The Trap of “Us” vs. “Them”

One of the main ways I have comforted myself this past week is by reading what God said to me. Words have always comforted me. For me, knowledge and understanding is power.  It gives me a sense of peace.  This is what He said to me.

What we have done is made labels for people, so everyone can fit into one box or another. This is a human phenomenon and creates most of the conflicts in the world.  Not the labels themselves, but the assumption that labels mean better or worse.  It makes us feel better to think when bad things happen, it just means that one group is superior to another.  It secures us to know: we are better human beings than “those” people.  Labels give us a sense of understanding to our world.  The labels themselves are not bad, it’s what happens when we react with fear to those labels.  The truth of the matter is all human beings are ultimately the same at their core, it is just hard for people to understand that.  It is painful to believe that at times.


When we identify with a group and start feeling superior to another group, conflict arises. We all do it. This election is a perfect example.  Many of us are feeling superior to each other based on which candidate we voted for. Let the superiority and name calling begin.  I am feeling it too.  If you are honest, you can watch this happen in the workplace, in schools, and even at church.  Pay attention to the times you talk about another group as if they are less than you.  You start dehumanizing them by speaking about them as a group.  Think about the labels we use.  “Trump supporters,” “liberal elites”,  and “Muslims” for example.  The labels themselves are not bad, but how we use them to judge can be.  It happens at work frequently.  The “us” vs. “them” makes “us” feel important, better, confident we are right.  We are constantly looking for information to validate those beliefs.  In thinking about how to heal our country after this emotionally charged election, I have been thinking of a personal experience of “us” vs. “them” and the healing that happened after a bitter fight.

The year was 1998. I was 25 years old and had just been hired as the Administrator of my hometown nursing home and assisted living, Oak Hills Living Center.  A year and half prior to me starting at Oak Hills, on July 3, 1997 the employees walked out on strike.  All the employees except the RN’s, management, and office staff were members of the Teamsters Union.  The Administrator had created a culture within the organization of significant animosity between management, and staff and the tensions reached a boiling point. The staff and the union chose July 3, the day before the holiday because they thought that would help force an agreement.

They miscalculated the tenacity of the Administrator who from what I heard later had become obsessed with “winning” at all costs.  You cannot take care of the elderly without people, so temporary staff were brought in at double the cost of the employees to take care of those that lived at Oak Hills.  I heard stories of the picket line and the strike and it got ugly.  Those that crossed the picket line were spit at, and called names like “scab.”  Tensions and animosity ran high between the employees who walked out, the employees who crossed the picket line to care for the residents, and the management and Board of Directors.

When I arrived in December of 1998, the picketing had ended but many of the employees who had been on strike had yet to be called back to work. The nursing home was being staffed primarily by temporary staff, called pool.  We lost $100,000 in the first month I was there, bond payments had not been made since June, we weren’t paying bills and were receiving collection calls several times per day, there was a lawsuit in the works between the organization and the architect and contractor because the building, which was only five years old had mold in the walls, and last but not least we needed to rebuild our team and our culture.  I was young and determined enough to try!  Many of the direct care employees were temporary employees and only a select few had been called back to work.

The first order of business was to call the employees back to work and start hiring permanent employees to replace the temporary workers that we could not afford to pay. I knew from my previous work, the nurses and direct caregivers are like gold in the nursing home.  CultureWithout caring, compassionate, well-trained, dedicated, employees the business of caring for people was not a viable one.  I had to act fast. I knew instinctively that recreating the culture was my top priority.

The previous Administrator had surrounded himself with a team of people who in hindsight did not share my values.  I still remember one of the advisors telling me when an employee group organizes and joins a union I needed to understand they no longer communicated directly with me.  I only talked to employees through the union or the employee union representatives.  That advice did not sit right with me.  I had been the Administrator of a nursing home before and had learned that people responded to me because I formed relationships with them.  I told him I didn’t care if the employees were in a union or not, I would treat them the same.  I will never forget what he said to me.  He said, “That is why they send 18 year-old’s to the front line in war.  You will get slaughtered.”

