The Movie Dallas Buyers Club Teaches a Lot About Work and Life

The Dallas Buyers Club opened last Friday in limited cities, it’s the largely true story of a thoroughly unlikable hard ass Texas oil worker at the beginning of the 80’s AIDS crisis, who learns that he has full-blown AIDS (from wild heterosexual behavior).  The movie is amazing.  It’s not “political.”  Rather, it manages to blend tragedy, comedy and true story into a story that puts a face on an incredibly brutal time.  Matthew McConaughey’s performance is a possible Oscar winner.  My hospital administrator wife and I talked about the movie for hours.

Dallas Buyers Club is the type of movie that makes you think.  I’ve been practicing almost 30 years, so if you do the math, I was a new attorney when AIDS was literally first being mentioned. Around 1984, AIDS booted herpes from the stage as the shortest lived STD crisis in recent memory.  It fell to me as a new attorney who enjoyed “developing legal issues” to sort through what to do when a prominent employer learned that an employee “had AIDS.”  Would customers turn on the business?  Would the employer be responsible if coworkers or customers were exposed, and could one contract the disease from toilet seats or sneezes?  I was told to sort it out and to keep it quiet or else ….  since young attorneys in large firms had a career life expectancy only slightly longer than Israeli tank commanders in combat, the situation was pretty stressful for me.  Little scientific guidance was available from public health authorities and the ADA didn’t even exist.  Good luck finding guidance in the federal Rehabilitation Act (handicap discrimination law).

The employer actually dealt with the employee with dignity and decency, so that’s not the story.  Dallas Buyers Club captured the sheer terror AIDS caused and the resulting employer concerns.  With our superior knowledge n 2013, its hard for us to appreciate that people really were unsure if the CDC was shooting straight and that coworkers and the public were not at risk from normal workplace contact.  Employers, who generally wanted to do the right thing for a trusted employee, would fear that they might be exposing people to risk.  I didn’t see the ugly scenes in the movie when McConaghey’s so-called friends and coworkers call him a “fag” and literally run from him when he spits, but I know that such behavior occurred.  Happily I remember many occasions when employer and employees closed ranks around an employee and showed a civility seemingly now absent from the workplace.

Uncertainty and few clear answers were the problem, and such a problem often translates into “knee-jerk” decisions, which any management labor lawyer will tell you is the surest course to turn an ADA accommodation or fitness for duty decision into a lawsuit.

So what do I think that Management, HR and safety Professionals  can learn from this movie?

Lesson One:  There will always be a potentially infectious disease in the workplace. Think about my 30 years… herpes, hepatitis, HIV, SAARs, pandemic flu, medicine-resistant TB, Avian flu,  and recently, MRSA or antibiotic-resistant staph.  And I suspect that the challenges will become more frequent and potentially more dangerous. We must anticipate such challenges and train frontline supervision to not act on emotion.  Obtain guidance.  Go through the ADA interactive process.  Do not simply terminate an employee with investigating the condition and separating fact from fiction … “direct threat” from urban legend.

Lesson two.  We’re entering a period of debate about the proposed anti discrimination bill ENDA.  I am not going to get into the merits of this law or the underlying social issues.  As a defense side management lawyer, I have seen so many unfounded discrimination claims that I dread the thought of another cause of action.  I obviously realize that unlawful discrimination and harassment occurs, but to my frustration, I generally see legitimate claimants walk away and get another job, and so often it seems that those individuals who actually pursue the claims are doing so for reasons other than a sustainable legal claim.  So you can appreciate my concern about creating a new area of employment law claims which also drags in deeply held cultural and religious beliefs.

So my second point is that regardless of the legal framework, we must reclaim civility in the workplace. I do  not need a legal scheme to make me understand that treating someone differently because of their sexual orientation is despicable.  Performance and character are what matters. I fear that in our antidiscrimination efforts, we have set the bar too low.  We must require professionalism and civility in all workplaces.  We need to relearn the term, “civility.”  Why should we tolerate coarse and corrosive behavior?

Lesson three is that, no matter how diligently we work, it seems as if every day produces another story about employees engaging in incredibly stupid behavior, ostensibly as teasing or horseplay, which gives rise to claims of harassment on the basis of sex, race, national origin or other protected characteristic.  Please do not assume that these situations cannot arise in your workplace. Develop a business plan that has concrete steps to continuously develop and reinforce your culture and values.

So go see Dallas Buyers Club.  Despite the admittedly dark subject matter, I think that you’ll be encouraged by he triumph of the human spirit and the redemption of a wheeling dealing Texan good ole boy.  For those of you who are movie lovers, it’s Rotten Tomato’s number is an amazing 95%, which is better than Captain Phillips but one point behind Gravity and two points behind !2 Years a Slave … pretty heady company.


About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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1 Response to The Movie Dallas Buyers Club Teaches a Lot About Work and Life

  1. megsmav says:

    I like your post! Thanks for sharing, Dad!


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