When HR became a movement for me

Posted by: on August 13th, 2020

I am working the coatroom on a busy Saturday night at a fancy restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland, Inner Harbor in the winter of 1983-84. Snow crystals fly at the glass windows overlooking the harbor while jazz beats fill the air. Suddenly, the power extinguishes and darkness descends on the harbor. The next moment is punctuated by silence. A chorus of voices rise and then lower as security officers wave flashlights and give orders to stay in place. The outage lasts two hours.

No, I am not concerned about the outage, my real dilemma, at this point in my life, is what to do about graduate school. After taking time off to travel and think, I am frankly, a little panicked, and I explain this to the mildly interested gentleman leaning on the half door to the coat room.

Why Psychology? He asks, in a puzzled patient tone. I tell him I have a degree in psychology and dance therapy, and my plan to go on to dance therapy does not seem tenable given the recession. I need a career that will support me.

He shifts and moves as anxious patrons try to get their coats. I sort through a sea of blackness as conversation on top of conversation fills the restaurant. Then my friend asks, So, what do you think about working here?

Photo of Inner Harbor at night by Lee Burton

Perhaps the darkness allows me to feel I am incognito, but I decide to go full confidential with him.

First, I tell him a few stories, like the one about waiting on Barbara Bush and being surrounded by her security detail when I balance her tippy table with a match book under the table leg. And how I made a $100 tip serving Ouzo to reunited Greek sea captains one afternoon. Maybe I mention the famous British actor I waited on and did not recognize but whose identity I learned when I processed his credit card and the waiters standing behind me went beserk….

But then I tell him there is a dark side to the business as well, that although there are many good and talented people, I mostly observe how badly people can be treated. A kind and intelligent general manager (who went on to become an Episcopalian Priest) was replaced by one who hires people who quake in their boots when he gives orders (and eventually is fired for sexual harassment). I have a run in with him in the kitchen in front of everyone when he yells at me for not moving fast enough.

I share that many fragile people work in the industry. I hear stories from workers who tell me they have been homeless, sold their bodies, or drugs to survive. Some are in abusive relationships but have nowhere to go. Others are gravely ill from what is being called a gay disease. Staff are belittled and brought to tears but do not leave because they need the job. I observe the impact on the entire organization. The effects are collective, the dynamic creates a flock of hopeless searching souls. We feel angry and frustrated.

I tell him, that I am thinking about contacting the owner, who lives in NYC and imploring him to come and talk to the workers….I say, finally, that I have thought about a future in which I apply psychology to management and leadership.

The time flies. He asks whether I have heard of a new field in the business schools known as human resources. He thinks I could apply my psychology to organizations and the field of management. He shares that he is a professor of psychology and writes his information down on an order tablet along with HR course numbers I can look up to learn more.  I put the piece of paper in my pocket with my tips. The power returns and I never see him again, but I save the piece of paper.

I think about his words, and what I have revealed about me. A shift takes place in the blink of an eye. Through the serendipity of a power outage and a conversation with a stranger, I connect to my own future.

In the days and weeks that follow, I look again at schools, return to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio and begin taking graduate classes in the newly created program of Management, Labor and Human Resources at the Ohio State University.  

Decades later, while cleaning out a trunk, I come across a crumpled piece of paper that reminds me of that night. I am humbled by the breadth of time that has passed since that experience when I first began thinking about dignity in the workplace and the value of people and the work they perform.

POSTSCRIPT: After all these years, I look up David J. Falcone and learn he is still enjoying his work as professor at what is now LaSalle University. He is surprised and delighted by my note and the life of this little piece of paper. Although he does not have a clear recollection of the evening, he believes he was in town at that time for a conference to present a paper. In addition to psychology professor, he is also a musician who performs acoustic guitar in the Philadelphia area and you can find him at (http://www.facebook.com/david.falcone.music) or at World Cafe Live’s homepage.

We are not always good about letting people know when they impact our lives and it feels good to have finally followed through on what I intended to do decades ago! 

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.