Jury Service with Multiple Counts of Learning

Lessons often can be learned from jury service that can be applied to an employee’s work life, or even how the whole organization operates.

I served on a jury last week in the federal court for the Southern District of New York. Like many people, I was not excited to be called for jury duty. I was told it could go on for two weeks, or longer, if I were chosen for a long trial. There was also a chance that I would not get chosen to be a member of any jury, and would have to continue sitting in a jury assembly room day after day, with no access to my phone or computer.

It was a relief, therefore, when I was chosen on the first day of my service to be juror No. 4 in the trial of Joshua Adam Schulte, who was charged with three counts of child pornography—of receiving, possessing, and transporting child pornography. The jurors did not know until after the trial that Schulte was already incarcerated. He previously was convicted of four counts of espionage, and other charges, due to the role he played in the largest theft of classified information in the history of the CIA. That information then was published to the site, WikiLeaks. The judge did not want us to have this information because he did not want Schulte’s previous conviction to impact our verdict.

We found him guilty on all three counts of child pornography. I volunteered to be the jury foreman when no one else was eager to play that role.

The child pornography material we viewed during the trial was disturbing, as were the screenshots from Schulte’s computer of files with troubling names. Nevertheless, being a part of the justice process turned out to be a positive experience for me. I found it educational in leadership principles and in the ability to effectively collaborate.

Efficiency and Empathy

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman provided an example of a leader who is able to keep a process efficient without sacrificing empathy. During the voir dire process—the question-and-answer process used to select jurors—he didn’t push jurors who became emotional or showed discomfort. He quickly saw, and accepted, that they were uncomfortable. “This may not be the case for you,” he would say, sending them back to the jury assembly room.

Similarly, Judge Furman was true to his mission of ensuring a fair trial while giving any qualified person among us a chance to serve. He asked jurors if a previous experience would impact their ability to be fair and impartial in what they heard in this case. He asked us, in a lengthy question sheet, to share an array of past experiences and connections, including whether we had any close relation who worked in the legal profession, whether we had a close relation who had been convicted and tried for a crime, and whether any of our close relations were in law enforcement. None of those things, in themselves, were disqualifying. They were only disqualifying, from the judge’s perspective, if having those experiences would make it impossible for the juror to listen unprejudiced to both sides in the trial.

Collaboration and Teamwork

Our jury was composed of people of varying backgrounds, cultures, and professions. One juror didn’t speak English well, yet well enough to communicate with us and understand the participants in the trial. Another juror shared that the week of the trial, the week of September 11, was a sensitive time for her, especially being back in Lower Manhattan at this time. She was a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, exiting one of the World Trade Center towers that day just before it fell. She could feel the heat from the second plane of the attack on her face as she walked away from the building.

The jurors ranged in age; some found it physically challenging to sit there all day and adhere to a full day’s schedule. They may have been younger than 70, the age at which you can be excused from jury duty in New York, but some were retired already and no longer used to full days.

My view, and that of some of the other jurors, may have been to keep long days, rather than having to come back for additional days, but our many of our fellow jurors found the other option, of leaving at 2:30 p.m. as many days as possible, preferable.

Just getting through the proceedings required teamwork. The trial required all of us to be there and ready to go at 9 a.m. It was a group bonding activity in a way that we all gathered every morning at 8:45 a.m. in the jury room for a continental breakfast, which Judge Furman was wise to provide. You might consider the benefits of providing breakfast to your employees. Nothing too expensive—bagels, cream cheese, yogurt, muffins, drip coffee. It’s a huge incentive to get to a place on time, and makes it easier to get there on time because it’s one less thing the employee has to do before leaving their home.

Sharing Opinions Anonymously

When it came time to deliberate, we followed a principle I have long advocated. Rather than sharing our thoughts on the verdict one by one aloud, risking that some simply would parrot what most of the others said, we each wrote what we thought the verdict should be for each of the three counts on a piece of paper without our names. Then, I, as foreman, tallied up the anonymous opinions. My job was easy, as it turned out that none of us believed Schulte was not guilty on any of the counts he was charged with.

In your organization, it’s instructive to ask employees to anonymously submit opinions and thoughts ahead of meetings. Then, when the meeting starts, the manager has honest, unvarnished feedback from all participants. It gives a great starting point for the conversation. You never want employees parroting the first and/or loudest voices in the room.

When employees return from jury service, it’s worth asking if they would be willing to share their experience with their manager or a Learning professional. There are often lessons learned that can be applied to the employee’s work life, or even how the whole organization operates.

When employees have jury duty, do you ever take time to ask them about lessons learned during their service?