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Can I Have This Seat?

During COVID, I worked at a food manufacturing facility. The first few weeks of it, we thought that we'd have to shut down operations and I very much thought that after I delivered the unemployment letters to furloughed employees, that I would be joining them as well. We didn't end up shutting down, in fact we had record setting sales. All of the office employees began working from home, first for two weeks, then two years, then indefinitely. The manufacturing employees continued to report to the office four days a week for 10 hour shifts, all of whom were brought back quickly from furlough. They were

producing more than ever to keep up with demand while navigating every eleventh-hour regulation that came down from seemingly every government agency.

It was difficult enough for employees who continued to work through COVID behind the scenes in manufacturing, I can't imagine the stress for those who worked in hospitals, and every front-line worker that had to deal with the idiocy of the public on a daily basis. It was hard for HR as well. I never stopped going into the office. Partially was because my boss, the COO, was also going in everyday to support the operations team. But I also felt I had a duty to show up for the employees that were there. I suddenly took on janitorial responsibilities of sanitizing the production building a couple times a day with anti-bacterial wipes. I wanted to be there for the employees who preferred to walk into my office to ask questions or make a general complaint. And to be completely honest, I wanted to be there so I didn't get left out of conversations.

Since there was the sole HR person in the company, I didn't get a lot of support. I have nothing bad to say about the COO, I got along with him great, but he was an old-school guy who was close to retirement that didn't provide a lot of feedback. I loved that he just let me do my job and didn't micromanage...well, he really didn't manage at all...but I didn't mind, I just kept my head down and did my work. I spent most of my days going to the State website to literally read all the new bills that were being signed by the governor to figure out all these new COVID labor and pay laws. We had employees in eight different states that I was also adding to my research.

I would have employees coming to my office to complain that the company wasn't doing enough. I had some that complained because they felt the company was doing too much and overstepping. Then came the murder of George Floyd where our CEO decided to implement anti-racism training, where I received complaints that the company was overstepping, and some complaining that the company wasn't doing enough. Then came the Biden/Trump election of 2020. The CEO of the company made no secret of who she supported. So came the complaints from employees who said the company was being too biased. And to start the 2021 year, came the release of the COVID vaccine, where the company announced they were going to require every employee to get it. I'm sure you know where this one is headed.

I was rarely involved in any of these meetings. The organization operated very top-down. The executive team held closed-door meetings everyday. The COO absolutely hated it. Everyday he had to go into those meetings, he turned into the Robert Downey, Jr. eye rolling meme. And that was part of the reason why we got along so well. He told me upfront that he thought I should be part of those meetings, but the CEO preferred discussions to only be with the C-Suite. You know, because they always make the best decisions.

What makes that frustrating for us HR peeps, other than the obvious of not getting a seat at the table on decisions that directly affect us, but we also don't get the context of those decisions yet we have to be on the frontline of communication. They decide that they are mandating vaccines, the COO walks out of the meeting and into my office to let me know. He asks the process of how we can obtain those vaccine cards. I look at the HRIS to see if there's a way for employees upload those documents. I relay to the COO that we can in fact do that and I proceed to get that set up. All the while in the background, I'm researching to check on the legality of it and reading attorney and SHRM opinions on if it's a good idea or not. I then am asked to send the email to employees letting them know that they are required to be vaccinated by such-and-such date, provide the procedures, and of course add the fine print of a bona fide medical or religious exemption. *Click send*

Then comes the onslaught of emails. Am I going to get fired if I don't get the vaccine? I work from home in another state, do I have to get it? What if I have an allergic reaction? Don't you think this puts a liability on the company? My mom got the vaccine and had a bad reaction, so I don't want to get it. Do I still have to? I'm a very religious person who has never once previously displayed my strongly held religious belief, but this is suddenly against my religion, and before you say "there's other employees here of that same religion that are getting the vaccine," this is how I've interpreted it and I am free to practice it how I feel. (An actual request for exemption that I received.)

