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In Review

The Most Head-Turning Workplace Stories of 2011

Head-Turning Workplace Stories of 2011It was the best of after-work happy hour, it was the worst of “if my co-worker gives me the side-eye again, I am quitting on the spot” — or so the ancient saying goes. A lot happened in the workplace in the last 12 months, not the least of which involved Occupy Wall Street and the death of Steve Jobs. You’ve probably seen a great deal of coverage about stories like those — but some others might have slipped past your radar. Some of our picks below may not have broken as many front page headlines, but they still made us turn our heads (or drop our jaws).

  1. Gabrielle Giffords briefly returns to the workplace: On Jan. 8, 2011, 23-year-old Jared Loughtner opened fire at an Arizona meet-and-greet. He shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head, leaving her in critical condition, and killed six others. Giffords not only survived the shooting, but briefly returned to Congress in August to vote to raise the debt ceiling. She is still deciding whether she will run for Congress again.
  2. Steve Carell leaves “The Office”: It may not be “real” workplace news, but it affected many workers and non-workers alike who have connected with the main character of NBC’s “The Office.” After seven years on the American version of the show, Steve Carell — and his character Michael Scott — made their final departure on the show many have followed for the last several years. And the James Spader addition? I still think his best performance was in “Pretty in Pink.”
  3. Wal-Mart makes a pledge to women: After being involved in a massive sex-discrimination lawsuit spanning several years — one that alleged women were getting passed over for promotions and paid less than their male counterparts — Wal-Mart, in a move the company says was unrelated to the suit, pledged to spend billions of dollars over the next five years to train female workers and support women-owned businesses. Leslie Dach, head of corporate affairs at Wal-Mart, said the initiative would help the company recruit and attract better workers.
  4. Herman Cain’s ghost of workplace past reappears: Chicago resident Sharon Bialek was the first to go public with her charges of sexually inappropriate behavior against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (though she was the fourth to accuse him of such behavior). Bialek claimed that back when Cain was president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, she met him for dinner to ask for help in her job search, he made unwanted advances in the car after dinner, and upon her refusal, responded, “You want a job, right?” Cain denies all the charges that have been made against him.
  5. Woman says she was fired for breast feeding: Heather Burgbacher, a teacher in Colorado, filed a discrimination suit against her employer, alleging that she was fired from her job due to conflicts over her breast pumping schedule. As Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who is representing Burgbacher, said in an ACLU statement,“In order to achieve full equality for women, our workplace policies must take into account that breastfeeding is a reality in the lives of many women workers. Employers should certainly have no say in a woman’s personal decision whether to breast feed her baby.” The school responded by saying Burgbacher’s termination had nothing to do with the breast pumping issue.When it comes to women breastfeeding in the workplace, there are laws in place that require workplaces to accommodate women with time and a place to pump. Currently, 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have laws relating to breastfeeding in the workplace, and Section 4207 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (signed into law on Mar. 23, 2010) requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a place other than a bathroom for women to express milk during the workday.
  6. A homeless man with a “golden voice” gets a job: Columbus Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth III saw Ted Williams panhandling in Ohio back in 2010. Chenoweth recorded him talking and posted the video in the early days of 2011. It went viral: 7-million-views-in-two-days viral. Williams was getting voiceover gigs left and right, but with his drug and alcohol issues, ended up losing work and going to rehab. A hopeful update: Williams says he’s clean and on a positive path, and in November 2011, he scored a job with New England Cable News.
  7. Employer thinks a “firing contest” is somehow a great idea: William Ernst, owner of a chain of convenience stores in Bettendorf, Iowa, who offered prizes to employees (ahem, a whopping $10) for correctly guessing which cashier would be fired next. Perhaps needless to say, a judge sided with Ernst’s former employees in court when it came to receiving unemployment benefits and called Ernst’s contest “egregious and deplorable.”
  8. A study finds that working moms are happier: Though what is right for one mother may be very different than what is right for another, a Journal of Family Psychology study found that mothers who work report they’re healthier and happier than moms who stay at home with their children in their newborn-to-preschool years. What level of work do women find most satisfactory? Well, according to the findings, women who worked part-time fared the best overall when it came to health and stress. For mothers who do work, it’s not always easy to juggle everything, as being a mom is a often a full-time job in itself. Earlier this year, our own CDO Hope Gurion shared her tips for helping overworked moms thrive in and out of the workplace.
  9. A Penn State scandal explodes: “Shock” was an appropriate description of public reaction as Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football coach, was charged with sexually abusing 10 boys during his time as the university’s coach. Many of the incidents were alleged to have taken place in the university’s locker room — and public outrage compounded when it was found out that head coach Joe Paterno and others had reportedly looked the other way when the abuse was happening. The workplace scandal continues to unfold, as Paterno has been fired and Sandusky has yet to go to trial.
  10. It’s the NBA season that almost wasn’t: For the fourth time in NBA history, the NBA experienced a lockout, effectively stopping all work — and games — from July 1, 2011 to Dec. 8, 2011. The main issues dividing the owners and players? The division of revenue and the structure of the salary cap and luxury tax. The lockout canceled all pre-season games and the first six weeks of the 2011-12 season, and some players signed contracts to play in other countries during the lapse. And how did fans react to the lockout ending? In one word, “meh.”

What workplace stories from this year stand out to you most? What did we miss?

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
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