Going Out on a Limb

Managing a multigenerational staff is really not a new experience, as my staff in the mail services department at a large California public university in the 1980s was comprised of the greatest generation, baby boomers, and generation Xers. Our mail services were as large an operation as the main post office in any small city receiving and processing on a daily basis, tons of letters, invoices, correspondence, flyers, magazines, journals, books, newspapers, and packages of all shapes and sizes and then delivering it all Monday thru Friday to Deans, Professors, Assistant Professors, lecturers, coaches, administrators their departments and support staffs, the university support staff, and the dorms. Because it was a large public university that had a history of freedom of speech we had training on how to spot mail bombs and glad to say that in four years, we actually received and found only one. As a leader, you hope to hire and coach people to help improve themselves and also the team’s overall productivity but sometimes they also bring challenges to you that wind up making you a better person.

It is very challenging and at times rewarding when you deal with employee issues that cross those generational lines and wind up being placed unknowingly at the crux of cultural change in society involving issues of sexual equality in the workplace. Most of the full-time employees were male with the exception of three female employees, two of which were clerical. There were also several part-time student employees earning extra cash to survive or a condition of their scholarship. We had drivers covering five routes who delivered and picked up mail to departments on and off-campus locations twice a day. We had sorters who sorted out the incoming mail going to departments and we had people who processed all the outgoing mail that had to be weighed and metered. It was a fabulous operation.

Being a male-dominated workplace it was decorated in wall calendars and posters that featured female models in various states of undress with no anatomy totally exposed but had blouse buttons open to their navel and the material was still stretched to its limits along with daisy dooks, bikinis, or lingerie which helped accent the tools, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, beer, alcohol, cars, motorcycles, and other various manly man toys featured.

When I think of how things were then and how they are now, it’s like night and day. One of our part-time student employees was a bright young woman working her way to a degree in psychology and women’s studies who came into my office one morning to speak to me about the posters and calendars around the facility and that she found them offensive and degrading to women. This was the last thing I expected to hear with my coffee that morning and I have to admit I enjoyed them as much as the guys but the more I listened to her and the passion in her voice I understood her point. At the time it was not considered politically incorrect, heck, they were still smoking indoors! I asked her if I moderated would she be comfortable discussing the subject with the rest of the staff and she agreed.

Of course, she got a lot of push back from her male co-workers who immediately brought up the issue of their rights and freedoms. I understood how they were feeling as well, change is never an easy thing to swallow and after all, sorting mail was tedious and boring for a man and apparently only could be tolerated with the occasional glimpse of flesh. She was good, after all their moaning she asked if it was okay if she could have a few male posters put up to make it fairer. Of course the guys, well most of the guys, didn’t like the idea of half-dressed gorgeous looking men hanging around. They said they would find it offensive which made me chuckle. Soon our part-time worker found an unexpected ally as our greatest generation female clerk was emboldened by her, found her own voice, and told the group she was insulted by the posters and always had been. It suddenly got very quiet so I told everyone to think about it for the next couple of days and we’d touch base again.

When we met again a few days later we were able to reach a general consensus and it was agreed that the offensive posters in the general work area would immediately come down and could be replaced with more appropriate school sports team posters, movies, artwork, and potted plants. The items in the men’s locker room had until the end of the year to disappear. So glad this was behind us and we could settle back into our normal routines and we were happily moving mail when I suddenly had a new challenge!

Our greatest generation female clerk flew into my office extremely agitated. She has never had trouble expressing herself verbally before, always speaking calmly and calculated but right now she desperately tried to find the appropriate words to describe the horror she had just witnessed! I had never seen her this flustered, as all I was able to decipher was I needed to take care of it, she was sickened by it, she was going home and I needed to speak to Rebecca. With that, she was gone!

I sat in the newly appreciated quiet, puzzled, not even able to imagine what set Marge off. I was afraid to get up to find out but didn’t have to as a quiet soft voice asked if she could speak with me. It was my part-time student Rebecca! She wanted to know if Marge had said anything? I told her no, she was too upset to say anything. What do you know? Rebecca’s face was red, she looked worried and she also began to try to find the words. Look, you’re a pretty open-minded boss so I’ll just say it like it is. When I menstruate I don’t use tampons or any of that stuff, I use a sponge and I was washing it out in the sink when Marge came out of a stall and saw me. She went ballistic, began screaming at me, and wouldn’t even let me explain!! I took it all in, stared at the ceiling for a few minutes in uncomfortable silence, and then looked at Rebecca. Do you think Marge may have been offended by what she saw? Um, yeah, I guess. Think about it, you see a sink full of blood! She didn’t understand what was happening and you should have known that. What do you suggest I do? First, you should apologize to Marge on Monday in private, and then after explaining it to her and she is still uncomfortable tell her you’ll lock the restroom door for privacy. I think I’ll buy her a houseplant to go with the apology. Excellent, idea, Rebecca.

It all worked out. Rebecca and Marge grew to tolerate each other as we got back to our regular routines all working together, moving mail, training new student part-time workers in our more respectful environment. People with different opinions and different levels of comfort, given the right tools, encouragement, and listening to each other can deal with workplace issues without the need of management making it worse by shoving change down their throat. By the time the University H.R. department began to address harassment-free workplaces, we were miles ahead of the game.

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