DO you see me?

My sister does not ask too much of her employer.

She has worked for the same healthcare system for more than 30 years and is a loyal, hardworking employee.  She does collections, a thankless job that interfaces with insurance carriers and people at their most vulnerable. The one thing she has needed from her employer since her first son was born 23 years ago was the flexibility to occasionally work from home, or flex her hours a wee bit.

The thing is, her two sons are developmentally disabled, and have needed extra care and attentiveness from the beginning. They are medically somewhat fragile and cannot really be left alone, although now as young adults, they can be for a few hours at a time. With her previous boss of many years, she had worked out a trust-based system that worked for both of them. She worked a set shift, but when there was a snow day, one of the boys was ill, or she needed to flex something a bit, her boss was accommodating, knowing that my sister always made up the time and got the job done. My sister felt seen and supported, and as a result has remained loyal and consistent as a performer at work.

Recently, her boss retired. And as a result, for the very first time ever, this loyal employee has had to lean on the Federal FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) program. Her new boss cannot “bend the rules” to allow Her the flexibility when she needs it. As a result, my conscientious sister is finding herself bothered by paperwork, having to tell her story multiple times to strangers, and needing to use intermittent family leave (at less than full pay) instead of simple work flexibility to meet her slightly different than standard.

This is, to me, an example of where employers step in dog doo with employees and lose them. With her previous boss, my sister felt seen and understood. Her unique situation as a single mother with two special children still allowed for her to be a full-time worker, meaning she could make enough income to support her family financial while also taking custodial care of her children. She felt seen, she felt valued, she felt successful and it was a stress-less partnership between her and her boss, who knew that she could always could count on getting 110% at work. Instead, because of the mindset that exceptions can’t be made and that rules must be followed exactly, this small employer in another state has cost itself the positive will, faith, and optimism of one of it’s best employees.

I am sure the new boss means well. But the consequence of her inflexible mindset is deleterious all the way around. Even more surprising to me is the fact that when the new supervisor came in, she never even engaged with my sister about why her work hours occasionally flexed and how she and boss#1 had worked it out. No inquiry, no curiosity, no empathy, just a decision and an action that (from the employee’s perspective) looks like punishment.

Above all else, employees want to feel seen by employers, and all of us know our company primarily through the lens of our immediate font-line boss. How they treat us is evidence of how the whole organization treats us. When we fail to lean into the fact that people have unique needs, and not all of our employees can fit into the boxes we create for them, we run the risk of losing valuable commitment and engagement with the people who work for us.

Do the rules you set for employees have rigid black and white boundaries? Is there any flex ever for unique situations? Do you take the time to really see and consider the needs of your most consistent performing employees, even though they may be atypical?

For my sister, retirement looms fairly close at hand, although she would like to work for a few more years for economic reasons. This small move has left a bad taste in her mouth about her employer, after many years of a fruitful and productive work together. The cost of losing the positive will and support of a quiet but contributing employee like my sister is immeasurable. Too bad her company hasn’t helped new managers see that people are not machines and provided the skills (and the heart) to navigate a slightly unusual set of needs of her employee, thereby ensuring success for the entity.

Jim Morris