by Donald Caswell, D-CED/SAIP

NOT LONG AGO, I was involved in a rush-hour accident — a chain reaction, with four cars back-to-back slamming into each other. By the time I got out of my car, the drivers behind me were discussing who had struck whom first. When one driver called the other a liar, the discussion quickly became a shouting match that didn’t stop until a policeman threatened both drivers with jail if they didn’t shut up.

Grievances often resemble this kind of exchange. The grievant reports events one way, management a different way. If both of them sincerely believe their version is correct, neither is lying. But most of us think that what we believe happened is the absolute truth; if you say otherwise, you must be lying.

Once one party calls the other party a liar, emotions take over, compromise is out the window, and very often our grievant ends up with a worse outcome than we might have negotiated had no one used that emotionally-provocative word, “liar.”

When you’re going into a grievance meeting where differing opinions of the facts of the case may be aired, it’s a good idea to counsel your grievant to avoid name-calling — regardless of how convinced he or she may be that management is distorting the truth.

Truth or fiction?

MAKE NO MISTAKE: sometimes people lie. Grievants lie, witnesses lie, and, despite what management claims, their people lie as well. Stewards need to be ready to deal with people who are not telling the truth.

We are not mind readers, and despite our convictions, no one can always tell when another is lying. But we can determine whether a person has motive to lie. A strong motive to lie arouses suspicion. Unfortunately, our grievant usually has a strong motive — to avoid discipline. But others may have motive, as well. Keep your eyes open for possible motives that can be used to weaken the claims made against your grievant.

When the grievant is lying, the steward is in a no-win situation. The grievant’s claims form the basis for your investigation. If your investigation shows those claims to be false, you have wasted a lot of time simply because your grievant thought he could pull one over on management (and on you).

And if you build your case around a set of falsehoods that the company is able to disprove, you not only lose the grievance, but you lose the respect of those you need to work with — members as well as management.

If you suspect a grievant is lying to you, be especially cautious in how you move forward. Without calling him a liar, impress upon the grievant that if any aspect of his story can be shown to be false, the truthfulness of the rest is called into question. In addition, management will be skeptical regarding all future grievances for that member and will, therefore, be less willing to negotiate a compromise. As President Bush was so famously unable to say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Witnesses lie for a number of reasons. Most often, they simply want to back up their friends. But things can get more complicated than that. Sometimes there is animosity between the two members, and a witness may be lying to make the other member look bad. Or he may think he can score points with management for taking their side. Whatever the reason, the same caution applies. If you get caught lying in this grievance, your testimony in the next one will be worthless, and any future grievances you want to file for yourself will be looked at with the utmost suspicion.

As was stressed in an earlier column, once others lose respect for your integrity, it tends to be gone forever.

Management often argues that supervisors have no reason to lie. Common sense says otherwise. They work under the same pressures we all do and may be motivated to lie to cover their own poor performance or simply because they don’t want to lose the grievance and look ineffectual. Or dozens of other reasons.

When you think a supervisor is lying, try to uncover a motive, but be careful in how you present what you find. Accusing a person of having a motive gives you the burden of proving your claim, and it is very difficult to prove what a person is thinking.

Sometimes you can elicit a statement that suggests he or she may have had a motive to lie. For example, one grievant admitted the behavior but claimed he had permission, while the supervisor said he didn’t. On questioning, the supervisor said he did not give permission and “would never have done so.” The grievant’s representative asked why he said he “would never have done so,” to which the supervisor replied, “Because I knew if I did I would get into trouble.”

That answer showed the arbitrator that the supervisor had the same motive to lie as the grievant had: to avoid discipline. The arbitrator found for the grievant.

Counseling your grievant

PREPARING YOUR GRIEVANT for the grievance meeting is essential, especially if the grievant thinks someone will lie. Take a few minutes to steel him for what could be an emotionally-charged event. If, in anger, he does something that warrants discipline, this second problem may not disappear if you win the grievance.

Remind the grievant that you can defend his behavior if it is honestly reported better than you can defend him once he’s caught in a lie.

And never advise your grievant to lie. Saying “I don’t remember” (when you do) is just as dishonest as giving a false report — and just as obvious to those who hear it. Advising a grievant to lie can destroy any respect you now get from members as well as management.