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October 02, 2012
He’s an expert at managing workplace messes

Steve M. Cohen, EdD, is president of Labor Management Advisory Group, which is headquartered in Kansas. He’s a veteran HR consultant who firmly believes this: “Workplace problems are, for the most part, not legal but managerial.” Except, of course, that if they’re not managed properly, they can lead to huge legal problems.

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If yours is a small company, Cohen has learned, your HR staff, which may be only one individual, isn’t likely to be able to handle the kinds of messes he’s dealt with.

For example, a terminated employee sues for six figures. Given the right jury, he just might have won. So, the employer called Cohen who proceeded to meet several times with the man. The result was that the former employee decided that he’d been in the wrong profession, and Cohen arranged a settlement with him of $30,000—the estimated cost of the retraining he felt he needed.

Cohen’s background and education are in psychology rather than the law, which equips him to talk disgruntled employees out of their rage and into a reasonable settlement. He is also the author of Mess Management: Lessons from a Corporate Hit Man (AuthorHouse, 2010), in which he tells tales of the situations from which he has extricated both employees, and, in the process, their employers.

Here’s another story he told us: Management of a construction company knew they were hiring a worker with a felony conviction for armed robbery and a history of anger-management issues. But they needed his particular skills and hoped he’d learned his lesson.

At some point, the company sent four workers, including the individual in question, to a town 4 or 5 hours from the company’s base for a particular job. It housed the workers at a hotel, where the worker with the conviction developed a relationship with a housekeeper. When he took it too far, she complained to hotel managers, who called the police and the worker’s crew chief.

The worker began berating and arguing with his crew chief and coworkers. On top of everything else, it turned out he was the only African-American member of the crew. That meant extra caution was needed to avoid a charge of race discrimination from the worker. Company management asked Cohen to intervene.

How does Cohen work? First, he asked that the worker be suspended with pay, pending an investigation. Next, he met with the housekeeper. Then he met with the worker, in a neutral location. In a typical interview, Cohen solicits the worker’s version of events; he will later move on to witnesses, if there are any.

In the interview in this case, the worker talked nonstop for more than half an hour. Cohen listened, then acknowledged that the hotel may have overreacted, but it had to, because our federal government believes employers can’t do too much to protect their employees.

Slowly but surely over two or three more meetings, Cohen talked the worker into the idea that he was not being fired but was asked to resign. In exchange, he would be given a week’s severance pay, the chance to apply for unemployment compensation, and a neutral reference from the construction company.

The worker, like most of Cohen’s counselees, agreed to the arrangement. Meanwhile, Cohen had arranged for a police “escort” to be unobtrusively present for his meetings with the worker and had the locks changed on the building where he had worked.

Another example: In a situation he describes in his book, a bank teller was a heavy smoker who’d tried but been unable to quit. As a result, she was subject to terrible coughing fits several times a day. She was good at her job, but the coughing frightened customers and annoyed coworkers.

Management and HR were at a loss about what to do. They assumed that her cough was a disability that had to be accommodated. So, the bank summoned Cohen to find and negotiate a solution. He says, “The bottom line is to get people out of mad and into problem solving. In other words, get them out of what they think they want and into what’s in their best interests.” It takes a lot of patience, he reports, but it can be done.

In the bank teller’s case, the solution lay in helping her with tuition for education that would take her where she wanted to go: She was studying to become an accountant.

At Cohen’s urging, the bank agreed to pay her $9,000 toward her tuition, as well as $250 a month for a year as a stipend, for a total cost of $12,000 in exchange for her leaving her teller’s job without a fuss. Not only was there no fuss; the employee actually wrote a thank-you letter to the bank for what she felt was a generous offer on its part.

Is his service needed? In a perfect world, of course, well-run companies wouldn’t encounter the knotty—and occasionally dangerous—situations that occupy Cohen. But it’s not a perfect world, he contends, asserting that about 1 percent of employees in any company tend to be bad apples with the potential to cause problems at any given point.

His solution? Companies can buy the services of him and others of his firm’s associates by paying an affordable monthly fee, regardless of whether they use those services. For more about his firm, visit

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