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North Country life offers lesson in resolving workplace disputes

I come from a family of bootleggers. More than 100 years ago, my great-grandfather George Nortz was hired to build a large building in Belfort, N.Y., that was to serve as a bar, restaurant and hotel. When the man who commissioned the work could not pay, George took possession of the building and found himself, unexpectedly, in the saloon business.

In 1924, my grandfather and grandmother, Hillary and Addie, purchased the hotel from George for $4,000. It was there that they lived and raised their family for the next four decades. Those of us who have lived in more prosperous times with central heating and all the modern conveniences we take for granted can hardly imagine the resourcefulness and energy it took to parent eight children, run a bar, restaurant, hotel and maintain a household in the North Country.

What makes this feat even more remarkable is that Addie and Hillary did this through prohibition, the Depression and a world war in which many of their children served on active duty. When Addie was in her late ’80s, she told me matter-of-factly that my father’s diapers were paid for by the sale of bootleg liquor. Remarkably, they never closed the bar during the 13 years the sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States.

Although life at the hotel was hard—with long, cold winters, wood stoves for heating and cooking and endless chores—my father often reminisces about how blessed he was to grow up in such a great place. They had a beautiful pond across the street for fishing and swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. Behind the hotel was a large hill called “Mt. Tom” that gave them a place to play and explore as well as sled and ski.

But perhaps the best feature of my father’s surroundings growing up was the hotel itself. It was a hub of local social activity. Years after he retired, my father told me that there were so many interesting and funny things he had witnessed and heard growing up, he felt compelled to record them for posterity’s sake. The following is one of the stories he wrote, titled “The Apple Caper,” which illustrates well a creative means of dispute resolution that is instructive for those of us who work in the corporate world:

The Apple Caper

Hunting season was a busy time at the hotel, especially on weekends. It was also a time when hucksters would be peddling things like apples by the bushel in their large trucks.

On one Saturday afternoon, my father bought three bushels of apples from this guy, and as he was busy at the bar, he told him to set the apples on the side porch.

I was playing outside when a pickup truck pulled around and parked. Three men got out and before they went into the hotel they loaded the apples on their truck. I saw this and went around to a different door and when I caught my father’s eye, I told him what had happened. He said, “Go play.”

That was the last I thought of the stolen apples until the next morning when the phone rang.

“Hillary,” said the caller, “What would you take for two 30-30 rifles?”

My father replied, “I think three bushels of apples would be a fair price.”

That afternoon after a few beers and a few laughs, the exchange was made.

And that’s how the apple caper ended.

The theft of the apples was clearly a crime. But, instead of resorting to police, lawyers and courts, my grandfather found a way to swiftly resolve the matter in a way that had the additional benefit of strengthening rather than harming relationships.

This method of dispute resolution is not one they teach in law school. And, although I would never advise a client to steal another’s property to use as leverage to recover stolen goods, I think there are lessons for those of us called upon to resolve routine business disputes.

First, don’t get angry when others offend, remain calm. Doing so provides you the mental capacity to consider many options and discern an optimal path forward.

Second, expand the options you take into consideration beyond the typical resort to law enforcement or the courts. Litigation is always an option, but it is generally a risky, costly and time-consuming path that may never get you where you’d like to go.

Third, look for opportunities to engage in respectful, direct dialog with your antagonist. This may not be a practical approach in every case, but it may be the only opportunity you’ll have to find a swift and inexpensive resolution to your dispute. Finally, consider options that will tend to enhance rather than destroy relationships. I don’t recommend turning the other cheek in every case. But life is too short to make enemies when alternatives are available to do the opposite.

To his credit, my father learned these lessons from my grandfather. I recall one time growing up when a teenager who lived next door stole money and beer from our house while the family slept. Instead of calling the police, my father confronted our young neighbor directly who admitted what he had done and agreed to pay restitution over the next few weeks.

When I asked my father why he didn’t turn the kid in, he explained that he did not want to take action that might result in such a young person having a criminal record. Although our neighbor never made my father whole, I think my dad chose the right course.

Jim Nortz is chief compliance officer for Carestream Health Inc. He also is a former board member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the RABEF, the ECOA or Carestream Health. Nortz can be reached at jimnortz@gmail.com.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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