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Unsung Heros

HR professionals have a lasting impact on employees’ lives and their organizations’ futures.

HR professionals perform critical roles in their organizations but often toil in anonymity. Many people don’t hear about the times when HR practitioners go above and beyond their job descriptions to provide much-needed support for employees and chart new courses for their organizations. 

Here are five of their stories, adapted fromUnsung Heroes: The Untold Story of HR (SHRM, 2023), by Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, and Nancy A. Woolever, SHRM-SCP, a book published by SHRM for its 75th anniversary.

‘I Don't Want to Be Here’

I was working in employee relations at a call center in El Paso, Texas, years ago when a manager shared her concerns about an agent on her team. She described the agent as withdrawn. The employee usually wore long sleeves, but the manager had noticed the previous day that she had bruises all over her arms.

I asked her to bring the employee to see me. When she came in, I introduced myself and explained that any employee can talk with me about any topic. Sitting quietly and looking around my office, the employee asked if I had gone to the University of Texas at Austin. (My office was decorated with Longhorns memorabilia.) I told her, “Yes.” 

Then, she asked if I graduated, and again I responded, “Yes.” She said she also had gone to UT Austin. I was happy that we found common ground. But when I asked what year she had graduated, she looked down and said, “I didn’t.” 

I felt something tug in the pit of my stomach and said, “One thing I do know for sure is that UT Austin will be there when you’re ready.” Our eyes met, and she gave me a half-hearted smile.

Slowly, this employee shared that she had come back to our hometown during a break, met her boyfriend and decided not to return to Austin. Again, I shared that UT Austin will be there for her when she’s ready.

Her next comment caught me completely off guard. She looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

I immediately let her know the office door wasn’t locked, and she could leave at any time. She sat up in the chair and said, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to be here anymore.” 

The look in her eyes revealed piercing pain. Oh, yes, I did understand. 

We were silent for a bit, and then I asked if she had spoken with her parents. She said that her parents weren’t happy with her because she didn’t return to college. Her mother had told her, “This is the life you chose.” 

I asked if she had brothers or sisters to talk to, and again she shook her head. A priest, maybe? Looking to the floor, she shook her head again. Sitting across the desk was a beautiful young woman whose spirit had been broken. My heart ached for her. What could I do? 

At the time, the company didn’t have policies for employee mental well-being. Thinking fast, I told her I would prepare a list of shelters, churches and medical professionals for her. She looked at her watch and became anxious. “He’s going to be waiting for me,” she said. I told her to come back in the morning for the list, and I promised to follow up with her regularly. 

Finally, I saw a smile, maybe even a glimmer of hope. We hugged, and she said she would come back the next day—and she did. I checked in with her periodically after that. She said she had found someone to talk to and she was feeling better. She was finding her strength again.

When we first began these exchanges, I was concerned about what would happen if she didn’t feel comfortable opening up to me. If I couldn’t get her to talk, there would be nothing I could do. 

I realized I needed to be patient and to show empathy to develop a rapport with her. I wanted her to trust me. I also let her know that her supervisor was concerned and had brought her situation to my attention.

Once the employee opened up, I simply let her talk. Every now and then, I would ask her questions for clarification that would help me understand the level of difficulty and the breadth of the issues she was ­facing. But I tried not to be too direct. I didn’t want to add to her stress. I listened. I built trust by ­answering her questions. 

Allowing her freedom and control over the conversation was important. The employee opened up and provided me with information that helped me find ways to help her. ­After two days of discussion, we came up with a solution. This helped the employee manage her situation and feel safer.

This encounter prompted us to create a companywide program to support the mental health and well-being of our employees. The employee regained the confidence she had lost and now believed she could do whatever she set her mind to accomplish.

Although I met her in 2008, I will always remember her. She touched my soul and changed my perspective.

Linda Torres-Kleinhans, SHRM-CP, HR manager, River Oaks Properties, El Paso, Texas.

A Life Transition

Alongtime employee and leader made the brave decision in 2021 to inform our employer, an information technology company, that they were transitioning from male to female. 

Now, she feels comfortable bringing her full, authentic self to work. Her journey was also inspiring for other employees, as they learned the true strength of their leader and colleague. They rallied around her. 

On the HR team at the time, I was able to see firsthand how supporting one person’s strength could bring positivity to so many individuals’ lives. 

Even though it was this leader’s bravery and strength that spurred action, our HR team ultimately helped guide this employee’s future. In the process, we adopted ungendered ­bathroom designs and removed gender-­specific references in marketing information and company training materials.

SHRM’s resources on employing transgender workers provided a starting point. But we needed to build a guide with steps to follow that worked for our company and its culture. In addition, we created communication plans—for those working in direct contact with this individual and for employees companywide. 

Initially, only the employee, the employee’s manager, and I, as the HR manager, were involved. However, with the approval of the employee, others were included later to support her transition. These included her direct reports and their teams, key customers, and other department leads. We made sure the right people were notified at the appropriate times, while also taking the employee’s experience into account.

Along the way, we addressed a few challenging issues as well as some practical ones. Some individuals needed training on the importance of using proper pronouns and ­respecting differing views on gender transitions. We planned for the few employees who refused to use the leader’s new appropriate pronouns, and we followed through with disciplinary actions.

As the leader was customer-facing, we crafted a plan to address customer feedback or inquiries. Additionally, she changed her name, so she had to consider logistical issues such as updating her email and documents with her new name. 

I created formal transition guidelines with the assistance of SHRM resources and our internal Global LGBTQ+ Pride @ Work employee ­resource group. I also sought feedback from HR leaders globally to ensure that the guidelines put in place were there to support anyone going through a public gender transition at work. To validate the initial plans, I gathered feedback from others who had transitioned. 

The entire process for our colleague’s transition and the company’s culture shift took about six months. But it has had a lasting impact by paving the way for other employees to live as their true selves at work. As the HR manager for this leader, I was proud of her for going through this transition publicly at work. She set an example for others through her courage and leadership. We also created a solid foundation to support other employees on their journeys. 

The organization’s culture was changed for the better. Employees could see that the company was supporting everyone bringing their authentic selves to work.

Cambria Breitkreutz, SHRM-SCP, global HR manager, North Star Imaging, Rogers, Minn.


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.

People First 

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.