Doing Time on the Red Line

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it one thousand times — in order to be effective, strategic HR professionals, we have to know and understand as much as we can about every aspect of business. And at the core of that is knowing what the people in our organizations do in their jobs every day.

So I was delighted when I stumbled across this article from HR Chatterbox Sabrina Baker about the value of knowing, remembering and refreshing yourself on the jobs performed by the employees in your company. This week’s post is giving “honey” to Sabrina for this call to action and for inspiring me to share the HR Wisdom I’ve gleaned from my trading spaces experiences.

In my early 20s, I worked as the On-Site Manager for a staffing company. Our client was a packaging facility with almost 400 temps and another 200 – 300 full-time employees producing 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. They had a no-fault attendance policy that penalized employees if they were even one minute late. So to reward employees for perfect attendance, I held a monthly trading places drawing — the winner got a day off and I worked in their place for a 12-hour shift.

Recognizing that it was all in good fun and not wanting to hurt production, the shift supervisor would assign me an easy task for the day. Re-work was my favorite! All I had to do there was rip open damaged packaging and prep it to be packaged again. I was brilliant! A total re-work rock star!

Then the day came when the shift supervisor decided to put me on Machine 6. It was a monster! It was the oldest machine in the building and feared all over the plant for being tempermental, ornery — and super fast! When they called out my line assignment during the pre-shift meeting, I was terrified. And I spent the next 4 hours stuggling to keep up and not shut down production or break the machine. I managed to do both. It could have been completely humiliating if everyone wasn’t having such a good time laughing at me, including myself. I was truly awful! If I could have, I would have told me to “hit the red line,” which was the safety walkway that led from production to the lobby and management’s inappropriate way of telling people they were fired.

Instead, they moved me to Machine 7 where the equipment was more friendly and the pace was not as frenzied. I broke a production record with the team on that line for the day! I still have the t-shirt from that — and I still wear it with pride.

What I am also proud about is the wisdom I gained from my trading places experience:

  1. I learned to value every job and function in the organization, no matter how great or small. The smallest, most seemingly insignificant cog in the machine could be the one that shuts the whole thing down. The more time we spend understanding and staying current, the better HR will be at its job and the better morale will be in the organization.
  2. I learned to you still have to give respect to get respect. My willingness to get out there on those machines and hustle for 12 hours made me a greater badass to those employees than any training, presentation or pep talk I could ever give. I became relatable to them and they became more relatable to me — and we were all better, more effective employees because of it. HR has to go the extra mile and do more to get the ear, eyes and hearts of employees and decision-makers. That isn’t fair or right — but it is still the reality. And if we embrace the positive side of that reality, we can expand our influence beyond anything we ever imagined.
  3. I learned to identify legitimate employee concerns from squeaky wheels. Before I began trading places with the employees and spending regular time working in and observing production, I was constantly duped by employees who would come to me to complain about their training, daily assignments and equipment. I was also giving generic suggestions to the production supervisors on how to handle issues relating to performance. Once I gained intimate knowledge of production, I could easily discern when an employee was just pulling my leg and I could give the supervisors really specific feedback on handling performance problems.

Sadly, I have also seen some trading-places disasters. Here are the common threads of what went wrong:

  • The goal was unclear. If you are going to trade-places or spend time observing someone, be certain of the why and what you’re doing it for.
  • The trader/observer had the wrong attitude. Stay humble and open. Be careful not to get too cocky or critical, especially when you notice areas for improvement or if you do a great job at their work. It is tempting to boast about yourself or highlight the other person’s flaws. Don’t do it. Sitting in a chair for a few hours or days does not make you a master. Give feedback when it is appropriate, but don’t cheapen the experience by using it as an opportunity to advance yourself or throw daggers at other people.

Use these opportunities for the good of everyone involved — or “hit the red line” 😉

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1 Comment

  1. We should never be too proud or full ourselves that we forget to be humble. There is dignity to be found in every job.
    You could’ve mentioned that you also learned to drive a fork lift!
    On point again,Buzz. Good job.

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