I received the text on Wednesday evening.
Hey Rudy, I’m sorry to text so late, but I wanted to let you know I won’t be in tomorrow. I have some field work to finish up and I had some problems at home and need to run some errands for my mom. I’m sorry.
This particular student employee, we’ll call her Jane, had been missing a lot of work lately. I was tired from a long day and frustrated that she would be missing another day of work. My reply was short and showed no compassion.
Jane had been a student employee in our office for a couple of years and we had fought to keep her employed when some sources of funding had been lost. She had a ton of job knowledge, did anything we asked of her with precision and accuracy, and, until recently, had been very dependable. After sending the short reply I plugged in my phone and went to bed.
The next day I received another text from Jane and the concern in her message made me regret that I had been so short with her the night before.
Hey Rudy, I’m sorry I had to miss work today. You can write me up if you want to. I know I’ve been missing a lot of work lately.
Where is this coming from? I wondered to myself. I’d been supervising student employees for almost three years and in that time I’d never written any of them up. It just wasn’t my style–I preferred to speak to them one on one and try to resolve the issue through a discussion before taking any formal disciplinary action. The discussion approach had always worked and I’d never needed to go as far as a write up.
I’m not going to write you up. I have nothing to write you up about.
I hoped my reply would make her understand that the situation wasn’t as serious as she seemed to think. Within seconds my phone vibrated with another reply. My heart sank when I read it.
You can if you need to. I know I’ve been a horrible employee.
Had I made her feel that way? Had I said something or done something to make her think that? During my time as a supervisor I had come to think of my employees, full-time staff or student hire, as my adopted children. I enjoyed watching them all grow in their positions and thought of them as family. We didn’t always get along, but we respected each other and could solve problems together and find common ground. Had I changed recently and started treating them differently?
There’s no need for me to write you up. We just need to sit down and talk when you come in next week.
I stressed over the weekend worrying that I’d done something to make our longest-serving student worker feel like she was a horrible employee. She was scheduled to come in to work on Tuesday morning and immediately after walking in the door she came to my desk and asked if we could talk. I could hear the anxiety and emotion in her voice.
We went to one of the building’s conference rooms and sat down. She already had tears in her eyes and I knew this was going to be a hard talk to have.
“I just wanted to apologize for missing so much work lately,” she began. “I feel like a really bad employee.”
I stopped Jane and asked her point-blank why she thought she was a bad employee.
“I’ve just been missing so much work lately with trying to stay caught up in my classes, with my health problems, and with my problems at home. And when you replied to my message and just said, ‘Ok’, I thought you were mad at me.”
Her words hit me and I wanted to cry along with her. Why had I been so short with her?
As we continued our conversation, she shared some details with me about the level of stress she was under, the things she’d been going through, and that she wasn’t sure she could even complete the semester successfully. I had known a few details here and there, but hadn’t bothered to sit down and talk to her before now to make sure she was okay. I realized that I was partially at fault in this situation–it was true that she hadn’t communicated with me about her problems, but I also hadn’t done my job to check in with her.
It suddenly hit me that I was the grownup in this situation and that part of my job as a student employee supervisor is to teach not only job skills and interpersonal skills, but also how to prioritize their lives outside of work. As I explained this to Jane I felt like Suze Orman helping someone get their finances in order.
“Look, Jane,” I explained. “You need to understand that your health is always your first priority. Then, because you’re a student, your academics come next. Work should be your last priority right now. We will get by if you need a day off and I will never be mad at you for taking time off for health or school. I want to make sure you know that.”
Tears streamed down Jane’s face as a wave of relief passed over her. We made a compromise to reduce her work hours so she would have more time to focus on what was important and we left the conference room. The anxiety she had felt before seemed to have subsided.
It was difficult for me to return to work right away. I was haunted by the fact that I had set expectations so high for Jane that she had felt this guilty about missing work. Sometimes we set such high standards for our student employees, especially the great ones, that we forget they have lives and commitments outside of the work they do for us on a daily basis. We have to make time to check in with them, tell them how much they’re appreciated, and take a few minutes to teach them a life lesson here and there. And along the way they also teach us a thing or two.
I will never forget the lesson Jane taught me of that day: student employees are people too and we have a duty to help them become even better people. Aside from being full-time students they have families, they have health problems, they have stressful events that come up. They’re with us a short time to learn work skills, but more importantly, life skills they will carry with them forever.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Conor McLaughlin on SA Work-Life Balance