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Utah Business

How one company retained a valuable employee by giving her the space to grieve.

I lost my baby. My company almost lost me

My husband and I were eager to welcome our twin boys into the world. We had carefully picked their names, painted the nursery, and made arrangements for my transition from employee to homemaker. During my entire childhood and adult life, I wanted to stay home raising children and managing my household. Now, it was finally becoming a reality. 

On the day of the delivery, everything was going to plan.  We took silly pictures, joked about our “buy one, get one free” delivery and checked into the hospital with so much joy and anticipation. We didn’t realize that early that morning, one of our babies experienced distress and had been without oxygen for several hours.  

“Human experience is seeing the value of the employee behind the struggle.”

My doctor approached us with his mask still covering his nose and mouth. I’ll never forget the look of terror in his eyes as he struggled to find the words to tell us our baby was gone. All he could say was, “I’m so sorry.”

The next two days were a flurry of tear-filled phone calls, visits from amazing volunteers who had experienced their own loss, newborn feedings, and conversations about what had happened. We were simultaneously celebrating the joy of our new baby and grieving the loss of our other child. No one knew what to say to us. No one knew what to do for us. 

You don’t have to keep your personal life at home

In times of tragedy and loss, I believe we see some of the best examples of humanity in others. I was overwhelmed with the amount of love, kindness, and support we received from people. Not just from friends and family, but also from coworkers, neighbors, and strangers. It made me feel like it was okay to feel whatever I was feeling, and gave me confidence knowing I didn’t have to hide it. 

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During this time, I received a call from my company’s CFO letting me know the CEO and vice president of HR were leaving the company, and he asked if I would consider working from home part-time to help keep things going until they could figure out a long-term plan. He was considerably interested in my well-being and asked about our family, offering condolences as well as congratulations. 

What he didn’t know at the time was how welcome that phone call was. I was struggling. My expectations of what I thought I wanted were not meshing with the reality of how it felt. I eagerly agreed to the arrangement. It was a mutually beneficial situation that met the needs of the company along with my need to take a break from my grief while I was healing.

Over the next several months, I started going to the office every now and then in addition to remotely supporting the company. Eventually, I was splitting my time half and half, working nearly full-time hours but with remaining flexibility and trust that I would get the work done while dealing with life. 

“Be a decent human being and create an environment that allows employees to bring their whole selves to work.”

Not only was I overwhelmingly grateful for my situation, but I had a new sense of empathy for our employees. I had never viewed employees as numbers, but this experience opened my eyes to what it’s like for people who have to separate work from life. Suddenly, I was having conversations about depression, grief, divorce, financial debt, addiction, and so many other taboo topics at work. 

Early in my career, someone advised me not to be a therapist for my employees. Beware of personal stories and struggles, they warned, because that could open the door to litigation if someone needed to be fired. The underlying sentiment was that people should be focused 100 percent on work while they were at work and deal with “their stuff” on their own time.  

Respectfully, I disagree. To drive results, tap into the magic of discretionary effort, and increase engagement, loyalty, and retention. Be a decent human being. Create an environment that allows your people to bring their whole selves to work. 

There is room for your humanity at work

When I discuss this idea with other business professionals―this is a favorite topic of mine during business flights―I often hear retorts that have something to do with “unprofessionalism” or how “uncomfortable” it would be for people to share their vulnerabilities. Especially with their colleagues, or worse, their boss.

I understand why people might feel that way. But not sharing your life with your work doesn’t erase reality. It simply puts people in a situation where they have to stifle their pain and feel they have to be one way at work and another at home. I can’t imagine working for a company where I had to worry about losing my livelihood if my boss found out what I was dealing with personally.

None of this is to say that I’m an “oversharer.” I’m not. I’m also not guaranteed a salary. But being treated with respect, compassion, and understanding (and ideally, encouragement) to blend my career journey with my personal journey is known as enjoying the human experience.

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The difference between employee experience and human experience is subtle on paper but radically different in practice. Employee experience relates to the touchpoints of the employee journey starting with the application process and ending with the departure experience. There are dozens of touchpoints along the way, but most of them center around the question, “What is it like to work here and what’s in it for me?”

The human experience, on the other hand, is a more value-centric approach that proactively and intentionally creates an environment where employees become people. To be clear, the company is not a caregiver. It is not their responsibility to get their employees out of debt, heal their marriage, or allow them to come to work high.

The role the company plays in human experience is seeing the value of the human behind the struggle. 

A great colleague of mine, Carl Sokia, calls this “peopletivity”―building trust which feeds productivity and results in profitability. 

Our companies can benefit by allowing space for our humanity.

The company I worked for had a policy against extended leaves of absence. They did not offer remote work or flexible work schedules. The handbook had been created to protect the company against inefficiencies and waste. But it didn’t provide opportunities to retain a valuable, productive employee who needed those flexibilities to get through a challenging time in her life. 

In most companies, the response would have been: “the policy doesn’t allow us to do that.” If this had been the response I received, they would have lost an employee, and I would have lost my job. Instead, they looked at the person behind the struggle and found a way to humanize their work environment in a way that made both of our lives richer.

Elisa Garn is currently the VP of Thought Leadership & Brand Marketing for GBS Benefits, a full service broker based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elisa's experience includes more than 15 years in HR, recruiting and employer brand strategy primarily with small to mid-sized businesses. A true Xennial (the micro generation between Gen X and Millennials), she is often an early adopter with a natural curiosity for all things – Especially people! Her passion for the HR profession is obvious: She is a member of the Forbes Human Resource Council, has served as the President for Salt Lake SHRM, co-founded DisruptHR SLC, currently serves as the Executive Director for Utah SHRM and acts as an advisor and member of several business-focused groups. Elisa holds the SHRM-SCP, SPHR, PRC and SHRM Talent Management Specialty Credential certifications. A true believer of the global impact HR can have on creating a better human experience, her career path now focuses on the advocacy and influence for the progression of the HR function within the business environment. When she's not exploring one of Utah's beautiful trails or organizing an impromptu flash mob, she's busy sewing 80's throwback costumes for her 8 year old son and pursuing her journey to find the world's best cinnamon roll.

Comments (2)

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    Patrick Stauffer

    Thank you for sharing that personal and professional story. Those words ring so true that “But not sharing your life with your work doesn’t erase reality.” Work and our personal life are so intertwined, and that doesn’t mean we have to put everything out there for everyone to see or hear, but as long as it is a welcoming feeling, we don’t rid ourselves of the human connection we all share.

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    David Barski

    Thank you for sharing heart-felt, values-oriented story. There are so many “True-north” statements in this story. I have endeavored to always balance the roles at work with caring deeply about the people with whom I work, serve and steward. I don’t know any other way to remain true to myself and lead at work. I am so grateful that you wrote in words how my heart feels about humanity at work.

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