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Why consumers don’t care about dual agency in real estate

The real estate consuming public wants results. In the last half century they’ve simply not made even a small deal out of dual agency.

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Dual agency in real estate

Buyer representation? Dual agency? NAR for heaven’s sake? Give me a break. Until I became a blogger I was both ignorant and apathetic about what opinions were held by others in the industry on those subjects. The only thing that has changed is the entertainment I sometimes enjoy while reading about them.

Keep in mind that most of these opinions are offered by agents who’ve never put together consecutive years of income equal to the national median. In fact, the vast majority of these pillars of agent ethics, according to their own association, earn far less than the national median.

In the 1960s and early 1970s I worked for a real estate firm sporting six offices and give or take 40 agents. About 65-75% of the agents were full time. In the two years I was the janitor and printer (mimeograph) of new listings, they closed over 1,000 transactions — over 2,000 ‘sides’ — 100% of which were dual agency sales. That same firm also escrowed the sales. Oh, the humanity! Furthermore, if one of their agents was caught showing another broker’s listings, he/she was fired on the spot. The company’s broker/owner didn’t cooperate with outside brokers – as policy. He refused to join the local board or the MLS. How could that work you ask? Simple, his company always had more listings under $20,000 (the magic number back then) than the entire MLS. He didn’t need them. They needed him.

And everyone knew it.

(Note: For the record, this broker didn’t employ nepotism very well either. Starting your son in the family business as the janitor for two years sends a pretty clear message, don’t you think? Dad was one of a kind.)

When inevitably the green monster of envy showed up in the form of an anonymous complaint to the DRE — bullies are almost always cowards too — he was unceremoniously audited within an inch of his life. It took three days. The auditor handed his card to the broker when he’d concluded his work, and said, “Mr. Brown, if you are contacted by the DRE about any broker’s complaint ever again, give me a call. Your files are the cleanest I’ve ever seen. If I ever decide to move, you will get my listing.”

It seems when the smoke cleared, integrity was what mattered. Integrity is the ultimate trump card.

I find it silly to even have to debate this subject, since most of the time it revolves around perception, not reality. Marketing deals with perception. Our behavior in the service of our clients must be more valuable than that. It must be real. Our clients must have faith in us and our integrity, not merely an ambiguous, often amorphous perception.

I work in the investment side of real estate. My clients invest to improve their retirement. A large part of my business is tax deferred exchanges. The consequences of a failed exchange can be ruinous in terms of capital gains taxes unintentionally caused.

Without boring you with tax law details, there are times in an exchange in which investors can be put at risk of owing capital gains taxes. If a transaction falls through at a critical point in the exchange, it can result in huge tax consequences, regardless of whose fault it was. In my experience this usually comes up when I’ve sold a client’s income property as the first stage of an exchange. There is a 45 day window from the time that sale closes in which the seller must ‘identify’ the property they will be exchanging into, using the equity/proceeds from the recently closed sale. If that property is listed by an outside broker who somehow causes the escrow to fall out, and the 45 days has passed – my client is rendered helpless. He can no longer take advantage of a tax deferred exchange, and will now owe whatever capital gains tax applies to that property.

The common denominator of these failures is the listing agent, virtually always a specialist in owner occupied housing.

This is why my clients PREFER to purchase properties I’ve listed. They know the other client is likely also exchanging for tax reasons and therefore equally motivated to perform. They also like that I’m in control of both sides.

Wait, it gets better.

I tell my clients, in writing, that if I sell their property myself it’s virtually guaranteed to be at a lower price than if another broker from the MLS brought their buyer to the table. Now this is where the chorus chimes in – “That’s at least the perception of evil! This is why dual agency is so wrong.” Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. The next question is why sell for a little less, right? I’m glad you asked.

90% of the properties I sell for my clients are 1-4 unit rentals. Most of the buyers are represented by agents who couldn’t find their backsides with two guides, a map, and a GPS when it comes to income property. Their agents allow them to pay more than my clients would. (I’m with this when there’s no exchange involved, as who doesn’t like a higher price.) My clients make the decision to sell for a tad less, (usually 1-3%) because of the peace of mind they have knowing the sale, and therefore the tax deferred excchange is going to conclude successfully. Paying $50-100,000 in capital gains taxes because some house agent wannabe decides to dabble in investments isn’t worth getting $10,000 more for their property.

