Friday, December 5, 2008

What I Learned From the Generosity of Others


This post is a bit different for me. Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings put this challenge to me, and I decided to accept. (Anyone can participate.) You'll note, however, that this post actually does have something to do with the workplace, and the difference one person can make on the job.


Everyone has a story about 9/11 – where they were and who they were with when they learned of the terrorist attacks.

I was in a class with about 50 other journalists from around the country as part of a fellowship for The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University Maryland. As you can imagine, half the class left immediately to head back to their newspapers to help with the coverage, while many were dispatched for nearby Washington, D.C. or even New York.

As the days went by, the rest of us continued to meet for classes. We phoned home as often as we could, talking to our families and trying to figure out when the heck (or even if) we could get home.

Several days later, it was time for me to catch my flight home. Unbelievably, the Baltimore airport had opened just that day and was offering limited flights. Things were touch and go – the airport was offering no guarantees about flight times.

Of course the airport was swarming with National Guard troops, Maryland Highway Patrol and what appeared to be additional private security. People were jumpy – an abandoned backpack immediately sent up an alarm and security came immediately. (The guy who left it while he went to the bathroom was greatly embarrassed when he was questioned and had to reveal the pack contained an extra set of underwear and a novel.)

Hour after hour I sat in the airport, watching it grow dark outside as the disembodied voice over the intercom system continued to note another flight had been cancelled. Eight hours went by when it came time for my flight – which had been rescheduled numerous times – and I stepped up to the ticket counter to be checked in once again.

A woman behind me asked me where I was headed. “I’m headed home, I hope,” I said. “I’m trying to get home to my husband and kids.”

Conversation died after that as we watched a group of intoxicated young men begin to harass a ticket agent who appeared to be Middle Eastern. It was clear they had passed the time in the airport bar.

By that point, I was numb. Both my parents had died recently, passing away within 17 months of each other, followed by my grandfather three months later. All the grief from the attacks and my own personal loss was a lead ball in my stomach. I waited for my turn to get a ticket.

As I finally stepped up to the counter, the employee began tapping into his computer. “This is our only flight tonight. We’ll see what we can do. We’re obviously overbooked,” he said.

I nodded and headed back to my seat, prepared to wait some more. I figured I’d be spending the night in the airport.

Within minutes, he called my name.

“I heard you say you have children,” he said.

“Yes.”

“And you want to get home.”

“Yes.”

“Have a good trip,” he said, handing me a ticket.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.

I gazed at him for a moment, and he smiled back. A world of understanding passed between us at that moment. He was the Middle Eastern employee who had taken the abuse from the drunken men. But I saw him only as a man trying to get a mother back home to her children.

As I got onto the plane, I began making my way toward the back, figuring my seat was somewhere just shy of the onboard toilet. A flight attendant looked at my ticket, and soon corrected me.

“You’re in first class,” she said.

Surprised, I found my seat. As I was served a wonderful meal, my weary head resting on a soft pillow, I thought of that employee who decided to make sure I got on that flight not just because it was his job, but because he had chosen to step away from all the ugliness and simply do a generous thing for a stranger.

I found this quote from Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet that sums up my thoughts on what I learned: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”




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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Performance Evaluations Can be Like Playing Strip Poker -- Only You're Blindfolded

I'd like to meet just one person who came out of performance evaluation saying, "Gee, that was a swell experience. Can't wait to do it again next year!"

Managers hate performance evaluations. Employees hate performance evaluations. They stare at each other across a table and try and remember all the Oprah shows that talked about how to read body language.

But what it comes down to is this: The employee is supposed to bare his/her soul, so to speak, while the manager tries to look wise and supportive and doesn't let on what he or she is really thinking.

It's sort of like someone asking you to play strip poker, only you have to wear a blindfold. The boss has all the advantages. The employee is forced to bare all, but never even gets a glimpse at what the manager might be thinking.

So, I think it's time we evened the playing field a little bit. Got rid of the blindfolds, and made performance evaluations -- if not enjoyable -- at least a bit more enjoyable. (And no, I'm not talking about taking off any clothes. That was an analogy, OK?)

Some rules for performance appraisals that should be enacted by Congress immediately include:

* No surprises. Every employee should have a pretty good idea of the areas where they're not living up to expectations, because the manager has been saying so for some time. At the same time, the employee should have an even better idea of what improvements need to be made.

