A compassionate approach to workers’ personal problems
March 15, 2013
Everyone has personal problems at some point of their lives, and those problems can affect productivity at work. In this sensitive area, workplace chaplains may be able to help.
Consider this hypothetical situation: A fabricator’s best press brake operator shows up late for work. When he does come in, he looks dazed, unfocused. A few hours later, he looks down at the workpiece in his hands and realizes he just formed a flange backward, along with the 40 flanges before it. Then a supervisor from the assembly department comes running. A batch from earlier in the shift was formed out of tolerance and somehow slipped by quality control. The brake technician grows tense, closes his eyes, and looks down.
Not today. Please. Not today.
He may have been incredibly productive for years, with an uncanny eye for detail and quality workmanship. Then one day he comes in late and starts producing bad parts. A typical investigation might point to “operator error,” and scores of root-cause-analysis experts have developed methods that move the conversation away from finger-pointing. When conducting an exercise like the “five whys,” the experts steer away from the blame game and toward the objective process side. They don’t ask who screwed up, but concentrate on what happened and how, and how the process can be improved to prevent the problem down the road. It’s all about the process, not the person.
But hypothetically, just as a mental exercise, what if those five whys took another path—a personal one? Why did the operator bend the parts backward? Because he was having a bad day. Why was he having a bad day? Because his mother is ill, and no one is at home to take care of her. Why can no one take care of her? Because she doesn’t live near immediate family or close friends. Why doesn’t she have family nearby? Because they all moved away. Why did they move? To find work.
Such a direct, personal inquiry lacks so much tact and professionalism that it borders on the absurd. It’s an impersonal approach to a personal problem. All the same, it does reveal that, yes, a personal problem exists. And no matter how good working conditions are, an employee’s personal life can affect workplace productivity.
To address this, many companies offer employee help lines, such as 800 numbers workers can call in times of crisis or of personal strife. It’s a valid service, but one that Gil Stricklin, a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain, thought lacked a human touch. So in 1984 he launched Plano, Texas-based Marketplace Chaplains USA, which provides workplace chaplains on a contract basis.
Many are ordained clergy, but their roles as chaplains differ from that of a pastor or priest. Considering the founder’s background, it isn’t surprising that their role borrows from some basic ideas behind military chaplaincy. Marketplace’s chaplains aren’t active evangelists. They do talk about religion, but only if the people they’re talking to ask about it first. They primarily offer workers a listening ear and compassionate conversation. They’re there to talk through tough problems and refer or recommend social service or assistance programs, if needed.
“It’s also a voluntary service,” said Art Stricklin, Marketplace’s vice president of public relations. “No one has to interact with the chaplain.”
“From the start we meet with the company leadership and let them know we are a neutral party. We do not represent the company, the HR department, or the CEO. We need that sense of neutrality when we’re talking with employees about their personal concerns.” So said Tim Presson, division director who oversees the western Texas region, where the company sends chaplains to several metal fabricators on a regularly scheduled basis.
“They first may just talk about the big game and chat informally,” Stricklin said. “But eventually they may come up and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you about my son.’”
Stricklin added that “a chaplain can’t get you promoted; he can’t get you fired. And the boss doesn’t know who’s talking to the chaplain. It’s voluntary, it’s confidential, and it’s nondenominational.”
Shop floor workers can’t just leave the machine they’re tending to talk to a chaplain. So when chaplains arrive, they may walk the shop floor, wave, say a few brief pleasantries, and, if the employee wishes, schedule a more in-depth meeting during breaks or after the shift ends.
“We’re very conscious of not interrupting their productivity,” Presson said. “We realize they’re paid to do a job. So if the discussion is of a personal nature, and they need to visit with a chaplain beyond what the brief visit there at the work site would accomplish, then we set up a meeting outside of work or during breaks, at their convenience.”
Workers also have the chaplain’s cell phone number and e-mail address. “If there is a crisis or something employees need to talk about, then they have direct access to the chaplain,” Stricklin said.
Chaplains consult workers of the same gender and ethnic background as themselves. A shop with Hispanic, Spanish-speaking workers will be sent a Hispanic chaplain who speaks Spanish. Female chaplains work with female employees; male chaplains work with male employees.
As Presson explained, if an employee tells a chaplain he will cause harm to others, the chaplain is required to report that information. But besides this and a few other exceptions, a chaplain offers a confidential ear. He added that chaplains aren’t there to act as employee advocates, either. If a workforce wants to unionize, for instance, the chaplain remains a neutral third party.
Sources added that employees usually aren’t complaining about management or workplace problems. For the most part, it’s personal. If managers bring Marketplace Chaplains onboard in the first place, they probably have a good relationship with workers already. More often than not, the workplace is safe, and workers are engaged. And the shop often has procedures in place to tackle objective, process-based problems, be it a fishbone diagram analysis, the five whys, or anything else. But the workplace is more than just a collection of processes performed by automatons. People have personal problems, and this is where the workplace chaplain may be of help.
Marketplace’s chaplain services also tap into a national network. Consider again the hypothetical press brake operator having a bad day because of his ill mother. He can talk to his workplace chaplain who, in turn, can contact another workplace chaplain near where his mother lives. The chaplain can’t cure his mother’s illness, but he can knock on her door, just to check in. It’s not much, really. But as sources explained, to a worried press brake operator hundreds of miles away, it can mean the world.