And for the record, I charge six percent — period. Of course, all this is disclosed to the max. I usually end up introducing the clients to each other, and some have become friends. They all have a signed, written disclosure by me on my letterhead, making my relationship with all parties nakedly transparent. One of the common denominators that makes this attractive to my clients is the knowledge that they’re buying property that hasn’t been broadcast to the public. They don’t have to compete with other buyers, making it even more of a seamless transaction. And the sellers prefer this approach for the above mentioned reasons. (I’ve always been told repetition is the best teacher.)

When I’ve given ‘mini-seminars’ in their homes, attended by their friends, neighbors, and family, it’s more likely than not that they’ve actually invited another client of mine to attend. It’s pretty effective when investors hear from satisfied clients that dual agency is sometimes the way to go. This is especially true when some of the attendees have experienced exchanges gone sideways due to an outside house broker’s poor performance.

However, now that my operation is national, not local in scope, I hafta deal with these wannabes regularly. The silver lining is that even if the sale of the original property in the exchange falls through, they’ve not yet incurred tax consequences. Since I advise/consult with the sellers of the properties they’ll eventually acquire, their safety remains assured.

Ultimately the reasons my clients do business with me is the same reason your clients do business with you: You offer solid value, expertise, and results. You operate with INTEGRITY. My clients come to me because they want to increase net worth, retire as soon as possible, and with as much tax sheltered or tax free income as they can possibly create. I strive to give them just that.

Dual agency is a non-issue debated by folks who are either jealous or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, afraid of what others might think of them. I have no problem with those who disagree with me and avoid dual agency as policy. In fact I admire them for walking their talk. I think most of them are sincere in their beliefs.

I just think they’re sincerely mistaken. Integrity should always triumph over perception. When perception wins, we all lose. Perception is too often a bully who doesn’t have anything else to say, so the issue is framed by how it might appear. To those who are on the fence, I say, grow a pair. Look others in the eye and stand on the platform of your integrity.

Dual agency is simply not an issue worth of all this drama. Here are the usual 4 arguments brought forward.

 1. The client has the potential to be injured by an agent who isn’t an angel.

If this is accepted universally then we must repeal the law of gravity. It also is employed daily by those not possessing either wings or a halo. This belief requires all agency to be eliminated due to the potential for abuse.

2. If he is the listing agent he can’t compose a low ball offer.

What, your forms software won’t work? There is no ethical prohibition to making low ball offers if the buyer insists on it, even if you’re also the listing agent. That offer doesn’t make you unethical, it makes you an agent. A seller can turn it down as he pleases, just as if he was represented by another agent. In fact, I’d be telling my client that his low ball offer will be turned down — due to my advice to the seller. 🙂 The seller’s already been told by me, verbally and in writing, that the ultimate sales price WILL BE lower than the buyer wasn’t also my client. They’ve made a totally informed decision to go with that scenario. (Just not low ball.) They know I won’t allow a stoopid low sales price, AS DOES MY BUYER CLIENT. They both know the story from beginning to end, and have opted in voluntarily.

3. If dual agency can ever be abused via bad agent intent, then it is universally a bad idea.

By that definition all agency is a bad idea as it can all be abused by bad intent. Using that approach, marriage is a bad idea. Government is a bad idea. Baby sitting is a bad idea. Only those unable to think for themselves buy into that school of thought.

4. The perception of the public favors an agent who refuses to participate in dual agency.

I’ve been hearing this since Nixon was in office, and apparently missed that tsunami of negative public opinion. Yet how many past clients refuse to do business with huge teams whose volume each year consists of 10-25% dual agency? I personally know a highly successful team leader in another state who listed and sold an attorney’s home himself. The attorney came to him to list the property with full knowledge it could result in a dual agency sale. The final false premise is that I must ‘persuade’ you that dual agency is universally good rather than evil. Shame on me for accepting that in the first place.

Nobody’s ever proved to me that dual agency is inherently injurious to our clients. What folks have said is it has the potential to be. I have the potential to be an escrow officer but haven chosen to eschew that path. An argument against dual agency based on the potential for agent abuse, or the public’s perception, or that it sometimes results in unethical behavior, is doomed to failure. We all choose to behave and conduct business ethically and with OldSchool integrity, or we don’t. The real laugher is that an agent behaves ethically during single agency deals, but misbehaves during dual agency. Really? You’re hangin’ your hat on that? You’re embarrassing yourself.

As for the public’s outcry on this subject, I’m deafened by the silence. 

This coming October will mark my 44th anniversary in the business. I’ve heard this dual agency ‘debate’ since I was 18. Yet, the public hasn’t cared a whit. It’s almost always the PC bully crowd makin’ most of the noise.

