary fields the call, decides (along with your caller) whether this is urgent, and makes an intelligent decision whether to interrupt you or have you call back at a convenient time. My kids are now 22 and 24, and neither one of them has ever called me about something so urgent that they chose to interrupt me in a business meeting. (Maybe I’ve been lucky, and we’ve had mercifully few family crises.)

What about my wife? She caught me at my desk on the day the babysitter died in the living room while watching our kids (then aged 1 and 3), so she didn’t have to interrupt on that occasion. (Don’t ever tell me that you have the “world’s greatest babysitter story.” I’m going to call you and raise you, and then I’ll sit back with the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces.) My secretary did track me down and interrupt on the day my wife went into labor with our “little” one; that strikes me as the right call. And I’m sure I’d hear if the house were ever on fire. But those are not the general rule. Absent an emergency, the rule is this: Finish your existing conversation; then tend to other stuff.

I’ll admit that I make two broad exceptions when I apply the rule of equal dignity: First, it does not apply to my secretary. If my secretary is in my office talking to me, then I’m likely to turn away when the phone rings. That’s a tad rude, but I think my secretaries over the years and I have understood the implicit logic: A good secretary is like an appendage; he or she is there constantly to help you keep the ball moving. If someone’s calling about the ball, then the ball has to come first, and you can talk to the secretary after you hang up.

Second, caller ID changes things slightly. Because you can now see who’s calling before you pick up the phone, you can effectively screen your own calls. In this brave new world, it seems to me permissible to look away from the person in your office to glance at your phone when it rings. If the caller is someone who’s notoriously strapped for time and hard to catch (such as, for example, the CEO or CFO of a Fortune 500 company), then you might reasonably apologize to your visitor and field the call to avoid missing something urgent or finding yourself unable to reconnect with the caller in a reasonable amount of time.

For the most part, however, follow the rule of equal dignity: Treat people beneath you in the hierarchy the same way you treat people above you. Give others the same opportunities that you’d give yourself. Walk down the hall to talk to the folks who report to you, instead of always summoning them to your office. Make your outfit feel just a little more egalitarian, and your workplace environment may become a whole lot happier.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at [email protected].

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