It wasn’t the first time someone had underestimated me because of my age and it wouldn’t be the last.  I instinctively knew he was wrong.  albert_einstein_definition-of-insanityThe next piece advice I got was from the attorney who had been hired to negotiate the final agreement to call the employees back to work.  She told me I should create a policy that did not allow any employee who had previously worked for our organization to be rehired.  That ranks as some of the worst advice I have ever been given.  I told her in an environment where we desperately needed qualified caregivers, I would be creating no such policy.  She also warned me I would regret that decision.  I was beginning to understand how the organization had gotten into such a mess if the Administrator had surrounded himself with advisors that gave this kind of advice.  I knew we had to approach employee relations in a completely different way.

I heard the employees who had previously worked at Oak Hills but had not been called back to work were hosting a gathering with the union representatives at a local restaurant. I was again warned that going to the gathering would be a mistake and I would be walking into a hostile environment.  Again, my instincts told me not to listen to the advice.  Trust your instinctsIt had been announced in the local paper, along with my picture, that I had been hired as the new Administrator.  I walked into the room where the employees and union representatives had gathered.  The group turned and all eyes were on me.  I smiled and waved and the group broke into applause.  I introduced myself to each person in the room, and told them I was looking forward to getting them back to work.  The healing had begun but it truly was only the beginning.

The day before the employees were to return to work, the anxiety was palpable. The Dietary Manager told me she vomited that morning.  She supervised one of the union reps, a cook who was one of the loudest, angriest, and most aggressive in hurling insults at those who crossed the picket line. Many of the staff who had crossed the picket line had been harassed and for the first time were facing their attackers.  The words and anger stung and still haunted them.  They were scared, they were angry and they didn’t know if they could forgive, let alone forget enough to be able to work side by side with each other.  Emotions were very high.

I knew I had to set the expectations clearly and early on. I had a staff meeting and my message was clear and simple.  I acknowledged the pain that had been inflicted on both sides.  I said, I understood feelings were hurt and people still felt angry but it was time to put our differences aside and rebuild a team that had the focus of the residents we were honored to serve.  I told the group, if I heard of any instances of harassment or name-calling, they would no longer have a job.

Less than 24 hours later, someone called my bluff. The woman who had her manager vomiting came to my office sobbing.  She was a tough looking woman who had an intimidating presence, but she had been reduced to tears.  She claimed she had been verbally attacked in the kitchen by another employee who had been the driver of a van who crossed the picket line to get employees to work.  His wife worked for us as a nurse.  I confirmed with staff that this in fact had happened.  I called this man into my office.  He was twice my age, over 6 feet tall.  I am 5’4”.  I asked him if he had in fact verbally attacked a co-worker?  He admitted he had and started yelling, “Do you have ANY IDEA how vulgar that woman was!  She called my wife names and I will NOT let her get away with that!”

I asked him if he remembered the expectations from the meeting and explained I understood it was hard to work with her but, for us to move forward we had to forgive each other.  I then told him he no longer had a job at our facility.  He leaned over me red-faced, severely invading my personal space and screamed, “YOU ARE GOING TO FIRE ME AND LET THAT B&%$@* WORK HERE!”  I held my ground and told him yes I was.  Hold your groundI thanked him for his service and he stormed out of the conference room. Word traveled fast that I meant what I said.  That was the one and only time we had an incident at work regarding harassment about the strike. Staff learned to work with and respect each other.  Four years later, the employees made the decision to vote the union out which brought some of the “us” against “them” back.

I can say by the time I left in 2011, the pain and anger of the strike was ancient history and we had moved forward.  This story reminds me people can come together after hurting each other and forge a new path of forgiveness and understanding.  This gives me hope for reconciliation after this bitter election.

Do you have an example of us vs. them in your life?


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