The Two Pillars of Justice

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March 19th 2020

by Carolee Colter, Columinate Consultant

In the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical Biblical interpretation, there is a saying that the two pillars of justice are mercy and severity.

The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongs. The pillar of severity represents the law of necessity—that we must reap what we sow, (or what in another religious tradition would be called karma.)

When it comes to the workplace, justice needs both pillars. The pillar of severity upholds accountability for performance and for following policy. The pillar of mercy considers the circumstances and makes exceptions in individual cases.

In years of consulting for the natural foods industry, I’ve rarely met an owner or manager who I considered too severe. But I’ve met some who were too “merciful”. In those cases, the care and compassion given to some employees operated to the detriment of others.

When some employees are allowed to perform poorly while the others must “pick up the slack”, or when some are allowed to break the rules while others are expected to obey them, resentment festers and teamwork suffers. In these situations, employees tend to interpret their leader’s leniency as favoritism.

One sign that an organization may be relying too much on the pillar of mercy is when performance problems get viewed as interpersonal conflicts. For example, an employee approaches a manager to point out that a coworker is being inefficient or is frequently late, or always looking at their phone, or is doing some task contrary to the procedure that the manager laid out. Under some circumstances, it may be appropriate for the manager to ask the employee to talk directly with their coworker about the problem. But still, the manager needs to follow up to make sure that the problem gets resolved. It’s not the responsibility of employees to hold their coworkers accountable for performance if the manager fails to do so.

I would advise managers not to create a policy or procedure unless you intend to uphold it for everybody. If there’s an established procedure, why allow some to not follow it? If there are multiple acceptable ways to do a task, why set up a procedure in the first place? The problem isn’t created by the one who points out others aren’t following the procedure. It’s the manager who sets the stage by setting up a procedure and then failing to uphold it.

Sometimes business owners hire a store manager or operations manager or similar role, with responsibility for a business unit. But if that manager tries to take corrective action with poorly performing staff, is the owner prepared to let the manager do it? It won’t work to hire someone to be the disciplinarian and then overrule them. The owner can’t own the mercy pillar and assign the manager the severity pillar. For justice to stand, everyone in management must own both pillars.

It’s important to harmonize the interpretation and enforcement of policy among all managers. One store I’ve worked with developed a Management Team Code of Conduct, which included this provision:

I will address poor staff behavior in my department in a timely manner and will not allow it to continue. I will enforce all guidelines found within the personnel policy manual as well as any other formal directives from the general manager.”

All managers signed the Code of Conduct at the time of hire or promotion, indicating their awareness and commitment to uphold both pillars of justice.

Yes, there will be times when exceptions should be made or mistakes or failures forgiven. You still need to use your judgment. Just take care that this is not a frequent occurrence or an excuse to avoid doing your job as a manager. It is possible to balance accountability with compassion.


Carolee Colter has been consulting for co-ops and independents in the natural foods industry for over 30 years. She’s been leading workshops at Provender for most of those years.

As the leader of the HR Team of Columinate, she has surveyed thousands of employees in our industry, and uses that data in her work to help make her clients the workplaces of choice in their communities. For help with increasing productivity with staff involvement, contact [email protected].