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What True Crime Can Teach Us About the Workplace

I have issues, I admit it. I DVR shows like “Dateline” and “48 Hours.” I’ve even been known to watch an episode of “Southern Fried Homicide.” If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead in my house. This will cause concern if I ever decide to murder someone. But then again, maybe I’ll just get away with it. But I digress.

There are common themes in these shows; themes that can help us at work. Because, let’s face it, usually the perp (oh, I’ve got the lingo, baby – that’s the killer) is someone the victim knows. And who do you spend more time with than those pesky co-workers of yours?

Here are some things true crime can teach us:

We’re not as smart as we think we are. Time after time, some genius (and not all these perps are uneducated mind you – we’re talking college and post-grad degrees!) thinks they are smarter than the investigators. They buy burner phones, pay cash, but then toss the receipt on the floor of their vehicle. (Dude, you gotta get your vehicle detailed if you’ve even THOUGHT about committing a crime in it!) They Google things like “best way to hide a body” or “poisons.” We do the same thing at work – we think we are smarter than our co-workers, our bosses, and just about everyone else. I’m telling you – there is someone in your office who is smarter than you about something. No matter how hard you try, you’re going to miss something. Not one of us can think of everything every time.

If you lose someone’s trust, you’ve lost them. If a co-worker asked you to help them on a project and you said you would, but blew them off – their trust in you is eroded. If you’re a leader and you treat your people unfairly, trust is eroded. Lots of these cases begin with a loss of trust. Then the person who no longer trusts the other, starts to get a little weird. They start looking for evidence to back up their mistrust. Innocent comments such as “Did you have a good weekend?” are heard as “You didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent you this weekend, you slacker!” Paranoia sets in. Next thing you know, they’re buying a burner phone.

A loss of respect leads to trouble. Respect means different things to different people. And this is where it gets very challenging in the workplace. One person’s “You look nice today” is another person’s sexual harassment. Social media makes this worse because many of the traditional boundaries between work and personal life are gone. There are generational and geographic and religious differences that might come into play. And every workplace is different. This article is way too short to give you guidance, but it should get you thinking. Have things gotten a little too casual in your workplace? Is everyone behaving professionally? Do you really know what they are posting online during work hours? Does it matter? It sure does if the worker in the next cubicle is outraged and offended.

So how does this play out in my shows? “Fear Thy Neighbor” (yeah, yeah I said I had issues!) always starts out with respect. Neighbors are nice to each other; everyone wants nothing more than to live in harmony. Then someone lets their dog run loose or throws a very late raucous party (let’s face it – disrespectful). Next thing you know, there’s blood in the begonias. Just make an effort to be cognizant of other people’s feelings; respect their boundaries which might be different from yours.

Stubbornness and inflexibility are the root of a lot of evil. Some people just can’t compromise – they don’t want to obey the new dress code or pay the hefty divorce settlement. They can’t stand the thought of someone else with their children or parking in their parking spot. They get so worked up; they think a better plan is to kill them. A formerly rational person pushed to what they see as their limit comes to the conclusion that it would be better to kill someone than to keep trying to deal with them. People usually aren’t killing someone who was open to compromise. (Of course, the killers themselves aren’t open to compromise either.) Now I know you are not in an office with a bunch of homicidal maniacs, but I bet there are times when you’re inflexible. Is it serving you? Are there times you could just let something go?

On the other hand, completely suppressing your opinions and needs doesn’t work either. These people are usually the poisoners. They won’t tell you want they want, but they’ll slip antifreeze into your ice cream. They don’t speak up when something upsets them. Maybe they feel disrespected or everyone always dumps extra work on them. No one really knows how much it bothers them because they don’t say anything. Next thing you know, they are pushing to have a loved one cremated before a toxicology panel can be run. Don’t assume that because someone isn’t complaining they’re happy.

There are always red flags – always. You’ll hear people say, “I had no idea he was going to quit – he seemed fine.” Did he seem fine or were you not paying attention? Most people don’t decide to quit (or commit murder) overnight. There are always indicators. Maybe someone used to come in early, now they are often late. Maybe they used to really participate in meetings, now they seem checked out. The signs of a major behavior change are there – we just have to be paying attention. And it’s often the people closest to the situation who are the last to see it coming. Sometimes it’s because the change has been gradual. A bit of grumpiness here, a few big fights there, next thing you know – auto detailing.

Only you can prevent workplace homicide. Recommendations that will serve you well:

1. Know that others may be smarter than you and it’s okay. No hubris.
2. Refuse to play fast and loose with the truth. Make your word your bond. Lying seems to have somehow become cool. It’s not.
3. Respecting others starts with respecting yourself. Conduct yourself like a professional at work, like a parent to your children, and like a proud citizen in the world. Consider discussing what respect means at your workplace or in your family. You might be surprised at the variance in the answers you get. Most of the time I think we disrespect others unintentionally. Talk, people!
4. Stand up for yourself when it really matters, but realize compromise is king. You don’t want to win the battle only to lose the war. (That divorce settlement will only buy so many cigarettes in prison.)
5. Ask for what you want. People can’t read your mind.
6. Pay attention to people. Most of them just want the same things you do – a little praise, some understanding, kindness, respect.

And an airtight alibi.

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April Blalock
6 years ago

My favorite type of wisdom is the kind that challenges me while also making me laugh out loud. You hit the mark on both counts, Denise. Thanks for this – and let me know if you’ll agree to be part of that alibi!

Lynda Moffatt
6 years ago

Denise I think I peed my pants laughing with this one…too funny for sure and so accurate. I do “confess” that Dateline is my favourite show of all time and we never ever miss an episode. I love the “Loss of Respect” that you write about-it is so true…I had a boss that I really respected for a long time when she first began work and than bit by bit she lost the respect of most of the people that worked under her -evident from people applying and switching jobs continually -a lot of disharmony and upset…makes me wonder if… Read more »

Nelda Shugart
6 years ago

Great article.

6 years ago

Awesome, awesome, awesome article! I will share this with our whole staff! Thank you for a great read!

6 years ago

Great article! Some of my favorite shows are of the Law & Order variety-I can relate:-) I’m going to keep this article, and refer to it often, to help me remind myself there is a way out-and to help me determine when to hang in there, and when to get outta dodge-homicide, unfortunately isn’t an option.