Use Your Position & Your Platform to Take Care Of, “The Least of These…”
My experience working in Human Resources has provided me with the wonderful opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds and walks of life. While leading a department such as HR is not for the faint of heart, I would be remiss if I did recognize the significant impact of the many lives I’ve come in contact with—many that have changed me as an individual—both personally and professionally. HR professionals will tell you, our departments are typically not the place where people in most organizations will voluntarily spend a lot of time. While HR professionals wear many hats, it is a profession and a function that is not always viewed in a positive light for various reasons. In some organizations, the HR department is generally viewed as a means to an end at best, and your last stop on your way out the door at worst. After applying for the position at the organization, HR is the one department that you’d want to hear from to find out if you got the job, how much you’ll be making, and your start date.
HR is where you sit and daydream during your new employee orientation, wishing you were doing your job instead of finding out about company procedures; it is where you find out that no, the company’s insurance plan will not cover the cost of the hot tub in your backyard without significantly more documentation than “I’ve got back trouble”; it is the department you’d go to if you were having problems with a co-worker or a supervisor; it is the place you find out that your service with the organization is no longer needed and more than likely the place where you’ll receive your pink slip, or, where you’d go, pink slip in hand, to find out how long you have before your severance package runs out—and it’s never long enough. HR professionals, though absolutely necessary for the efficient and lawful functioning of most large enterprises, are usually valued primarily for whatever benefits they can provide at the moment. Otherwise, we mostly tend to be tolerated…and that’s in a well-run organization.
The organization where I last worked was not a well-run organization, as I found out to my chagrin only after I had accepted the position. In all fairness, I must admit that I ignored several red flags during the interview process, perhaps because I believed so strongly in the mission of the organization. However, I took the job, and before long, I realized that my predecessors left behind a mess that desperately needed to be cleaned up. I vowed to myself to go about the business of fixing what was broken and making the organization stronger, more compliant with regulations and best practices, and a place where employees would be proud to work. In the process, I began ruffling the feathers of many who were satisfied with the status quo. I must admit that I never understood this opposition, as the organization was in desperate need of change. So many policies and processes had been neglected for a very long time.
Change and transformation are always uncomfortable for those who don’t understand the need for change and the benefits it can bring. Often, these individuals continue to mistrust agents of change even when the case for change is communicated effectively. There is an old adage: “Even good soldiers get wounded in battle.” While I understand that being attacked is part of the job and comes with the territory, it would have been a lot easier if I had received support from my superiors. Unfortunately, when change became uncomfortable, it was easier to blame HR than to explain that change was necessary in order for the organization to survive. During the difficult times, I seriously questioned why I was working sixty or more hours per week while getting almost no support for my efforts. The long hours, opposition, and lack of support had become significant by the time I came in contact with Ms. Vivian, a member of the housekeeping staff.
Ms. Vivian was responsible for cleaning my office as well as all the offices in my department and most of the offices on the second floor. Her job performance was far from stellar. As a matter of fact, Ms. Vivian was a mediocre employee at best—most of the staff, including her colleagues, had a fairly low opinion of her, and her relationship with her supervisor was broken beyond repair. Despite all that, for reasons I could not have explained at the time—even to myself—I decided to get to know Ms. Vivian. When I first met her, it was as if I had known her for a long time; we connected in a way I could not explain. I felt compassion for her and the type of work she did. I have always been fascinated with people, their lives, and their chosen paths. I am always curious about their childhood, their relationships with their family, their children, and their community.
As she cleaned my office (barely), she would tell me about her family, her children, and her coworkers. I found out Ms. Vivian was someone’s mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, and friend; she was a human being—a child of God. She was indeed special. Too often we miss out on great relationships and getting to know people because we look at their status and what they do and judge them without even getting to know them. We should all remember Jesus’ charge to take care of “the least of these.”
I soon figured out that much of the harsh, disagreeable exterior that Ms. Vivian showed the rest of the world was due to the simple fact that Ms. Vivian was not in the best of health—in other words, she felt lousy, most of the time. She had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), so just catching a breath was a struggle for her. This meant that oxygen wasn’t getting to her brain in the proper amounts, affecting her mood—and not for the better. It also didn’t help that she was a smoker. In addition, her job involved cleaning offices, requiring her to dust or use cleaning chemicals as part of her daily routine.
From one perspective, Ms. Vivian should have been fired a long time ago. But from my perspective, she was a person who needed my help. She could not perform the essential functions of the job because of her health. Nevertheless, her supervisors wanted her gone every time she was not able to perform the job. It’s not that she did not want to do her job; she couldn’t, even when she tried. There were some who felt I was protecting someone who was dead weight; however, I decided to put my knowledge of employment law to work on Ms. Vivian’s behalf. After all, part of HR’s role is to help people. Ms. Vivian was eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act based on her illness. However, Ms. Vivian was stubborn and did not always take the necessary steps to ensure that she received the protection she was entitled to under the law. For example, she was given paperwork numerous times and never took the time to complete it.
I found out that she did not have a clear understanding of what she needed to do, so I went over all the paperwork in detail. When I saw she was still struggling, I personally worked with her doctors to make sure she got the paperwork completed in a timely manner. She was granted an initial leave that provided her with job and benefits protection; however, this protection was only for twelve weeks. After her twelve-week leave was exhausted, I advised her that she could apply for a personal leave of absence to extend her leave for another thirty days. This infuriated some of her managers, who knew she could not return to work after the twelve weeks and were looking forward to her termination. However, I believed Ms. Vivian was entitled to all of the benefits that were available to other employees.
At the end of the thirty days, she was not able to come back to work, so I helped her apply for Social Security. She had to be disabled for five months to qualify for disability payments from Social Security. However, she was about a month away from being able to receive regular Social Security payments, so it worked out.
I remember times when she did not have gas to get to work or to go back and forth to the doctors; I would give her gas money. I never asked her to repay me, but Ms. Vivian was a very proud woman and did not want to take what she considered handouts from anyone—including me. So, in return, she baked me some of the best pound cakes I have ever tasted.
Ms. Vivian talked fondly of her sons and her grandchildren—one son lived in North Carolina and Ms. Vivian always expressed her desire to spend more time with him and her grandkids; the last year of her life she had the opportunity to do so. On July 12, 2010, Ms. Vivian died. I was honored to be able to speak at her funeral, sharing some of the experiences I had with her. My mission was made clear to me when I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Mission accomplished.” This was a huge confirmation and affirmation for me, as my goal was still to make a positive difference in the organization where I worked, even though at times I questioned why I was there. However, I was able to make a positive difference in the life of Ms. Vivian—by being compassionate.
It is true that Ms. Vivian was not an exemplary employee. It may even be true that she should have been fired. But this was a poor woman whose negative attitude toward the world was due in large part because of the way people treated her—people who had no idea what she was struggling with. She tried fighting for herself but the fight was too big for her. Ms. Vivian actually taught me a lot: about not taking myself too seriously, and about being true to my calling.
Throughout my career, I have been an advocate for those without a voice. I was able to help people that many felt were not worth helping. And looking back, I realize that I was, in my own way, trying to redress the injustices that are inherent in a system that is often blind to the limits and difficulties that ordinary people must deal with. Each of us, it seems to me, has a responsibility to do what we can to make the world a fairer, more just place. By helping Ms. Vivian, I suppose I was trying to change one small corner of the world.
Many of the “MisBehaving” women refused to remain silent and passive in the face of injustice. They were willing to take on a fight they didn’t start, although not all of them were able to see it through to the end. As you read their stories, let their courage enter your mind and find its way to the center of your heart.