Do you really care?

© Pete Longworth

© Pete Longworth

Last week, a member of my leadership team received terrible news. She learned that her six-year-old nephew was put into hospice care and was not expected to live past the weekend. Sadly, he passed away the very next day. Absolutely devastating.

It all happened days before our mostly remote leadership team was scheduled to fly in to Student Maid HQ for a critical meeting to map out the rest of 2019. The person with the family emergency happened to be the person who was supposed to lead this four-day meeting. But as soon as she shared the news with us, we told her we’d have the meeting without her. We didn’t tell her when to be back at work. We didn’t ask her to phone in for parts of the meeting. We encouraged her to take all the time she needs to be present with her family and to come back when she’s ready.

I’d like to think all leaders would handle a tragedy this way: with the empathy and compassion to completely free people from work responsibilities during times of hardship so they can focus on what matters most in that moment. But it’s been my experience that company policies don’t always reflect basic human decency, and that some leaders allow these policies to prevent them from doing what’s right. I should know because it happened in my own company. 

When I started Student Maid 12 years ago, I didn’t have an employee handbook. I followed my gut and The Golden Rule: I treated others the way I would want to be treated during tough times. But as the company grew up, my HR advisors urged me to use a standard employee handbook and warned that if I didn’t, my company would be vulnerable. I caved. Next thing I knew, we had policies that left no room for empathy. Strict time-off policies. Limits on absences. Required proof of hardship. One policy said that unless a person could prove that a death occurred with an obituary or funeral announcement or something, they would be penalized for the absence. How awful.

Let’s be honest: Standard employee handbooks are intended to protect and look out for the organization, not the people in it. They are intended to prevent employees from taking advantage of the organization. So even though I was supposed to enforce what was in ours in order to “protect” my company, I never did because it felt like the opposite of the compassionate and human leadership I promote. I felt it was my job to protect my people. 

But as time went on, the more removed I became from the day-to-day, and the more other leaders in my company became responsible for making these decisions without me. Some followed the policies to a T, which breaks my heart when I think about it. Thankfully, most did not. Finally, one especially brave leader had the courage to challenge our employee handbook, saying that the policies generated fear among our team members and sent the message that we don’t trust or care about them. She argued that if we really cared about our team, we wouldn’t ask them to prove that a hardship occurred. We should trust our people, and if we don’t, they shouldn’t be in our organization in the first place. We should treat others the way we’d want to be treated in hard times.

It was because of this person’s courageous leadership that we decided to completely rewrite our employee handbook from scratch. It took a lot of back-and-forth with our HR company to get it this way, but now, our handbook is compassionate and human. It reflects a trust-first mentality and allows our leaders to follow The Golden Rule. I am now absolutely certain that the way we handled the death of our leader’s nephew last week is how any leader in my company would handle it for any other person on my team.

How would this have played out in your organization? As a leader, are you empowered by your organization to give people the time to grieve when they lose a loved one, knowing that everyone’s timetable for grief is different? Or do you feel obligated to point to the employee handbook and require they return by a certain date? Are you expected to ask for proof and documentation?

What about for the smaller moments? The ones that aren’t as “big” as losing a loved one, but that still take a person’s focus away from work? Like learning a family member has cancer. Or going through a messy divorce. Or being sick. The days when you wouldn’t want to come to work if it were happening to you. What do the policies say about how you should handle moments like those? 

The policies should be for the people, not only for the organization. They should empower leaders to use their hearts. If the policies in your organization don't, it’s your job as a leader to break them when you need to. I would also argue it’s your job to challenge the policies and fight for better ones. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose your job because you actually care about your people? Do you really want to work for an organization that would ask you to leave for a reason like that?

When times get hard in our organizations, we expect people to work longer hours and to make work the priority. It’s only fair that when times get hard for our people, we allow them to focus more on their personal lives and make personal the priority. It’s in those tough times that people find out if we, their leaders, really care like we say we do. They will remember what we did for them, and more importantly, what we didn’t do.

I hope this gives you the courage to walk your talk.

Big hugs,