Please put forward an argument which logically stands alone. As you have noticed by now, I won’t defend my position based upon the potential for evil. Angelic behavior is not a requirement to make a living in real estate. Integrity and ethically based behavior is. Bad behavior is punished. The drunk driver is punished, but you and I aren’t prohibited from drinking because of the drunk driver’s sin.

Ayn Rand said it best: If the results you wish continually fail to materialize – check your premises.

The public simply never has, isn’t, and likely won’t buy your irrational reasoning. They’re far more interested in getting results.

Jeff Brown specializes in real estate investment for retirement, has practiced real estate for over 40 years and is a veteran of over 200 tax deferred exchanges, many multi-state. Brown is a second generation broker and works daily with the third generation. With CCIM training and decades of hands on experience, Brown's expertise is highly sought after, some of which he shares on his real estate investing blog.

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Miriam Bernstein

    July 15, 2013 at 8:35 am

    The correct title for this piece should be “why old timers in real estate don’t care about dual agency” because some consumers do care. That is not to say in your particular business it doesn’t work perfectly; more like commercial transaction which are strictly business – emotion removed. Dual agency laws are different state to state and what is and isn’t allowable can make a difference…In New York for example the Broker designates a buyer’s agent and a seller’s agent who can “advocate” for their consumers also works….I personally don’t like it because I prefer that each party have an advocate who can advise them as issues come up which can’t be done in Dual Agency….not so simple.

    • BawldGuy

      July 15, 2013 at 5:37 pm

      Sorry you felt it necessary to get personal, Miriam. Try this out. Since the 21st century began, clearly in the internet era, my firm has closed 8 figures of dual agency transactions. The median age of my clients is under 45. Fully 20% of them are in their 20s and 30s. Guess they didn’t get your memo.

      • Miriam Bernstein

        July 16, 2013 at 9:55 am

        I’m an old timer too, so didn’t think it was “personal” in a negative way. I started working as a sub agent and we knew nothing of dual agency. I have found that us “old timers” have a different view about dual agency at times than agents who haven’t experienced the way it was. I sometimes think they should just go back 20 years as this is all so complicated for consumers –

        • BawldGuy

          July 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

          I apologize, Miriam. I, maybe as you do at times, get tired of folks sayin’ that something in principle has changed. Principles simply don’t change. I think Ms. Lussier said it best. When there is no slight of hand, everything is open to sunlight, trust is created. Once trust exists, I’ve not seen them care. Oh, and for the record, my first 7 years were listing and selling owner occupied homes. Never had a complaint about dual agency in those years either.

          Again, I’m sorry for taking your comment the wrong way. My bad.

  2. Hank Miller

    July 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

    A few good points but Miriam makes a very good one regarding emotion. I’ve been doing this since ’89 and every agent worth their salt has an example or one hundred of where a client removed the data and common sense from a transaction and acted solely on emotion. With the availability of data over the last several years, everyone is an “expert” and I’ve seen many instances where good, ethical agents have been skewered in dual agency. Unreliable data (most any public site), emotion, suspicion, the home buying process in general and angst make dual agency a potential disaster. I much prefer to hand an unrepresented client to my managing broker for assignment, the risk of an issue isn’t worth it to me – perception is reality in many minds when things “go wrong” for someone.

    Commercial and income properties tend to be more data centric, I don’t see the risk/reward equation being favorable in the current environment. I’m just fine representing one client in a transaction. Now as far as the bully and extortion tactics of the MLS organizations, don’t even get me started.

  3. Jonathan Dalton

    July 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    * watches BawldGuy drop the mike and leave *

    • BawldGuy

      July 15, 2013 at 11:00 pm

      Exactamundo.

  4. Jonathan Dalton

    July 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    > With the availability of data over the last several years, everyone is an “expert” and I’ve seen many instances where good, ethical agents have been skewered in dual agency. Unreliable data (most any public site) … make dual agency a potential disaster.

    If the agent’s data is correct, then why would they be skewered?

    Jeff works the investment side so emotion ain’t part of the deal. Having said that, arguments about the emotion go back to the perception. If I have even the slightest concern that one side or the other is concerned about me working both sides, I don’t do it. Call it common sense. Call it CYA to the max. Whatever it is, it works. So far, though, it’s been raised as an issue by less than 1 percent of my clients in my nine years in.

