At my direction, my veterinarian
killed euthanized this dog today. He was very old and very sick, and it was my first experience with this most humane and selfless of acts. Since I have four more dogs at home, it will certainly not be my last act of this kind. I know that good and responsible pet owners welcome the ability to euthanize their animals to end their pain and suffering; it is the ultimate and final act of kindness to the animal, even though it causes the owner great sadness.
In reflecting on my life with this dog, I found some analogies that could be drawn between pets and employees. Not, of course, that employees are pets or should be treated like them. But how WE behave, or should behave, toward our pets can be helpful in defining our HR behavior.
It’s easy for everyone to spend time with a new puppy or a kitten - they’re so cute and delightful! Even the youngest owners can’t wait to play with them or stroke them. But as the puppy or kitten grow into larger animals, many people lose interest in playing with or exercising or engaging their pet. Their basic needs of food and shelter may be provided, but little else. Unless the pet needs discipline or restraining, the pet is simply left to amuse itself. A good pet owner is different – a good pet owner knows that the pet is a vital part of the household and makes sure that the pet is walked, played with, trained, touched, or talked to as much as the pet needs. Forever.
There is often a similar honeymoon period with a new employee. HR makes sure the employee is successfully onboard, and hovers a little bit while the employee gains their footing and grows confident in their surroundings. But all too often, once that honeymoon period is over and the employee is trusted to perform on their own, the employee is essentially forgotten. Sure, the basic needs (pay and benefits) are met. But no one attempts to engage the employee, to seek him or her out and make sure they remain interested, motivated, trained, or involved. Unless the employee needs discipline or counseling, the employee is often completely forgotten about by HR.
Good HR is like good pet ownership: there should be resolve to stay interested and engaged with the employee forever – not just the first weeks or months. Seek out your employee and find out what you both need to do to stay involved with each other.
It is sometimes very difficult for a good pet owner to determine if their pet has a problem that needs attention. Since pets can’t talk, good pet owners are vigilant in watching for signs that the pet is in trouble: Is he eating properly? Does she seem lethargic? Is he pooping too much? Too little? What does the poop look like? FIVE dogs – and I could tell each one of their feces apart. I had to, because it is an early – sometimes the only – sign of distress.
Employees can usually speak, so the HR pro doesn’t have to go to such extreme measures to determine if there are problems needing attention and discussion. Unfortunately, many are not taking the time or making the effort. When did you last ask an employee if everything was alright, or if there were any issues or concerns that you could help them address? Too often, we expect the employee to come to us if they need or want something. But often a problem is not discovered until an exit interview, when it is too late to fix (at least for that employee). It’s natural for an employee to prefer to be asked to give information, rather than have to demand it be given.
Good HR: be vigilant and care enough to look for warning signs indicating a problem. Communicate with the employee and make sure that trouble is addressed as early as possible. Ask the employee before s/he asks you.
Every good pet owner buys, rescues, adopts or otherwise obtains a pet with the knowledge and agreement that their obligation to that pet is forever. Good pet owners expect that their home will be the animal’s home forever. Yes, sometimes unforeseeable and insurmountable problems arise that cause pet and owner to be separated. Even then a good pet owner will work to re-home their pet so that the pet’s well-being is maintained. When the time comes for the pet to be released from its physical pain or suffering, the good owner does what is necessary, no matter how hard, to help the pet die in peace and with dignity.
I harbor no illusions that employers have a lifetime obligation to their employees. But HR should hire an employee with at least an idea that they are going to commit to the employees professional well-being for as long as they possibly can. If HR has shown that commitment to the employee, consistently engaged and communicated with the employee, and has acted similarly to the good pet owner throughout the employment relationship, the end, even if involuntary, will be more dignified.