I can't even tell you the amount of times I read an email, put my face in my hands, and audibly said to myself "I don't f*^&ing know." It was hard to respond to employees when I didn't know what the discussions were around the decisions. I had to give them my own reasons. When employees asked if they were going to be fired, I literally had no idea how strongly the executives felt in that situation. I could understand the requirement for employees who worked in production because they were coming into the office, working side by side, and we couldn't afford to have a waive of illness sweep through the team and shut down operations. The WFH graphic designer that lived in another state who I've never even seen in person? I really didn't care if they get the vaccine or not. But I had to be the one to mandate it so we would be fair and consistent, but I didn't have a clue if that's how the decision-makers also felt? Would they give them a pass? Were they taking a hard stance on every single employee getting vaccinated? I wouldn't know because I wasn't involved.

I felt stressed through COVID and all of the other events that were happening during that time. It was one of the only times in my HR career where I felt burnt out. I was just tired of it. The whole world was. But I was tired of having to be the one to always have the answers on the fly. Why was HR expected to know how to handle everything? There was a point where we made it through the thick of it and I was pretty happy with the work I had done. We didn't have much turnover. We continued to expand into other states. And I gave myself a little pat on my back of how I was able to navigate through all the laws that came down the line and stay compliant. We held our first All-Employee meeting since the start of COVID on Zoom at the end of 2020. I sat in the conference room with the four other in-office employees and the meeting started with the CEO giving thanks and kudos to...all of the C-Suite executives, going on the thank the COO for all his great work he's done in human resources. I remember feeling deflated at that moment and I nonchalantly looked towards the COO to see him shift a bit in seat as if he felt a bit uncomfortable for taking praise for something he didn't do on his own.

I'm not one to *need* recognition, but you know, it's nice to get it occasionally. Never in my life had I felt anxiety over a job. I've been frustrated, I've been angry, I've been disappointed, but never anxious. I honestly developed an anxiety at this job that still lingers within me today even as I've moved on to another company. I constantly was questioning how I was performing. My boss never conducted a performance review with me, even though they were required by the CEO. I got good raises and was told, "Thanks for your work," but never a "Good job!" "Thank you for everything you did on [specific project]." "I really appreciate the work you're doing!" And on the other hand, I never got a "Not so good job." "I need you to improve in these areas." "Here's exactly what I'm looking for on this." Nothing. For three years, nothing. I constantly was questioning myself. I went home from that All-Employee meeting wondering why I wasn't recognized. Does the CEO think I'm not doing a good job? Does my manager complain about me? Do they think I'm an idiot? That became my constant internal dialogue. I even asked my manager point blank if he could give me some feedback and he said, "I think you're doing good." OK, good? Not great? Anything specific? Have I done bad on anything? Holy sh*t, I've never been in my head so much.

For the three years I worked at this company, I never figured out where my place was. If I stepped up and took something on myself, I felt like they were thinking that I needed to stay in my lane. If I did less, I felt like they thought I wasn't doing enough. It was a miserable existence to be in that place. I just wanted to have a seat at the table. It was incredibly difficult to do my job without it. The marketing department would have all-departmental meetings every week, same with accounting, and same with production. I wasn't an executive so I definitely wasn't included in those meetings. I was a department of one and I felt like Forrest Gump walking through the bus, "can't sit here."

When I decided to leave that company, I actually wanted to leave HR completely. I just didn't like the dynamics of working with an executive team. The need of having to have a seat at their table to do my job effectively but not being invited. Maybe that was just my ego, but it was a lonely feeling, a feeling of never thinking I was good enough to have a seat at that table. It forced me to do a lot of soul-searching and wondering if perhaps I just wasn't good at my job. Maybe they're just not that into me. When I looked for my next job, I had a better idea of what I wanted and what I didn't want. Even though I desperately wanted to leave that company, I didn't want to just take whatever I could get so I patiently waited for the right opportunity to come along. I did end up staying in HR as a department of one but with a completely different dynamic. I even took a slight decrease in my salary for this new opportunity because I knew it would be a better fit. There's still times when I feel left out of a conversation or I think management is making a bad decision and I have to talk myself through whether I should speak up about it or if I should let it go. That's just HR though, it comes with the territory. Really, that should be the top bullet points of an HR's job description:

  • The ability to determine if you need to speak up or bite your tongue and move on.

  • Detail-oriented, highly organized, and skilled in bottling up feelings and not taking things so personally.

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