2016 Week Six: Education
How do you fire someone?
These are words I wished I had typed into Google or asked people at my organization before I stepped into a meeting that I arranged last week. A high-school student working at a lab on the medical campus had been chronically late, inconsistent with attendance and was bored at his worksite. [To protect his anonymity, the student’s name has been replaced with Jason].
Jason had perfect attendance the first week. He arrived early and was curious about his work and was diligent. The lab spoke highly of him and was looking into taking him on during the year. However, once he figured out that he would be doing mostly organizational work for the lab, his performance slipped. Jason took long lunch breaks, skipped days without telling his employer and came up with new excuses every day. Despite several conversations between Jason and his supervisor about meeting basic chronological work expectations and being engaged, his attendance and attention issues persisted. Over the course of two weeks, I worked with an assistant in his lab to come up with other projects he might be able to work on that would be more interesting. After learning that Jason was in summer school as well, we worked with him to set up a shortened schedule so that the day would not be so long. Jason agreed to all of this. When I heard that the latest effort had fallen through and that he had yet again texted saying he would not be there, I was concerned. When I found out he was at the placement’s cafeteria hanging out with friends, I knew that that was the final straw. To continue to accommodate and try to be flexible would not serve Jason well in the long run. My blog last week detailed how being too lenient can set unrealistic expectations for students for their future jobs. In most jobs, if you do not show up for two days, you will be fired. If you are late more than a few times, you will be fired. If you stop doing the work because you find it boring, you will be fired. Despite his placement being an internship, he had exhausted our exceptions. Firing him would serve as a lesson, or so I thought.
I walked into an office of a lab on the top floor of a Med Campus Building followed by the PI, the lab assistant, Jason and Jason’s volunteer. We all sat down in what cannot have been more than a 10x10ft office and everyone looked at me. It was in this split second that I realized I had absolutely zero clue what I was doing. I had mentally prepared what I wanted to say beforehand, but seeing Jason sitting across from me in a chair, head down and looking and texting in his lap stunned me.
Here was a fifteen year old student who had failed all of his classes and had lost both his parents. He faced food insecurity and relied on the city sponsored bus pass to get to work. From what I could tell, he needed this job and moreover, he had demonstrated that he could do it very well during the first week. The lab was ready to train and “open new doors” into different careers. They were all hands on deck. And yet, for one reason or another Jason did not see it that way. I felt utterly ill-equipped understand where he was coming from. Did we (my organization) set him up to fail? But then how do you explain why he did the job so perfectly the first week?
I went through explaining why the placement was not working, how we had been lenient and had had these conversations before, how he was not meeting the bare workplace expectations, and how the lab had gone out of their way to devote time and energy to accommodating him and training him. Jason did not say a word. I did not want to use the words “fired” so I settled on “you will not be able to return to work here.” The PI chipped in for a bit, asked him to put away his phone a few times when he pulled it out as she was talking, and then I told him he could pick up his paycheck at the next Professional Development session. What proceeded then was one of the most uncomfortable silences in my life.
For what felt like 30 seconds, we all sat there with no one really knowing what to do. It was clear that the conversation was over, but no one made any moves. Realizing that no one was going to say anything, I asked Jason if he brought any bags and if he could go get them with his volunteer. They did, and that was that.
I am still processing this entire experience even though it happened about a week ago. Who messed up? Did we fail Jason? Even if it can be boiled down to Jason’s being 15 and thinking it is okay to arrive late and not do work you do not like, how can that be Jason’s fault given his upbringing and what he has gone through? At what point does responsibility get assigned to the individual for lack of initiative and at what point does it get attributed to the circumstances? Does it really matter whose responsibility it is? What’s next for Jason?
