When I got my first big break in employment after college, I told an acquaintance that I had been hired by the mental health agency that she had worked for some time previously. I thought that she would be pleased for me.
“My condolences!” she told me. I asked her why she had such a negative view of this company.” I was reprimanded for giving a homeless woman a gift of a book about Alcoholics Anonymous. What kind of company punishes a person for an act of kindness?”
So, I would soon discover that my friend had violated a “boundary” by behaving like a kind friend and not a professional worker. She might have made this homeless woman feel that she “owed her one.” This homeless woman might have misunderstood and thought that they were friends.
I have to say that my friend was correct. Years of experience in human service jobs taught me some very depressing lessons. When you walk into a human service job, you need to have your eyes open as to what you are walking into. Your large mental health agency – whether it serves families and children with mental health issues; people with developmental disabilities; the elderly; or the chronically mental ill; in a clinic or a residence; depends financially on contracts from state and federal government and is accountable to these departments.
The problem is that there is competition and the contract goes to the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder is going to be the agency that pays their line staff the least amount of money and their executive directors the most. Many of my former colleagues have complained to me, “I thought this was a non-profit agency, but the CEO earns $200,000 a year!” Having a non-profit tax status does not mean that the company is not allowed to earn any profit: it means that there will be a Board of Directors instead of a group of shareholders.
There are a whole host of systemic problems connected the agency that puts in the lowest bid getting the contract: they hire the least qualified staff so that they can pay them less; they skimp on the quality of equipment such as using old computers, copiers and printers; and the line staff are considered disposable and easily replaced by someone else. In fact, it saves the company money to eliminate workers who have been with the company for years and replace them with staff who have very little experience.
If you find yourself working with staff who are less qualified, such as they did not finish high school, or they have only a high school diploma, chances are that they are going to view you as a threat if you are better qualified. The problem here too, is that human services become an arena for many individuals who are not much good at anything and have no talents or skills! Their main driving motivation might be to feel superior to someone who has cognitive defects or physical limitations. You might have a relevant degree and strong desire to help others — but that does not mean that the people you are working with share your qualifications or your zeal! In fact, such agencies may be a breeding ground for incompetent managers who are unskilled, dishonest, or bullies: their defects are viewed as assets by upper management. An incompetent manager will deliberately hire under qualified staff, so that he or she can blame them when things inevitably go wrong. So, here are some coworkers to look out for in your human service job:
1.The suck-up to the boss.
So, it is generally a good idea for you to flatter and compliment your supervisor, because everyone else is, and if you do not pepper your encounters with, “you’re the best” and “so much better than that last guy we had,” you may appear to be critical or disapproving — subtly implying that they are incompetent! The down side of the suck-up colleague is that they spent a lot of time complaining about co-workers, and if they cannot think of anything legitimate to find fault with they may make something up or start a fight.
2. The vicious backstabber
The vicious backstabber is going to be the last person that you would suspect. They are nice to your face, but complain behind your back. Quite often they have an associates degree in criminal justice for two reasons: they think like a criminal, and no-one will hire them in that field! They are the person who has been with the company for a really long time, like fifteen to twenty years! Management really trusts them because they have a long history of total lack of loyalty to their colleagues. Always be wary of the person who has been with the company for a really long time.
3. The malicious gossip
This person will warn you about your colleagues and make you scared and paranoid about some harmless person. This is a tactic to take attention off themselves and onto someone else. “Harry isn’t doing his job,” they whisper to you, hoping that you are the one who will get angry and complain about Harry, or “watch out for Mary – she may seem nice but she is really a backstabber,” The malicious gossip is usually someone incompetent, perhaps with a poor work ethic who takes a lot of time off when they are supposed to be working.
4. The crusader
This is someone who has issues with their parents from childhood, and is on a mission to rescue children from cruel parents. The only problem with this is that if they were sufficiently traumatized as a child they will be “triggered’ by any remote resemblance between a perfectly good mother and their abusive mother. This will crop up in the field of working with children, obviously. Being “triggered’ can crop up in other populations such as blaming the parents of mentally ill clients for their child’s illness.
5. The wannabe supervisor
This is someone who is no better qualified than anyone else, and in fact may be less qualified, who makes you uncomfortable by questioning what you are doing. This person might look at their watch and say, at some obvious time like one o’clock, “going home, are you?” which would be ridiculous. Or perhaps the classic, “were you on lunch break?” when you were out doing your job for two hours.
6. The disrespectful jerk
There is that person who never says good morning, or who even does not respond when you say something polite, or worse yet mutters, “keep on walking” under their breath. That person may actually be mentally ill and have some sort of personality disorder! You would never suspect that their churlishness might be a symptom of psychosis. Any normal stable person who works in any company knows that they need to be professionally polite and if they are not — they are nuts!
7. The mentally ill staff person
You do not suspect they may indeed be certifiable because they have a degree and they have been hired. The telltale sign is the fixed smile on their face. No normal person has a permanent smile. Normal people have blank faces and smile when they see someone they know. The mentally ill colleague has always got a smile on their face. There are other signs. Their emotions are totally inappropriate. They may laugh at something sad, or look angry when someone makes a joke.
8. The lazy co-worker
This person coasts along on the backs of his colleagues. He comes in late and leaves early, if he can get away with it. Anyone in a group home who is asked to wash the floor may be the coaster, because this person never washes the floor, and when confronted says that the clients were up at dawn walking all over it in muddy shoes.
9. The briber
This person is well-intentioned but never understood the boundaries rules, and spends their own money on treats for their clients. This would be okay in some situations, but in group situations where the staff rotate, and the clients have cognitive deficits, the clients may get angry with staff who do not spend their own money on treats, and become violent with them.
10. The Instigator
This person wants you to get angry and to go to management and complain about something, but they do not want to do it themselves. They want you to do their dirty work. They start conversations with the intention of making you mad. They say things like, “Did you know that the CEO makes $250,000 a year, and we are still only getting a lousy fourteen bucks an hour?”
So by now, perhaps you are thinking about getting a job in some other field if you are wise. How can you protect yourself from the machinations of your colleagues?
Here are some quick tips for not being harmed by deranged human service coworkers:
1. Have a good sense of humor and laugh off the small stuff.
2. Anticipate hostility and be prepared for it. Do not strike back.
3. Be friendly, helpful, and polite — but do not get too attached to anyone.
4. Be self-sufficient. Do not feel the need to get along with everyone — or anyone.
5. If you find yourself in the middle of two hostile co-workers, do not take a side, but say kindly to both, statements like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this.” but don’t make them feel bad.
So good luck with your career in human services, and you may find that the upside is that the clients that you work with are surprisingly kind, honest and supportive of you! There will, of course, be some genuinely nice people working with you who will become your lifelong friends.
“Young Business Professionals Discussing Seriously” by photostock Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net