    If you’re that worries about perception, given what most of the public thinks, you’re in the wrong business. Me and the man in the mirror, however, rest east because we know what we’re doing.

  5. franklyrealty

    July 15, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Was my comment removed?

  6. franklyrealty

    July 16, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Thank you for an example where Dual Agency might work. I have also heard it from a horse expert that said that being a specialist in Horse Farms makes things go more smoothly, whereas a random agent will guarantee problems.

    The post was confusing however since it isn’t clear which “client” you are referring to at times. Maybe edit the post and always say “buyer client” or “seller client.”

    That being said, there was one thing I was looking for in your in your post. And that is advice and how it is given when both sides are your client. And I found it when you said “I’d be telling my [buyer] client that his low ball offer will be turned down — due to my advice to the seller [client].”

    Exactly what advice are you giving? The drawback of dual agency that you didn’t discuss (and most articles miss) and is my main gripe is that the agent becomes an overpaid paperpusher. They can’t give advice to either side (for most negotiation matters).

    So when the listing is $500k and your buyer offers $490k, do you give advice? To go higher or lower? And when you take that offer over to the seller, do you say “I think you should hold out for more, or this is good, you should take it.”

    My understanding of dual agency, and I could be wrong, is that you have to work the contract, not the clients. You can’t give advice to either side that might in the slightest effect the other side. Hence a glorified paper pusher.

    Do you give offer and counter offer advice?

    Frank LL0SA Esq
    Broker Md VA DC
    Attorney only in NJ

  7. Theresa Lussier

    July 16, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    I don’t believe they don’t “care”. I do think they don’t mind.

    >>They all have a signed, written disclosure by me on my letterhead, making my relationship with all parties nakedly transparent.

    Which makes it their decision, Jeff, and that is the difference. As long as they know upfront what is going on, they are okay with it, but if it’s not disclosed upfront, they do not like it one bit. I’ve had buyers come from other agents who showed them their own listings and never once brought up dual agency. Believe me, they care, they just want it disclosed at the beginning. It’s about trust…

  8. BawldGuy

    July 16, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I think that statement is accurate, Mark. On the other hand, who has more on the line, emotions aside? Again, I agree with your statement.

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Opinion Editorials

Decision-making when between procrastination and desperation

(EDITORIAL) Sometimes making a decision in business can loom so large over us that we delay making them until it’s absolutely necessary. Why?

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decision-making between procrastination and desperation

I need to confess something to you

So, a little confession’s good for the soul, right? I feel like I need to confess something to you, dear reader, before we jump right into this article. What follows is an article that I pitched to our editor some months back, and was approved then, but I’ve had the hardest time getting started. It’s not writer’s block, per se; I’ve written scores of other articles here since then, so I can’t use that as an excuse.

It’s become a bit of a punch line around the office, too; I was asked if I was delaying the article about knowing the sweet spot in decision making between procrastination and desperation as some sort of hipster meta joke.

Which would be funny, were it to be true, but it’s not. I just became wrapped up in thinking about where this article was headed and didn’t put words to paper. Until now.

Analysis by paralysis

“Thinking about something—thinking and thinking and thinking—without having an answer is when you get analysis by paralysis,” said St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Matt Bowman, speaking to Fangraphs.

“That’s what happened… I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, or if I was doing anything wrong. I had no idea.” It happens to us all: the decisions we have to make in business loom so large over us, that we delay making them until it’s absolutely necessary.

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Worse still are the times that we delay them until after such a time as when making the decision no longer matters because the opportunity or market’s already moved on. So we try to find the avenues for ourselves that will give us the answers we seek, and try to use those answers in a timely fashion. Jim Kaat, the former All-Star pitcher said it well: “If you think long, you think wrong.”

Dumpster Diving in Data

In making a decision, we’re provided an opportunity to answer three basic questions: What? So what? And now what?

The data that you use to inform your decision-making process should ideally help you answer the first two of those three questions. But where do you get it from, and how much is enough?

Like many of us, I’m a collector when it comes to decision making. The more data I get to inform my decision, and the sufficient time that I invest to analyze that data, I feel helps me make a better decision.

And while that sounds prudent, and no one would suggest the other alternative of making a decision without data or analysis would be better, it can lead to the pitfall of knowing how much is enough. When looking for data sources to inform your decision-making, it’s not necessarily quantity, but an appropriate blend between quantity and quality that will be most useful.

You don’t get brownie points for wading through a ton of data of marginal quality or from the most arcane places you can find them when you’re trying to make an informed decision. The results of your ultimate decision will speak for themselves.

