Before I publish the next instalment of Humanising Hiring, I wanted to take a step back and reflect on why I see this as so vital and how that realisation was made. Believe me when I say this wasn’t a recent idea I woke up with one morning, it has been something I have learned, developed upon and understood for a long time and now it is the time where it needs to be a tangible and credible argument, one that can really change the way a business not only hires but engages with their staff. This is my ‘why’.
It is the beginning of the year 2000. We had survived the Millennium Bug and getting on with the new century. I had recently moved back to my home town of Newcastle, NSW from Sydney to move in with my then-girlfriend, now wife. I was still working in Sydney and commuting from Newcastle (2 hours each way) but was looking for something closer to home. I found a role with a Job Network provider. Job Network (or Job Services Australia as it’s called now), for those who don’t know, is the Federal Government program designed to help unemployed people return to work or training. The program was administered by a wide array of private sector firms who were actively involved with assisting the more vulnerable in the community.
I am not sure I could’ve been adequately prepared for what I was about to face over the next four-and-a-half years. As a twenty-something it was an eye opening insight into what happens when people are forgotten by society.
I was placed in an agency in the city of Maitland, some 45 minutes out of Newcastle, in the beautiful Hunter Valley. Maitland had a staggeringly high unemployment rate (always above 25%) with very few industries in the local area, and poor transport to the city. It was really feeling the effects of drought, closure of the BHP, a huge employer across the Hunter, downsizing of local businesses and a general unwillingness of governments of all persuasions to invest in the city and surrounds. On top of that, I was also given the outreach role in the small town of Dungog, a further hour’s drive into the Hunter region and with an unemployment rate of nearly one in two.
Moving into the role of ‘Employment Consultant’, I was responsible for assisting clients who were classed as ‘Intensive Assistance’, or those with significant barriers to employment or who had been unemployed for over 12 months (some may know that as Stream 4 in today’s JSA).
IA clients came from all walks of life. Some had never held a job before and came from generational unemployment. Some were professionals, with impressive qualifications, skills and experience who slipped through the cracks for differing reasons. Some were parents, some university graduates, some had never been in this situation before. Some were ex-prisoners, ex-drug addicts or people with mental health issues. Each, though, was a person, with a story and a desire. Not once did I come across a stereotypical ‘dole bludger’ that the media like to portray taxpayers as subsidising. A lot of clients were placed into sustainable roles, where they were happy and finally motivated. I remember receiving flowers and boxes of chocolates from relived clients as they restarted their own dreams and futures.
But there were also times when nothing can prepare you for. I was working with a lady in her late 30’s. Very intelligent, a good career and some excellent skills. It was also clear she was battling some real personal demons, and it was hard seeing her consumed with this overarching sadness. At times, she would come into our appointment visibly wretched from crying. She was desperate. She could not find work, and the debts and stress and lessening self-worth were compounding with every week. It was difficult for her to even attend interviews with employers, as this would mean she would swing between elation and downright terror beforehand and would not be in a state to put her best foot forward. All conventions and tasks required under the Job Network rules were thrown away as I tried to comfort her, reassure her that it will be better and we will work really hard to get her something to regain her own personal importance. During one appointment, we talked for well over an hour (eating into the next appointment – but necessary) as a way of giving her some hope and purpose. We made a new appointment for the following week and she left seemingly better than when she came in.
Two days later I received a card from her thanking me for taking the time to listen and to help (as much as I could). It was a heartfelt gift and I displayed it prominently on my desk.
The following day I took a phone call. It was mid morning, and I was between appointments (we always scheduled 7 per day, for each hour, bar lunch, so it was always busy).
It was the police. They asked me if I was her case worker. No, just her Employment Consultant I responded. Then they told me: she had taken her life.
I stopped, stared at the card sitting on my desk, then with my head in my hands, wept. I cancelled the bulk of appointments until mid afternoon. All the training I did in suicide prevention failed…I felt I failed her.
Nothing prepares you for that to happen. In total we had three people take their lives whilst I was there. To be faced with such desperation, such vulnerability, such sadness and then trying to explain it rationally is incredibly difficult.
The thing is, Job Network couldn’t prepare you for the numerous issues that would be present. As an Employment Consultant, you had to wear many hats. You were a resume writer, an interview guide, a counsellor, a financial advisor, a carer, a career guide and a friend. You learn quickly that above all, you have to be there. Some clients saw you as their only hope and a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world. It was up to you to guide them through the treacherous waters in the hope of finding a safe harbour. All this on me in my mid-20’s was indelibly life-changing.
It lead me to my first conclusion: Job Network (and JSA) is abhorrent. Focused on punishment rather than assistance, it is almost like the government is deliberately washing their hands of the unemployment question and telling someone else to fix it. No responsibility. No care.
It is inhuman to force people into further desperation by having to jump through hoops and demand compliance. These people are human, they have different influences and they cannot be given a blanket response. They are individuals. It was that experience that taught me of the intrinsic value of treating everyone as human.
From there, I matured into my second, and most significant and lasting view: being human matters, from where they come from, what circumstances they are faced with or the challenges that have to overcome. They need to feel respect, dignity, to belong and have a future they can grasp. We need to treat people as humans, not numbers or statistics or entries on an applicant tracking system.
This is why I now fervently believe that as a business / employer, we must bring the human side to the way we hire and the way we build our businesses. We must bring in a clear understanding what makes us who we are and what challenges and successes we face and why it is vital there is ample consideration for all that when we are firstly bringing on new employees and how we treat them when they are with us. To some it is a revolutionary thought…but frankly it should be the basis of how a leader operates. Incorporating this philosophy into our business will see a reinvigoration of the people within it, an attractive proposition to any potential employee and a real sense that we are changing people’s lives for the better.
THAT is the real reason why we do what we do…and that is the reason I believe it.