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Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

August 12, 2019
Julie Bittner

I started out my professional career in the field of Human Resources, so it is fitting that the winding path through law school and the practice of law has led me to my current role as an attorney and strategic partner to employers and management. My typical point of contact is a human resource professional or a member of the C-suite. When I asked them to identify their biggest challenge in relation to workplace issues my contacts resoundingly told me that they are not having problems finding and retaining people with solid technical skills, instead, they are facing increasing difficulty with recruiting, hiring and retaining people with strong emotional competency. It is clear to them that emotional intelligence has a far greater impact on the workplace than intelligence level or skill set.

Peter Salovey, along with his colleague John Mayer, put forth one of the first formal theories of emotional intelligence in 1990. They coined the phrase “emotional intelligence” and described it as “the ability to recognize, understand, utilize, and regulate emotions effectively in everyday life.” (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, 2013)

My contacts have found that the best employees are not necessarily those with the highest intelligence but rather those who are adept at relating to people. It makes sense that productive working environments will follow if employees monitor their own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to learn to label different emotions correctly and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior and use it to make a positive impact in their work environment.

This may seem too psychological to have any real impact on your bottom-line. However, understanding how we use emotional information to guide our thinking and influence that of others affects every aspect of corporate life. As an employment defense litigator, I work on the gamut of employment law issues ranging from ADAAA, ADEA, Title VII, and common law wrongful termination. In every single one of these matters, my job is to parse out the individual employment decisions to be made or (in hindsight) have already been made and scrutinizing them to determine whether any animus exists or existed.

We all know it is illegal to take a person’s race, sex, age, etc. into consideration when making employment decisions. Research has proven that individuals who have worked on emotional self-awareness and have emotional competency are much more likely to be able to clearly articulate an animus-free basis for their employment decisions. Such decisions can then be vigorously defended. In contrast, those individuals that are less emotionally aware and less emotionally competent tend to exhibit poor impulse control and lack of empathy in the workplace. Those individuals tend to articulate the rationale for their employment decisions by explaining it was an “at-will” termination or the employee was terminated because they were “not a good personality fit.” Those individuals face much greater scrutiny when defending their employment decisions.

Consider further how levels of emotional intelligence capability could vary in the workplace based on generational or gender lines. Emotional competency could certainly become one more arrow in the quiver to eliminate age bias and sexual harassment in the workplace. Exploring one’s self-awareness and empathy and moving toward overcoming norms and stereotypes can only serve to better employee relationships and reduce employee claims.

It is not difficult to see potential liability in situations where an employee has deficient emotional competency. Companies can have all the policies in the world printed in their handbooks and posted up on the wall, however without emotional competency, employment law issues will continue to surface. A manager that states, “I was just kidding” or “He says some pretty offensive stuff, but he’s harmless” or “That’s just the way our industry is” clearly has deficient emotional competency and is a walking liability.

The culture or the emotional intelligence of an organization starts at the top. Identifying the emotional intelligence of the executive team and then working through the organization down to the rank and file will have a positive impact on the culture, engagement and overall retention of your workforce. People that work in an environment where they feel good about themselves are much more likely to focus on adding value and taking responsibility and much less likely to blame others, engage in discriminatory behavior or bring claims.

My colleague Patrice Borders is certified in Emotional Intelligence EQ-i 2.0 and EQ 360, the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument® and as a professional and executive coach. She works with clients all over the world to help their organizations develop an Emotional Intelligence strategy for their workplace. Her coaching approach is based on the recognition that emotional intelligence abilities are not innate talents, but skills, that through application and practice, can be learned and developed. Her coaching provides participants with tips and tools to foster self-awareness, open dialog, empathy and shared accountability which can lead to more civil, productive and inclusive teams and work cultures. If you are interested in learning more about her methods or this topic in general, feel free to reach out. We are committed to helping our clients increase the emotional competency in their organization.


This article is a publication of MWH Law Group LLP and is intended to provide general information regarding legal issues and developments to our clients and other friends. It should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or situations. For further information on your own situation, we encourage you to contact the author of the article or any other member of the firm.

© MWH Law Group LLP 2019. All rights reserved.




Julie T. Bittner
Julie T. Bittner
Partner – West Des Moines

1501 42nd St., Suite 465, West Des Moines, IA 50266
P: (515) 453-8509 / F: (515) 267-1408
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