“Effective people,” said Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, “know when to stop assessing and make a tough call, even without total information.”

Great. How do I do that?

So, by what factors should you include (and more importantly, exclude) data in your decision-making?

Your specific business sector will tell you which data sources most of your competitors use already, as well as the ones that your industry disruptors use to try to gain the edge on you.

Ideally, your data sources should be timely and meaningful to you. Using overly historical data, unless you’re needing that level of support for a trend line prediction, often falls into “That’s neat, but…” land. Also, if you’re wading into data sets that you don’t understand, find ways to either improve (and thus speed) your analysis of them, or find better data sources.

While you should be aware of outliers in the data sets, don’t become so enamored of them and the stories that they may tell that you base your decision-making process around the outlier, rather than the most likely scenarios.

And don’t fall into this trap

Another trap with data analysis is the temptation to find meaning where it may not exist. Anyone who’s been through a statistics class is familiar with the axiom correlation doesn’t imply causation. But it’s oh so tempting, isn’t it? To find those patterns where no one saw them before?

There’s nothing wrong with doing your homework and finding real connections, but relying on two data points and then creating the story of their interconnectedness in the vacuum will lead you astray.

Such artificial causations are humorous to see; Tyler Vigen’s work highlights many of them.

My personal favorite is the “correlation” between the U.S. per capita consumption of cheese and people who died after becoming entangled in their bed sheets. Funny, but unrelated.

So, as you gather information, be certain that you can support your action or non-action with recent, accurate, and relevant data, and gather enough to be thorough, but not so enamored of the details that you start to drown in the collection phase.

Trust issues

For many of us, delegation is an opportunity for growth. General Robert E. Lee had many generals under his command during the American Civil War, but none was so beloved to him as Stonewall Jackson.

Upon Jackson’s death in 1863, Lee commented that Jackson had lost his left arm, but that he, Lee, had lost his right. Part of this affection for Jackson was the ability to trust that Jackson would faithfully carry out Lee’s orders. In preparing for the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson approached Lee with a plan for battle:

Lee, Jackson’s boss, opened the conversation: “What do you propose to do?”

Jackson, who was well prepared for the conversation based on his scout’s reports, replied. “I propose to go right around there,” tracing the line on the map between them.

“How many troops will you take?” Lee queried.

“My whole command,” said Jackson.

“What will you leave me here with?” asked Lee.

Jackson responded with the names of the divisions he was leaving behind. Lee paused for a moment, but just a moment, before replying, “Well, go ahead.”

And after three questions in the span of less than five minutes, over 30,000 men were moved towards battle.

The takeaway is that Lee trusted Jackson implicitly. It wasn’t a blind trust that Lee had; Jackson had earned it by his preparation and execution, time after time. Lee didn’t see Jackson as perfect, either. He knew the shortcomings that he had and worked to hone his talents towards making sure those shortcomings were minimized.

Making trust pay off for you

We all deserve to have people around us in the workplace that we can develop into such a trust. When making decisions, large or small, having colleagues that you can rely on to let you know the reality of the situation, provide a valuable alternative perspective, or ask questions that let you know the idea needs more deliberation are invaluable assets.

Finding and cultivating those relationships is a deliberate choice and one that needs considerable and constant investments in your human capital to keep.Click To Tweet

Chris Oberbeck at Entrepreneur identifies five keys to making that investment in trust pay off for you: make authentic connections with those in your employ and on your team, make promises to your staff sparingly, and keep every one of them that you make, set clear expectations about behaviors, communication, and output, be vulnerable enough to say “I don’t know” and professional enough to then find the right answers, and invest your trust in your employees first, so that they feel comfortable reciprocating.

Beyond developing a relationship of trust between those who work alongside you, let’s talk about trusting yourself.

For many, the paralysis of analysis comes not from their perceived lack of data, but their lack of confidence in themselves to make the right decision. “If I choose incorrectly,” they think, “it’s possible that I might ________.” Everyone’s blank is different.

For some, it’s a fear of criticism, either due or undue. For others, it’s a fear of failure and what that may mean. Even in the face of compelling research about the power of a growth mindset, in which mistakes and shortcomings can be seen as opportunities for improvement rather than labels of failure, it’s not uncommon for many of us to have those “tapes” in our head, set to autoplay upon a miscue, that remind us that we’ve failed and how that labels us.

