As many of you know, I am an avid cyclist and fan of professional cycling. To give you some context, this morning I watched a replay of Stage 7 of the 2009 Tour de France while riding my bike inside. My office is adorned with cycling pictures, including a poster of Lance Armstrong dropping Marco Pantani on the slopes of Daux-Hautacam in the 2000 Tour. My idea of a fun vacation is a week on my touring bike, lugging my camping gear, food and clothing through the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. So it goes without saying that the USADA’s recent report on Lance Armstrong’s alleged use of performance enhancing drugs has prompted lots of people to ask me: “what do you think about Lance?” Although I have some very strong opinions on the subject that are best expressed elsewhere, one is worth sharing on this blog: employers can learn a lot from Lance Armstrong’s mistakes.
When you look at what Lance Armstrong has done for cycling and cancer research, it is hard to understand why so much effort has been put into trying to prove that Lance was doping. Almost single-handedly, Lance Armstrong turned cycling from a little-known sport that received five minutes of coverage in July on ABC’s Wide World of Sports into a mainstream event. The Outdoor Life Network rose from an obscure cable channel covering bass fishing into a major network that is now owned by NBC and carries the Olympics. He generated countless millions of dollars in revenue for sponsors ranging from Trek to Nike to Oakley, not to mention a whole lot of Euros spent by American tourists flocking to see Lance in the Tour de France. On top of all that, he created a foundation that has raised $470 million for cancer research, and he became an inspiration to millions of cancer survivors throughout the world. So what gives?
According to the affidavits included in the USADA report, Lance Armstrong was an abrasive and vindictive teammate. “You were either friends with him or he assumed that you were his enemy and he treated you as an outcast,” said one teammate. Another teammate testified that Lance sent a threatening text message to his wife after the rider testified before the grand jury without telling Lance. A third reported that Lance threatened to interfere with sponsorships if the rider continued to associate with people Lance perceived as his enemies. Given this pattern of bullying, it is no surprise that Armstrong angered the cycling community to the point that people were determined to bring him down, no matter what the cost.
And now, the connection to employment law. Like Lance Armstrong, employers need to remember that the success of a business depends in large part on how managers treat employees. Years ago, a seasoned management labor lawyer told me that “the only employers who get a union are the employers who deserve a union.” When employees feel as though they are being mistreated or bullied into compliance with workplace rules, they turn to outsiders, whether they be unions, government agencies, or private attorneys. On the other hand, treating employees with respect and keeping the channels of communication open will go a long way towards avoiding employment claims and union organizing activity.
As for Lance Armstrong, his 2000 Tour de France Champion poster will remain on my office wall – but my explanation for that is a subject for another day.