I was sitting in the Thread think tank, sniffling and sneezing my way through a meeting concerning our end of the summer symposium, when I noticed that my phone was buzzing. The call was from one of our employers informing me that a student had abruptly stormed out of the worksite after a confrontation with one of their superiors. The student, who I will refer to as Scott for the sake of this piece, is a bit of an enigma. He can be a bit abrasive at times, is highly emotional, and will get in your face and express his opinions with ease if angered. During our 1st professional development seminar, he blurted out inappropriate comments, and he flat out refused to enter the auditorium at the 2nd event. When I asked him to fill out a form during one of these meetings, he filled it out begrudgingly and slammed it down on the table when he was finished, spilling his drink all over our sign in sheets and my computer in the process.
These events certainly muddled my opinion of Scott, yet some of his anger and disdain was certainly warranted. Thread has dropped the ball on Scott on a number of occasions; his volunteers are not very responsive, and his jobsite had to be changed at the last minute this summer after an employer backed out. Thread has failed Scott in some ways, but Scott has certainly not failed us, despite any of those incidents I have mentioned. I can wholeheartedly say that Scott has been one of the best workers I’ve had under my supervision this summer. He arrives early or on time every day, has completed his tasks successfully, and has regularly taken initiative. Working with many kids with special needs, Scott has emerged as a leader, role model, and friend to these students. He is friendly with his coworkers, and has yet to miss a day of work.
That’s why that phone call caught me so off guard. Despite his hotheaded disposition at times, nothing that I had seen so far from him at work would suggest he blow up like this. It was nearly 5 pm, and I knew that I needed to reach out to him and see what had happened. However, just like clockwork, he arrived to the Thread office after work, something he does nearly every day. We talked, and he revealed that one of his superiors routinely asked him to meet with visitors and talk about his role at the organization. While Scott is an outgoing individual, he does not like being put on the spot, as it makes him very uncomfortable. After an interaction with visitors that was less than spectacular, the superior had pulled Scott aside and berated him for not behaving properly. Not liking the accusatory nature of her tone, Scott stormed out of the worksite before he did or said anything inflammatory. He told me that Thread could do what they needed to from a disciplinary perspective. I told him that no disciplinary action was appropriate, that while it was an issue he had stormed out without notifying anyone, I was still proud that he had displayed restraint and removed himself from a toxic situation. We agreed that I would accompany him to work the following day, so that a sit down meeting could occur between him and his direct supervisor concerning the incident.
Parts of my internship this summer have been discouraging. Sometimes it feels like my employers are not attentive to my correspondence or our events and programming. I feel like I have largely been unable to prevent students from being dismissed from their jobs, despite efforts to set up meetings and attempts at finding solutions. However, the meeting that I sat in on between Scott and his supervisor restored my faith in the good that this program is capable of producing. I saw a student who resolutely trusts his boss with even the most sensitive and personal information about his home life. I also witnessed a boss who truly gets it. She talked about how their organization tries to be as understanding and accommodating as possible; they view these summer jobs as learning experiences on the path to full time employment. While it was wrong for Scott to leave unannounced, she thought it was good and wise that he did not create a scene or lash out. However, she reminded him that he must learn to deal with people who are tough and demanding in future work situations, as he will certainly encounter them in the future. Scott has also been dealing with a lot recently in terms of his home life, and that certainly has influenced why he occasionally lashes out. His young niece was tragically taken from him when a stray bullet hit her, and since the incident he and his family have had to pick up the pieces. His employer is aware of this incredibly difficult and heartbreaking situation, and offered a unique perspective when we spoke after the meeting concluded. She told me that the Youthworkers in her program often face a lot of personal turmoil and loss, but that a key component of their work experience is being able to fight through these emotions and cope with them in the workplace. Working while grappling with this type of loss is never easy, and I commend Scott for maintaining perfect attendance throughout the summer.
Scott’s employer told him that she will write him a letter of recommendation for any job or college application, and has also offered to reach out to her husband to help him secure employment during his gap year following graduation. These are the types of stories that restore your faith in the power of community oriented work. Scott is one of the strongest people I have worked with this summer, and he has truly made a lasting impact on his worksite. He and his story deserve to be highlighted, and watching him grow has truly been a pleasure.