Above and Beyond
I was the HR director at a company in Irving, Texas, when a beloved employee, Milly Becker, became ill. She was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Our company culture was employee-oriented. This philosophy started with the president of the company and thankfully trickled down. We had a great HR team.
When Milly became ill, we were all devastated. She was a great employee and a friend to all. She had a kind and caring manager, too.
Milly’s department banded together to make things comfortable for her. They set her up to work from home. (This was 25 years ago, long before anyone worked from home.)
Colleagues from across the organization set up meal deliveries for Milly and her husband, Richard. They redistributed some of her work. As she got weaker, some of us took her to her doctor’s appointments. Once she was so sick that I rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. That was when we both learned she was in stage IV, and the doctors couldn’t do anything more for her. She had only a few months left.
We knew Milly was a sports fan. Our president said he wanted to send her and her husband to the Super Bowl in Tampa. Her doctor said she could fly, so the company arranged it and paid all expenses. It was a highlight of her life and brought her joy.
Milly was raised in Brazil, and she wanted to die in Brazil. She wanted to walk on the beach and see her family and her home before she died. We helped fulfill her final wish. We gave her a going-away party with a video to share with her family. We wanted them to see how she had touched our lives.
We all came together to pack and move the couple’s possessions into storage. We worked for a trade show company, so we had trucks and employees who were accustomed to working quickly to move equipment into a convention center. However, it is different when moving someone’s life possessions.
The president approved the company resources needed for the move. We packed up Milly’s house over one weekend, while she and her husband made the travel arrangements.
Richard asked me to handle his finances while they were away. There was no such thing as online banking at the time, so instead I went to the bank to wire money to him frequently in Brazil. We sold the items in storage to put that money in the bank for them, too. Milly passed away in Brazil shortly afterward, but I continued to handle their estate for years.
I have worked in many places since that time. I have worked for other organizations that cared about their employees. I’ve even lost my own family members—but I have never seen employees so devoted to helping a co-worker as they were with Milly.
The HR department had a major role in helping this employee. However, everyone at the company played a part. I learned that a company’s culture makes a difference in people. When the head of an organization shows kindness, employees will follow their lead and be kind to others. I’m proud of what we did for Milly and Richard in her final days.
Cindy Bertram, HR consultant, Triangle Cooperative Service Co., Enid, Okla.
Ionce worked for a company where the unionized workers and the executives had a difficult relationship. Although the bus drivers were the organization’s lifeblood, they often felt unappreciated and mistrusted by management.
But as a new HR manager, I helped turn that around.
A group of Muslim employees complained that certain shift leaders had refused requests for a revised work schedule during Ramadan, making it difficult for them to observe the religious holiday. During the month of Ramadan, able-bodied Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to sunset and participate in additional prayer.
Although employees can work during Ramadan, they may need flexibility in the start and end times of their shifts. Fasting can distract drivers, causing a potential safety hazard, so it was important to give employees a meal break either before sunrise or after sunset, even if the employee was on the job. After consulting with the general manager and the retention specialist, we decided that managers would be more receptive if I coached them to recognize the importance of Ramadan—rather than mandate schedule changes.
I set up a lunch-and-learn discussion on Ramadan and encouraged managers to work with their teams to schedule shifts during the religious holiday. After managers understood that Ramadan was about fasting, prayer, spiritual reflection and community, they responded with less agitation and more cooperation.
They learned that small changes in scheduling could allow employees to participate in Ramadan. Managers were encouraged to set an annual calendar reminder about the Ramadan holiday so they could plan ahead to accommodate workers instead of having people call out at the last minute, which impacted customer service.
In addition to addressing the Ramadan holiday, I invited employees to have coffee and doughnuts with HR once a week. The HR team greeted workers as they arrived and departed from their shifts. Because we were more visible, employees began to share their work experiences. We learned that this employee group also felt isolated from what was going on in the company.
As a result, we installed TV monitors in the breakrooms to display photos of company events, share announcements and provide a ticker message of the weather conditions at the bottom of the screen (helpful for our drivers). The breakrooms also received a much-needed makeover.