“Risk” isn’t just a board game

An uncomfortable fact of life is that, in business, you can do everything right, and yet still fail. All of the research can come back, the trend lines of data suggest the appropriate course of action, your team can bless the decision, and you feel comfortable with it, so action is taken! And it doesn’t work at all. A perfect example of this is the abject failure of New Coke to be accepted by the consumer in 1985.

Not only was it a failure to revive lagging sales, but public outrage was so vehement that the company was forced to backtrack and recall the product from the market. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way they’re supposed to.

You have to be comfortable with your corporate and individual levels of risk when making a decision and taking action. How much risk and how much failure costs you, both in fiscal and emotional terms, is a uniquely personal decision, suited to your circumstances and your predilections. It’s also likely a varying level, too; some decisions are more critical to success and the perceptions of success than others, and will likely cause you more pause than the small decisions we make day-to-day.

In the end, success and failure hinge on the smallest of factors at times, and the temptation is to slow down the decision making process to ensure that nothing’s left to chance.

Go too slowly, however, and you’ve become the captain of a rudderless ship, left aimlessly to float, with decisions never coming, or coming far too late to meet the needs of the market, much less be innovative. Collect the information, work with your team to figure out what it means, and answer the third question of the series (the “what”) by taking action.

#TakeAction

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Opinion Editorials

Managing bipolar disorder and what I wish my employers understood

(EDITORIAL) This editorial offers a perspective on living with bipolar disorder in the workplace, giving employers insight into how to support similar team members.

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bipolar disorder

I met Jacob Martinez (Jake) a few years back at one of our offline events. He is an eager and ambitious person that always wears a smile (and seriously, it’s an infectious smile), always seeks to help people around him, and is kind and positive at every interaction.

In his most current effort to help others, Jake asked what I thought about his writing about his new bipolar disorder diagnosis, something that most people hide and pray no one discovers. But not Jake. As he dug deeper into the rabbit hole of available information, he realized there was little available discussing how this diagnosis impacts career paths, and almost nothing available to help employers to understand the nuances.

And let’s face it – there are plenty of people hiding their diagnosis, and employers that could be missing amazing talent simply for not understanding how to accommodate.

The following is about Jake’s journey with his diagnosis, how it has impacted his career, and his ideas on how hiring managers and business owners could interact with people living with bipolar disorder in a way that keeps their talents in full use on the job. This isn’t scientific and the suggestions aren’t based on some HR seminar, no, it’s meant to give you unique insight that most people don’t share – I want you to read this through Jake’s eyes. It’s a brave look into working with this challenge:


As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I’ve struggled to find resources that would help individuals like myself jumpstart our careers and learn to navigate working full time with a mental health disorder. Most generalized stories about mental health disorders and the workplace focus more on how things didn’t work out and not on how they started or advanced their careers.

Many give examples of individuals with mental disorders in high-ranking positions who end up leaving their specialized field to work as part-time cashiers or other less stressful and less triggering roles in order to seek a better work environment for their mental health.

I’ve also found that there is a lack of resources for employers when it comes to helping employees with mental disorders. Not many employers are prepared to do so, nor have this skill in their wheelhouse. Without this knowledge, training, and experience, how could they understand the struggles of what it’s like to work with a mental disorder and be expected to provide the necessary support to help their staff?

Many factors contribute to this being overlooked or left unaddressed, such as the stigma behind people with mental disorders in a work environment, or simply because no one knows how to talk about it. When I apply for jobs, I always ask myself “Do I put in an application that I am someone with a condition that needs reasonable accommodations? Is that even an option?” How would I even begin to ask an employer to understand what I am going through? And while I’m still figuring this out and working through what my diagnosis means for my career, I’d like to share my experience and start talking about it.

Like many young individuals, I started college bright-eyed and with a hopeful outlook. I navigated internships, jobs, and full course loads but only to exit with a mountain of debt and depression that can be best described in a meme. Many, with no prospects out of university and an average GPA, end up working menial jobs to get by, hoping for their big break.

For me, this time was spent at Torchy’s Tacos, a local Austin Texas favorite. My luck finally came through when I found a new opportunity. I thought to myself, how hard could it be to deliver packages to people? Especially in a city like Austin where anyone could make a business out of cleaning cat litter boxes. This company, I thought, was going to be my lucky break – my jumping-off point. And it was for about a year. That is until my bipolar diagnosis came in.

Suddenly dealing with bipolar disorder…

I experienced sporadic shifts between depression and hypomania. With my diagnosis came a new understanding of what my limits and strengths were. I understood that stress only made it worse but that physically moving around was the best way to cope with it. Working in a warehouse-type environment allowed me to run around, helping to melt my stress away physically.

