One of the greatest lessons I learned in HR started with a can of tuna fish.
I had an employee come to see me once in absolute hysteria. While I was trying to calm her down I was calculating in my mind how I could take care of her, call 911, and keep the office from panic. All of this was going through my mind because obviously something horrible had happened to her. I was thinking – was she raped? attacked? did she just lose someone? There had to be something.
Twenty minutes after she entered my office and I had mapped out my plan she was calm enough to tell me what happened…….
” My co-worker” she sobbed “opened a can of tuna fish at her desk and she knows” more sobbing ” that I hate the smell of tuna fish”.
I was floored and it honestly did take me a minute to composed myself. A can of tuna fish? Seriously??
I caught my breath…and then said directly that there had to be more than a can of tuna fish to elicit the reaction she was showing. It took about another twenty minutes and she revealed that she was in an abusive marriage and that she had caught her husband sexually abusing her ten year old daughter the night before. We called the appropriate authorities and I set her up with a victims advocate through our EAP. All totaled, the situation did take up an entire afternoon.
Two things came from that can of tuna fish. One, never assume you know what is going on with an employee or take at face value their reactions – trust your gut. And two, we in HR walk a very fine line between helping and getting too involved. Human Resources is a department where you hear the worst of the worst with what is happening with the employees of a company. I have known of deaths, cancers, abuse, addictions, abandonments, evictions, you name it. It is a natural reaction, in most of us, to want to help. For the HR professional, however, how you help and how involved you get in situations can be tricky. For most of us we rely on our company’s benefits, like the EAP, Short Term Disability or FMLA as ways to provide assistance.
In the end, one of the greatest things we can provide is compassion and empathy. We do keep some professional distance or we wouldn’t survive this profession. We should also, though, do our due diligence to ensure that we are providing the services to help our employees balance the many demands of the work place and all that life itself presents.
Sometimes tuna fish is simply tuna fish….other times, it may be the door that opens into something much more.