Dealing with the Challenges of a Workforce on the Edge

June 1, 1999
Of the thousands of anecdotes that you shared in your responses to the survey, "A Day in the Life of HR," one has haunted me: A woman arrived at work, bleeding. She had been stabbed in the throat. Co-workers first looked outside for her assailant, but he wasn’t near the office. The woman had been stabbed at home, and then she drove herself to work. She chose not to go to the hospital because she was afraid that getting to work late—or not at all—would cost her her job.

Incredibly, the story was not the saddest or the strangest or the most frightening that was shared. But it has stayed with me because it captures so much of the current state of society, business and HR. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, it’s hard not to see the incident as one more example of how saturated with violence our society has become. Schools haven’t been spared the horror, and neither have workplaces. In fact, the incidence of violence reported in the survey—murder, stalking, explosions and more—was much greater this year.

At another level, the story reflects the reality you reported in the survey: Crises of various kinds command a large—and increasing—proportion of your time and energy. Those crises, related to business or otherwise, limit the time available to deal with strategic problem solving.

Finally, and most importantly, the story of the bleeding woman says something about people, jobs and our collective ability to cope. What sort of world are we living in that a stabbing victim actually gives higher priority to showing up for work on time than to her own emergency health care? Is any job that important?

It is to some people. In this boom economy and tight labor market, we often forget that many people are still working in low-wage jobs that barely make it possible for people to make ends meet. These people are literally desperate.

But even those who make good money are often working so hard and are so stressed that they’re losing their ability to cope in normal, healthy ways. Instead, they’re making poor choices that affect themselves, and others, in negative ways.

The evidence is literally everywhere in the survey results. The anecdotes reveal a workforce on the edge. Workplace incidents of drinking, drug abuse, sex, gambling and more were all widely reported—and much more common than they were even a year ago.

Many times this behavior is discussed in terms of morality. However, discussing it in those terms does us all a disservice. I don’t believe that most people are making conscious choices to behave morally or immorally; instead, they’re acting out in inappropriate ways just to cope.

I’m not defending the behavior, and certainly not suggesting that any of it is acceptable at work. But I do think it’ll get worse before it gets better—and it won’t get better unless we start asking tougher questions about why people find it so hard to cope.

Any day in the life of HR is memorable, and the days included in this issue are no exception. They show the full landscape of HR’s world, and they offer evidence of HR’s successful transition to strategic importance. But, unfortunately, they also show that HR’s greatest challenges may still lie ahead.

Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, p. 8.