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Being Humble is Not The Same As Being Humiliated -- Being Respectful and Appreciative of The Value of Work and Workers
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

I was reading an article by Nan Russell at today, called "Sweeping Up Worms." She talks about the importance of putting aside your ego about your status and position at work and doing what is necessary when it is necessary. She make the excellent point that your value to your company is in being able to get the job done regardless of the status value of the tasks involved. The title story in the article involves high level managers grabbing brooms and sweeping up worms at the entrance of their offices after a rainstorm added an unexpected task to preparations for guests who were about to arrive.

Russell was quite right. Doing whatever is necessary, whether it is your role or not, is part of excellence in business, for both employees and management.

But she also reminded me of the problems involved in working for the greater good when your status is unrecognized or your value in the eyes of observers is relegated to the status of your task.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

A couple of years ago, I was attending a regional conference for a membership organization I belong to. After I signed in and got my name tag, I noticed a sign asking urgently for volunteers to replace some no-shows. Since the organization is basically run by volunteers, all the way to the highest levels, I said I'd pitch in and do my part. Please understand that this meant that I would have to forego some of the seminars and presentations I had just paid good money to attend.

They asked me to help out in setting up the conference "store," where participants would be buying books, videos, audios and other materials related to the subjects of the conference. Since I've set up booths and displays a number of times, I thought it would be no problem and was glad to do it.

Then I entered the room where the set up was to be done. There were tables arranged in a square and they had been covered. Nothing else had been done. All the stock was sitting in boxes and there was only one other person in the room -- "the man in charge." I could tell he was the man in charge, because the very young fellow was all dressed up in a pin-striped suit, whining and complaining into a cell phone about having no one to do the work and not knowing what he was supposed to do without help. When I arrived, he motioned me to the boxes, covered the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand and whispered that all of the stuff needed to be arranged on the tables. Uh-huh. He didn't introduce himself or ask my name.

Darn good thing I did know how to set up. And that's the work I got down to. By the time I was about 90% finished, "the man in charge," after spending that hour complaining into the cell phone and complaining some more to various other "suits" who entered the room to make sure something was being done, suddenly realized he hadn't been doing his "management" function. He came over and said to me, while looking at the tables rather than me, "Oh, you're doing a good job." I swear, I did not roll my eyes when I simply replied, "Thank you," and went on doing what needed to be done.

But, he wasn't through with me. Without asking if I were willing to stay on -- and miss more of the events I had gone there to attend -- he assumed I'd also be selling the materials on display and started giving me instructions on what he wanted done. That's when I discovered that they had no form of cash register, no calculators, no money to make change, no provision for credit cards and no knowledge of how to take checks and confirm I.D.'s.

Fortunately, they did have some blank paper, so I was able to provide a manual tally and receipt the old-fashioned way, and I just had the buyers write their DLN's on their checks and show their licenses to me for comparison. Naturally, this slowed the check-out process, which, again, I did alone, because "the man in charge," well, he was in charge so he didn't actually work.

You may think that I was mad about the cavalier treatment from the (dis)organizers of the event. But I was willing to shrug that off until I got the treatment from my fellow attendees. Since I was casually dressed (hey, it was Saturday, it wasn't a professional association and I was attending, not presenting!) and working at an apparently low-level task, they made assumption #1: that I was somebody's clerk or assistant that had been drafted for the event and didn't know what I was doing. Assumption #2 was that the lack of adequate support and tools for serving their needs was somehow my fault. Assumption #3 was that if the service was slow, I must be stupid. How do I know that they made those assumptions. Because some of them either said so explicitly and some spoke to me as if I were mentally deficient.

When the bell rang to alert us that the next round of sessions was about to begin, the room cleared. I smiled, removed the name tag and went home. I didn't go to attend any of the events or luncheon I had paid for. I didn't want to be in the same room with any of the jack@$$es. I don't know what "the man in charge" did for the rest of the day.

Although I well know the dangers inherent in volunteering, I still do it from time to time. And I'll gladly do what needs to be done, whether it's picking up trash, stuffing envelopes, running a cash register, or creating a website for a cause. But I do draw the line at being treated as if my willingness to do a low-level or unskilled task makes me a low-value person. I don't do it to have my ego stroked, but I don't do it to have my ego trashed, either.

But volunteer situations are not the only badly managed circumstances. The reason that Nan Russell's article reminded me so much of my own adventure in volunteering, is that I also read another article in today's paper. That article spelled out far greater indignities than mere ego assaults in the world of work. The article talked about the implications of the erosion of the middle class and the downgrading of employment opportunities for college graduates to what we used to call "working class" level. It talked about how that affects the economy as a whole. It suggested that anyone who has to work for a living these days has become working class. And how the current attacks on unions are affecting and being affected by that. (I read it in the Las Vegas Sun. I'm sure if you are curious you can find it online. It's called "The battleground that is Wisconsin," by Dean Bakopoulos.)

I think there is a much subtler affect that is growing and has been for some time. With the number of jobs that have been cut or offshored or made obsolete, more and more people have had to take jobs well below the status and pay they once earned. They've had to eat a lot of humble pie. They've had to accept being looked down upon as if it were their fault that their companies were mismanaged, or dishonest or hit by some catastrophe. They are good, honest, smart, competent people who are being treated as if they no longer are of value. Worse yet, they are the "lucky" ones who got jobs.

I may not be able to do much as an individual to help turn the situation around. But I can treat the people I encounter as a consumer or as a business person with dignity and can make the assumption that they are people of value. How about you. What can you do?



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