Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Human Contact

It took a few minutes for my eyes to get used to the dim lighting in the recycling plant. It was dusty and slightly rancid and there was a cacophony of conveyors, trucks, and loaders. The first time I walked through that paper recycling plant I was intimidated to say the least. I had been hired to run this place. What did I get myself into? I knew landfills and transfer stations and garbage, and ran great facilities in Florida, but what did I know about managing a recycling plant on the wintry East River in Brooklyn? I looked at the men sorting material flying past on the conveyors and they stared back at me, stone faced behind their dust masks, safety glasses, hard hats, bundled against the frigid cold.

At my previous post, I was used to solicitous smiles and a friendly greeting from my employees. I worked with the same people for many years, knew their wives and kids, and prided myself on my flexibility when it came to their needs. The hardest part was when they requested extended time off to visit family. It was their culture. They were Mexican and in their own childhoods they would go al norte to work the fields during the harvest and then go back to Mexico. Somehow, they could make enough money during the harvest to live for many months back home. So they came to me and asked me for six weeks vacation. In pairs. That would be as much as a quarter of the site's workforce, but I would make it work. I would tell them to be careful and come back safe. Sometimes they wouldn't come back. I felt burned when that happened, indignant that I paid their vacation in advance, and had to pay for their unrecovered uniforms, but I didn't take that out on the next guy who asked for time off to visit la familia. It was their culture.

I had lots of visitors from various headquarter offices during my first few months as a manager in Florida. The corporation was still being formed, and responsibilities were being assigned, and lots of folks wanted to come see what was happening out in the field. Once a pretty accountant came to visit with my boss. We took her out to the working face, where the trucks were dumping, and the compactor was pushing mountains of debris. We drove up to one of my Hispanic workers. The guys still weren't used to a gringo who spoke Spanish, so it was easy to get a laugh out of them, and that has always been my favorite thing to do. I don't remember what I said, but he grinned when I spoke to him, and sheepishly looked at the pretty blond in the truck with us. As we drove away I remarked how great these guys are, how careful they were with the equipment, how hard they worked in such difficult conditions, how they always used their safety gear, and how appreciative they were of the benefits like uniforms and steady work. Not long after that my boss told me he heard her commenting that at the very next site she went to visit, the monolingual manager was griping about the Hispanic workers, saying they were dumb and lazy. She righteously told him that Mark Hart doesn't think they're dumb or lazy. My boss repeated the story with pride to anyone who would listen.

In Brooklyn, I started to feel guilty at expecting the workers to smile when they saw me. They didn't care that I spoke Spanish, or that I had lived in Honduras, where many of them were from. Morale was not high at that plant. The plant was facing severe economic challenges, and the workers were feeling the pinch. They were not getting any overtime, and the majority of them were just barely earning above the poverty line. I started to understand the reasons behind the stony stares I got from them.

Early one morning during my first week there, with the plant running at full speed, I was on the production line, trying to figure out how the sorting equipment worked. I was waiting for Abdoul, the shift supervisor, to show up, not being used to arriving before my lead man. I suppose I expected him to come in with some story as to why he was late, but he came in at 7:30, with his usual sauntering gate. As he ascended to the working area, on the suspended platform, I saw him say hello to the men he passed.

But he didn't just say hello. The workers were at the conveyor belt, and had to keep their heads down to do their work. Abdoul waited for each worker to look up, and waved at each of them with a closed fist, palm towards them, said each of their names, nodded and said “all right”. One by one they each nodded back. I was moved by his gesture of solidarity with the workers, his acknowledgment of their humanity, and the mutual recognition of their shared circumstances. He did this with each and every employee, and called out to the loader operators on the radio. He didn't just make eye contact, he made a human contact.

I never forgot that lesson. From Abdoul I learned how important it is to acknowledge the humanity of every one I passed. Look them in the eye, make sure they saw me looking, and let them know I was there for them. Not always an easy thing to do with the varying pressures of management weighing down on me. But it became a pleasure. It got me out of my own head and into the real world where I could be of service to my fellow man. And it made my workplace a better place to be.


Phil said...

I am new to blogging and found your's through the link in your profile's "interets." I lived on Staten Island for 2 years. I moved back to my native state of Georgia in 2006. I really miss New York City. I hope I can move back there one day. Of all the cool things I did in NY was getting involved with the Compost Project. Each borough has a compost training certification class, sponsored by the Department of Sanitation and the botanical gardens of each borough. Also "Fat of the Land" is a good read about New York's history of dealing with garbage.

Training Consultants, Inc. said...

Thanks for the tip Phil. I have been meaning to take that composting class. I will definitely pick up that book you suggest, and allow me to suggest "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash" by Elizabeth Royte. Its a personal journal of a woman who decides to find out where all the garbage goes, and a delightful read.

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