Malcom Gladwell, author of a book called Blink, was recently on a news show discussing the tragic death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent Brazilian who was erroneously killed by British police in their zeal to prevent another London subway bombing. Among the many interesting observations Gladwell made was one that particularly resonated with me. He noted that once police have framed someone as a criminal, all subsequent decisions are made in this context. Innocent behaviors may appear ominous when viewed through the prism of criminality.
In this terrible case, we first heard that the deceased was exhibiting suspicious behaviors - wearing a bulky, seasonably inappropriate coat, running from police, jumping turnstiles, etc. In retrospect, we learned that most of these reports were simply not true. Menezes was on his way to work like every other day, but on this day he had the misfortune to be framed as a terrorist suspect. When a group of police identified and pointed him out as he sat on a subway car, he apparently stood to face them. In the context of an imminent terrorist threat, a simple action became a death sentence.
I haven't yet read Gladwell's book, but his commentary sent me to Amazon reviews. The book is about decision making based on "rapid cognition" - first impressions, snap judgments, framing, and the like - it looks like an interesting addition to a late summer reading list.
"Problem" as the default assumption
We frequently see this type of "rapid cognition" and framing when someone is injured at work. For many employers, workers comp is a hot button issue. It is expensive, confusing, and fraught with potentially sticky employment issues. It may involve litigation. Suspicion runs high. It is an issue that is generally framed as problematic right from the outset. Because the overall context is problematic, every dealing with the employee is viewed through a problem prism. This negative framing can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A *good* employee is mystified as to why he or she is suddenly treated with suspicion.
When I first came to workers comp, I was quite ignorant of the issue beyond the fact that it was serious enough to be driving some employers here in Massachusetts out of business. The word "fraud" was bandied about readily. Lynch Ryan founder, Tom Lynch, did not think fraud was the nub of the problem. While he allowed that fraud existed, he saw problems as emanating more from the fact that employers were treating what is essentially a human issue as simply a financial equation. He wondered why two very similar injuries could evoke such vastly different responses depending on whether they occurred on or off the job. As an insurance industry outsider viewing the issue as purely a business problem to be solved, he did not bring the baggage of negative framing. Essentially, he approached things much the way my Mom approached the job of raising her seven kids: treat people fairly and consistently, reinforce good behaviors, expect the best, and treat problems as exceptions, not the rule.
Can something as simple as reframing the issue so that the default position in approaching an injured worker is not from the problem perspective yield better results? We obviously feel strongly that it can, and we think that the hundreds of clients we’ve worked with over the years would largely agree. At minimum, it is certainly a good place to start.
Shortly after thinking of the issue of framing and how it relates to workers comp, I was surfing some blogs and came upon an interesting item courtesy of Judge Robert Vonada's blog. Judge Vonada points to a thoughtful poem about an injured worker that speaks to the issue of framing. It is written from the perspective of a son reflecting on his Dad's experience with a work injury. To read No Work Poem #1, scroll down to the August 17 entry.