But when it came down to job performances, some weeks were better than others.

When I did well, management would make comments like, “I like this new you,” or “whatever is happening, don’t change it.” But nothing was said when I didn’t do so well. Comments continued to dismiss the real issue that I was heading towards an uphill climb of mania. And as I climbed higher and higher, more mistakes began to happen – small ones that added up beyond anything I could control. With each and every episode of mania or depression I had, the trust I had taken time to build and cultivate slowly began to fall apart.

Then came the drop – an episode of depression so deep that it’s hard to recover from. For myself, this began as a result of multiple episodes and when several “options” were laid out on the table by my employer.

First, my employer recommended that I take Family Medical Leave Assistance (FMLA). For someone like myself who never knew what FMLA was, I didn’t know where to start and what this meant. No one told me I would not be getting paid and that I would have to use my sick and personal time off to supplement my income. As someone who has built their identity around working, taking time off felt like an attack on my identity at the time.

Subsequently, I was also told I could be released for making any mistake (no matter how small or slight), attempting to change the work culture, or requesting anything unreasonable such as requesting time off for anything other than medical. My manager also called my episodic shifts a “stunt.”

Every time he said this, I lost faith in him, and he lost trust in me.

Some of the hardest words someone with a mental disorder can hear from a manager or mentor are, “When you pulled that stunt, I can’t trust you anymore” and “we will no longer be working together if you do that again.” His words cut deep and only made each episode worse—finally leading me to turn in my two-week notice.

During my time there, none of my managers ever asked if something was wrong when warning signs showed up. They just assumed that I had already checked out and given up. I felt like a cog that was replaceable and could easily be overturned. Trust was required to help me battle my mental demons, and in this case, that trust was broken on both ends. No one came out of this on top, coping skills were not utilized as they should have, and no one reached out like they said they would.

After reflecting on this experience, here’s what I’ve learned and wished my employer did:

Trust: Trust is earned, not given as the adage goes. But for an employee living with bipolar disorder, trust is given before it is earned. I made the choice to trust my employer (and my entire team) by opening up about my mental health and battles – I had to. And while not everyone may be prepared to open up about what they’re dealing with internally, it can help.

Doing this tells people that you’re asking for help and are making yourself ready to receive it. It signifies your willingness to allow others inside. This can be beneficial to you as it helps your team members become better at recognizing warning signs and understand when to check in to see if you need help. My recommendation here to anyone working with someone who has a mental disorder: Listen if we choose to open up, don’t be dismissive of our efforts, and trust us when we ask to carry more for the team.

 

Don’t assume: Someone opening up about a diagnosis can’t expect everyone at work to have a background in psychology or psychiatry and to understand when comments like “I like this new manic you” are harmful and dismissive.

Not everyone is going to be interested in researching and learning how best to help a team member who is dealing with a mental health disorder. So, don’t assume that they know.

What would have helped me and maybe changed my situation would have been to be more honest and direct about my specific needs upfront. For employers, try to also understand our needs and limits with stress. Ask your employees directly what they need from you in order to make them feel more comfortable. Another way of tackling this would be to ask your employee about some of the coping strategies they are learning in group therapy sessions. If you know your employee is going to group therapy, if you feel comfortable with it, check in with them and encourage them to keep up with those sessions. When assigning unique projects or extra tasks, it’s also helpful to explain what you are asking and offer employees the best ways to achieve it.

 

Ask for and give reasonable accommodations: In my case, I eventually learned that taking time off was not an ‘attack on my identity’ as I had previously felt. I learned to accept it as part of living with bipolar disorder and know when to ask for it. Pushing for myself was empowering and was the best thing that could happen in that given moment.

So, if you’re someone who struggles with bipolar or other depressive mental health disorders, the best thing you can do to help yourself, while building courage and confidence, is to speak up and be your own advocate. Ask for accommodations.

For employers with a team member struggling with a mental disorder, when it comes to giving that team member time to themselves, it should never be a fight or argument. Change the schedule, do what you can to make accommodations, and support someone who needs time away for treatment.

 

Give helpful feedback: In my experience, my previous employer either avoided giving me feedback completely or made dismissive comments like, “I don’t know what the hell happened…”, followed by something positive. Like many others who suffer from bipolar disorder, ineffective and unclear communication can easily lead us to spiral from misinterpreting details and having self-doubt.

