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Jul212012

Tell Me the Moral of this Story

I won't mention the name of the employer or even its industry. I'll just say that it's headquartered in Chicago and gave me my first corporate job out of graduate school. (And no, I don't list the company on my LinkedIn profile, so you can't suss it out there.)

The Story

With hefty student loans and a very low salary, I bought cheap food in bulk and ate my bagged lunch in the lunchroom. Few other people ate there; it was a corner of the warehouse space.

The only person at the table for one lunch during my first week on the job was a guy named Chuck, who sat two cubes down in the same department. He kindly gave me tips on how to navigate the corporate bureaucracy.

Chuck and I walked back to our cubes and I commented on his screen saver. A little cartoon sheep traipsed over the monitor, munching things.

It doesn't take long to eat a paltry bagged lunch in the lunch room--about thirty minutes. No one else had returned. The office was a landscape of empty cubes.

I printed labels for a mailing. To reach the printer, I had to walk past Chuck’s desk.

And I had to pass it again on my way back. Doing so, my eyes veered slightly to the right, to where Chuck sat. In the few minutes since I had commented on his screen saver, it looked like someone had dumped a bucket of water on him from above. His hair was plastered to his head. His white dress shirt stuck pinkly to his skin.

I hesitated midstep and then walked to my seat. I didn't know this man very well. I didn't want to embarrass him.

But I didn't sit down. Something wasn't right. I put the labels on my desk and walked back to his.

He was leaning forward, his chest resting against the edge of the fake wood. I asked if he was okay. He said he couldn't breathe. At that point, another coworker came back from lunch.

It feels gauche and somehow inconsiderate to describe here--in such a public, anonymous forum--Chuck's agonized and gruesome death. His suffering, his fear, the very real drama, our helplessness. My coworker and I did what we could. Nonetheless, Chuck went out of this world on the cheap corporate carpet of a cube farm with only two hapless idiots as witnesses and useless helpmeets.

I was in a state of actual shock afterward, and I struggled for a very long time with the memory. Like many people who share trauma, the coworker and I who experienced Chuck’s death bonded quickly. We are still in touch today. Periodically connecting with each other reassures us.

Here's the thing: My coworker and I knew that Chuck had died. Not on the stretcher. Not in the ambulance. On the floor. Before the emergency medical technicians arrived. The EMTs told us this.

Yet after they wheeled Chuck out--leaving his plum-purple face uncovered, so it would seem to everyone that he could still be alive--the human resources director got on the public address system and said that the medics were taking Chuck to the hospital and that they would keep us informed. Then she came over to our department, where my coworker and I stood stunned, and told us to get back to work.

That night, she sent an all-staff e-mail to say that Chuck had died and that funeral arrangements were planned in three days. My boss told me in the morning that, given I "didn't know Chuck," I would stay behind for the funeral to "hold down the fort," and that I should clean out his desk while everyone was gone.

I started looking for another job.

Consternation

Why did the company and my boss handle the situation this way?

Even if I were trying to buy time before letting the staff know that Chuck had died, I would have let his department go home for the day. We weren't able to get any work done, anyway.

I would never have asked the person who had gone through the incredible trauma of struggling to help someone survive--and failing--to stay behind while everyone else went to the funeral.

And I most certainly would never have asked her to clean out his desk, putting his family pictures, his birthday cards, and his mementos in a used cardboard box while she was in shock over his traumatic death and depressed by the transience and seeming futility of life.

I would have had more compassion.

Yes, human resources did bring in a nurse later to reassure us that we couldn't have done anything to save him. That helped. But still.

The Moral?

Chuck's death haunted me for a long time. It still affects me. I'm not sure what I should learn from the way the company dealt with it. (What I learned from Chuck’s death itself, of course, is that life is tragically short and we should love and appreciate and forgive and understand as much as we possibly can.)

Help me, readers.

As an employer and a manager, what should I learn from this experience? What's the moral of this story?

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Reader Comments (6)

You got the moral right. Businesses are made of people, people who are more than just SSN's to process.

Sometimes work needs to be set aside for those people, just because it's the right thing to do.

July 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Short answer, yes.

You treat your employees like an extended family, not just cogs in a machine.

I could do a whole Joseph Campbell thing here about life experiences if you want, but I think in brief the episode did change you.

July 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Pora

Leslie, I've had the hardest formulating a comment for this post. I cannot imagine the panic and grief of everyone involved.

I'm sorry - I keep writing and then deleting my thoughts. You are such a powerful and evocative storyteller, there doesn't seem to be anything else to add.

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Wow, thank you so much for the kind words and the reassurance. I am definitely changed from the experience; it has colored my world view and my approach to life and to the people I encounter. Ultimately, I think it's changed me for the better, but I hate that it was at Chuck's expense. If nothing else, he lives on in my thoughts and in the positively altered perspective I had after he died.

After writing this and reading it a couple times, I think maybe the company plumb didn't know how to respond to something so shocking. Thankfully, very rarely does something like this happen--and I'm sure it hadn't happened before there. I'm going to assume that the corporate leadership and human resources weren't heartless, just befuddled and unthinking.

Nonetheless, I was glad to leave that company behind when I finally did find another job.

July 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

I think exactly what you said is the message - compassion. Compassion for one's self first. Then we can generate true compassion for others. Your boss did only what he was capable of at that moment in time. We all do the best we can, and that's not always great. The wonderful part of your story is that you are in such an amazing position to do it all differently. I love that!

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Thanks, Kim! I agree--they couldn't have known what to do, and they choked. All the same--I'm glad I found another job back then!

October 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

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