Over a year ago, I wrote our first blog post on HRLawMatters.com.  It was about a favorite phrase of labor and employment lawyers:  “No good deed goes unpunished.”  It discussed how employers doing “good deeds” for employees was often the right thing, but that if not done thoughtfully and carefully, doing good deeds can lead to regrets and “punishment.”

We see this all the time in our practice.  For instance, a manager is demoted into a non-management role rather than being terminated outright for poor performance.  Despite the risks of this decision, the employer thinks it is helping him by not terminating him.  But when the employee fails miserably in the non-management role, he is fired.  He sues, largely because of the “indignity” of the demotion prior to his termination.  There might have been no lawsuit (or at least a much simpler one), if the manager had just been fired.  The employer’s “good deed” of demoting him first rather than firing him blows up in its face.

While this type of “punishment” for attempting good deeds happens often, I am not totally against doing “good deeds.”  My faith in them was reaffirmed recently while I was traveling with my family.  My wife, my two young kids and I were flying home.  None of us had seats together on a completely full flight, so we had to do some seat swapping once on the plane so each kid had a parent sitting with them.

My young son got in his seat on the two-seat side of the plane, and I asked the man sitting in the aisle seat next to him if he would switch his seat for mine — a middle-seat on the three-seat side of the plane.  He winced, clearly knowing that switching was the “right” thing to do, but not being happy about giving up an aisle seat for a middle seat on a full flight.  After a moment, this nice man agreed to the swap.  I tried to buy him a drink and I offered him a real Philadelphia soft pretzel (we were in Philadelphia and I was bringing home a couple days’ supply of one of my favorite treats).  He politely declined the drink and the pretzel.

Moments later, a flight attendant came to tell me I had been upgraded to first class.  (One of the few and all-too-infrequent perks of frequent travel.)  I was surprised and I thanked her, but told her I would pass since I was sitting next to my young son.  Then I quickly asked, “Can I give it to someone else?”  I told her about my seat swap, pointed out the man who gave up his aisle seat and asked if he could have the upgrade.  She smiled, and then took him up to first class.  I don’t know if the flight attendant told him what happened, but I was glad he received a reward for his good deed, rather than punishment.  Hopefully, he will re-tell the story of his doing the right thing and being rewarded (even if he doesn’t know the direct connection) and he can help spread the feeling of good karma that hit me and is still with me from that flight.

When you are working with managers and your company on doing “good deeds” for employees, hopefully you will find opportunities for “good karma” — including rewarding employees who do the right thing when faced with a situation where it might be easier not to.  Being watchful for unwanted “punishment” from good deeds  is important, but it does not mean their aren’t sometimes opportunities that present no risk of bad results, only good karma and success for all involved.