The employees became more engaged and indicated a more positive view of the workplace in the next employee satisfaction survey.
The short-term outcome of the changes was that this employee group felt included. The long-term outcome was improved relations between managers and workers, which also meant fewer cases for HR to mediate. Muslims no longer dreaded balancing Ramadan with work, and management felt better about planning ahead for that month, which kept them on schedule with fewer call-outs. Clients were happy as well.
When an employee comes to HR to say, “Thank you,” it’s the best feeling in the world. HR can easily get caught up in laws, rules and procedures, but those don’t move people to help achieve organizational goals.
In this case, creating a path for the managers to follow by sharing the “why” behind the “ask” led to a positive outcome for everyone. When in doubt, remember the adage, “People first for better business outcomes.”
Eden McClellan, SHRM-SCP, HR business partner, Think Together, Burbank, Calif.
A Second Chance
In my first week as CHRO at a global business years ago, I experienced culture shock when I learned how conservative the organization’s leaders were. Although the organization was struggling, they made it clear that they didn’t like change.
On my third day, I was visited by a finance team member who defied the stereotype of what a “conservative person” would look like. He had a bright blue mohawk as well as many piercings and tattoos, which he attempted to cover.
He wanted to know about his future employment with the company. I shot him a puzzled look, and he added, “You know, after I get out of jail.”
My response: “Excuse me. What?”
He said that he had been arrested for use of illegal drugs at an acid rock band event, but insisted that his positive drug test came from secondhand smoke. I smiled politely.
He said he was going to prison in one month, and he wanted to know if he would have a job when he was released two years later.
I said I would investigate the possibility. He appeared to be committed to his work and the company, and underneath that bright blue mohawk, I saw a good person who I wanted to help.
The employee’s supervisor supported his staff member, saying his work product was superior. The supervisor wanted him to return to work after he had served his time, but didn’t think our chief financial officer would allow it. To my surprise, the CFO also wanted to support the employee, but only if the chief executive officer would agree. At first, the CEO objected, but he came around after I showed him how it would benefit the organization.
Initially, the CEO agreed to allow him to return only if there was an open position at the time. But the CFO and I pressed for a stronger commitment. Ultimately, the CEO agreed to promise him a job.
When we shared the news with the employee, he said he now had a “reason to live.”
Before he went to prison, he wanted to share what was happening with his team members. They came to talk to me about it, and it was clear that they had some preconceptions. I suggested they think of him as their co-worker and not as a convict.
He was very likable, and the team rallied around him. We threw a “going to jail” party for him and gave him money to help with additional expenses. During this employee’s confinement, about a dozen of us wrote him letters and sent him money. We visited him in prison regularly. Our visits helped reinforce that he had a future. Without support, many people get out of prison and commit crimes again out of desperation.
He was released after one year of confinement because of his exemplary behavior. I also wrote a letter to the penal system on his behalf, stating that he was guaranteed a job and that we had already lined up a place for him to live. We increased his salary as if he were present during the annual pay increase cycle.
When he returned to work, he met with team members to answer any questions they had. He wanted to alleviate their concerns.
I asked him about his future goals. He had never attended college, but he wanted to—so we developed a plan for him to use our tuition reimbursement program.
He took classes at night and on weekends, earning his Associate of Arts degree in finance. Then, he attended a local university part time and earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Meanwhile, he continued to be an exceptional performer at work and was promoted to senior staff member, supervisor, manager and finally to assistant director.
I hoped one day he would be a vice president. However, he was recruited to be the director of finance for a startup business in another industry. A few years later, he was recruited to be the vice president of finance for a much larger, well-known company. Again, he excelled.
We still stay in touch. I’m thankful for being in the right place at the right time so that I could make a difference in his life.
I’m glad I took a chance and pushed to support this employee—bright blue mohawk and all!
Mary Cheddie, SHRM-SCP, divisional director, East, SHRM, Alexandria, Va.
Images by Yogy Ikhwanto/iStock.