* Walk the talk. No manager should be allowed to be late in performing an evaluation. Employees get in trouble for being late with stuff -- the same should be true for a manager. Further, no manager should be allowed to be sarcastic, belittling, grumpy or unprofessional with an employee during an evaluation. Managers should be evaluated on how well they handled the process. Paula, Randy and Simon from American Idol could serve as judges for manager evaluation performance.
Randy: "Dog, that was hot!"
Paula: "Oohh...wonderful, fantastic. I also liked the second evaluation the best. What? There was no second evaluation?"
Simon: "Sounded a bit karaoke to me."

* No sticks allowed. The evaluation process should be a chance for the manager to provide some inspiration to the employee, to emphasize how his or her performance is really important to the bottom line. Employees who come out of the process re-energized and recommitted to their jobs should be the norm, not the exception.

Ever have a bad experience in a performance evaluation? How should the process be changed? Please share your thoughts.


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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bully at Work

I remember being the target of a bully when I was in elementary school. I remember everything about the girl...her name, how she used to catch me on the playground when I was jumping rope and make her nasty comments to me.

I can recall with equal clarity the time I was bullied on the job. I remember the continual stress of facing the man every day, the pitying looks from co-workers, the fact that I eventually left the job because I couldn't stand it any more.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and an expert on workplace bullying, says my recollections and feelings about being bullied are typical of others who have had similar experiences.
"It can remain really fresh in a person's mind for a long, long time," she says. "It's something you don't forget."

Further, she notes that workplace bullying is difficult to cope with "because our identities are inextricably linked to what we do," and bullies are striking at the heart of who we believe ourselves to be.

In her study of workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvick found that while bullying can take place anywhere, certain professions seem to have more incidents of the behavior. Included: government/public administration, health care and high-end restaurants.

According to research, both men and women can be bullies. “Bullying is a silent epidemic that affects one in six workers,” says Gary Namie, a workplace-bullying expert. “It is witnessed by nearly 80 percent of workers who don’t do anything about it. It’s a dirty little secret.”

Who is most likely to become the target of a bully? Namie says targets often have a strong sense of equity, justice and integrity and a very strong belief in what they believe to be right and wrong. Bullies are the opposite – they feel inadequate even though they strut around like peacocks. They are secretly intimidated by the target’s intelligence, creativity and confidence. In order to deal with what they perceive to be a threat, bullies begin spreading rumors and innuendo about the target and may try to sabotage work.

As Namie says, bullies often target the most talented in the workplace because “the dolts don’t threaten anybody.”

That’s why if you’re talented and creative and have been bullied once, chances are good it could happen again.

“The targets of bullies often are people who are strong and independent and talented and believe they can tough it out,” Namie says. “But once the bullying starts, most can only stay 16.5 months because it costs them their health.”

What are some behaviors that may prompt a bully to make you a target? Research shows that making statements where you put yourself down such as, “I’m bad with computers – I’m so dumb,” or “You guys should just go on without me because I’m no help and I’ll just slow you down,” put a bully on alert. At the same time, behaviors that may betray a lack of confidence such as talking too slow, (which allows a bully to interrupt) or too fast (betraying nervousness), also attract a bully’s notice.

The non-verbal cues also play a role: Bullies look for those who don’t walk confidently with head held high, or those who fail to use gestures to emphasize a point as if they’re afraid to call attention to themselves. Bullies also will test you by invading your personal space and seeing whether you put them back in their place.

Namie adds that bullies also are lazy and look for easy marks. That’s why they often will try their intimidation on new employees because they know the vulnerabilities that go along with being the new kid on the block. Still, research shows that some 75 percent of the workforce does not tolerate being controlled by another person, and a bully will back off when resistance is shown – even if it’s a new employee.

If you become the target of a bully, Namie says you should:
• Stop listening to the bully’s lies and verbal assaults. You did nothing wrong and don’t need to feel ashamed.
• Break through your fears. Even if you do it for only one week, it’s better to confront your worst fear and stand up to the bully. Procrastination only makes the problem worse.
• Assert your right to be treated with respect regardless of who you are and where you rank.
• Demand respect directly from the bully whenever you interact. You owe it to yourself.
• Document the bully’s misconduct. Report him/her to anyone who will listen. Break the silence.
• Rally witnesses and co-workers to help defend you, to shame the cowardly bully-tyrant.

Bullying – whether it happens when we’re kids or when we’re adults – can be very difficult. If you need help coping, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can offer resources, as well as community mental health organizations. Also, check out www.bullybusters.org for more strategies and information.

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