I would have benefitted from receiving clear and specific feedback, whether that was immediately after a mistake or as a conversation during team lunch. This small amount of open dialogue could have allowed us as a team to resolve conflicts, improve teamwork, help me build my self-esteem, and improve my performance.

 

Show appreciation and have open dialogues: What is equally important for employers to do is to let us know that you are paying attention to and appreciate our efforts, regardless of how small or large of a task we complete. In a warehouse, things are extremely routine, but it doesn’t take a lot to thank someone for trying.

A few small words and gestures could have been really helpful in breaking me out of a depressive funk or a manic episode and can certainly help someone else in the future.

 

Practice mindfulness: At this moment, let’s check in with our emotions. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT Therapy), some of the questions they ask are about checking in with your emotions and your thoughts. Are you in control of your thoughts or are they in control of you? Are we still in touch with our emotions? Perhaps we are cross at ourselves for playing the victim to our mind’s frustrations?

When it comes to mental disorders, employers need to be more understanding of what their employees are going through. However, we as individuals should also be able to look inwards and see what we are feeling. Core mindfulness is a skill to develop no matter what position you work in or what you’re dealing with. Mindfulness teaches awareness of thoughts and feelings, the focus on the here and now.

From my experience, learning to control my thoughts and emotions is an effective way of dealing with my bipolar disorder. While it took time to discover, I learned that my mindfulness practice was running around the warehouse and moving. This allowed thoughts to flow in and out of my mind without having to give them any power over me. Knowing this made me feel stronger and clearer. Finding a mindfulness practice to help you cope takes time and experimenting – so try different things and figure out what works for you.

 

Ask for help: If you’re struggling with a mental disorder at work, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. That help may look differently for everyone, be it talk therapy, telling a co-worker, or taking time off. Either way, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to start asking for help. If you’re someone who has a co-worker struggling with a mental disorder, pay attention and reach out to them if they need help.

While I’m still learning to navigate my bipolar disorder, this experience has taught me (and hopefully others) some helpful lessons. I have learned to manage it better and am continuing to advance in my career path.

My hope is that companies make a more concerted effort to improve their training on mental health disorders in the workplace. I also hope that by sharing my story, I can help others with bipolar disorder to excel at work.

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Opinion Editorials

How to ask your manager for better work equipment

(EDITORIAL) Old computer slowing you down? Does it make a simple job harder? Here’s how to make a case to your manager for new equipment to improve your productivity.

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better equipment, better work

What is an employee to do when the work equipment bites.

Let’s be frank, working on old, crappy computers with inefficient applications can make the easiest tasks a chore. Yet, what do you do? You know you need better equipment to do your job efficiently, but how to ask the boss without looking like a whiner who wants to blow the department budget.

In her “Ask A Manager” column, Alison Green says an employee should ask for better equipment if it is needed. For example, the employee in her column has to attend meetings, but has no laptop and has to take a ton of notes and then transcribe them. Green says, it’s important to make the case for the benefits of having newer or updated equipment.

The key is showing a ROI. If you know a specific computer would be a decent upgrade, give your supervisor the specific model and cost, along with the expected outcomes.

In addition, it may be worth talking to someone from the IT department to see what options might be available – if you’re in a larger company.

IT professionals who commented on Green’s column made a few suggestions. Often because organizations have contracts with specific computer companies or suppliers, talking with IT about what is needed to get the job done and what options are available might make it easier to ask a manager, by saying, “I need a new computer and IT says there are a few options. Here are my three preferences.” A boss is more likely to be receptive and discuss options.

If the budget doesn’t allow for brand new equipment, there might be the option to upgrade the RAM, for example. In a “Workplace” discussion on StackExchange.com an employee explained the boss thinks if you keep a computer clean – no added applications – and maintained it will perform for years. Respondents said, it’s important to make clear the cost-benefit of purchasing updated equipment. Completing a ROI analysis to show how much more efficiently with the work be done may also be useful. Also, explaining to a boss how much might be saved in repair costs could also help an employee get the point across.

Managers may want to take note because, according to results of a Gallup survey, when employees are asked to meet a goal but not given the necessary equipment, credibility is lost.

Gallup says that workgroups that have the most effectively managed materials and equipment tend to have better customer engagement, higher productivity, better safety records and employees that are less likely to jump ship than their peers.

And, no surprise, if a boss presents equipment and says: “Here’s what you get. Deal with it,” employees are less likely to be engaged and pleased than those employees who have a supervisor who provides some improvements and goes to bat to get better equipment when needed.

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