Open Door – Worn, But Fully Functional

The “Open Door” stories are all composites. Real situations I have faced in one form or another, but written with respect to those who have shared parts of their lives with me at work. And if you’ve worked in HR very long, you have dozens like these.

I had spent the better part of two weeks working with people who had a decision to make. Should they take an early retirement opportunity, or should they keep at their current jobs. Late on a Thursday afternoon, Mel was standing in my doorway, holding two folders bulging with paperwork.

“You got a few minutes for this old buzzard?” He looked exhausted.

“You bet,” I told him. “But why doesn’t he ask me himself?”

Fence at Little Five Points, Atlanta

Mel chuckled as he walked in. “There ain’t many out there older than me, you know. You know’d it was me I was talkin’ about.”

Of course I knew. And I was pretty sure I knew why he was stopping by.

“So it looks to me like you went to the financial seminar this week, and my guess is you have this all figured out, right?”

“I do,” Mel told me. “The man from the savings plan was pretty good. He explained everything I needed to know about what will happen if I pull the trigger on this retirement thing. What choices I have to make right now, which ones I have to make later. He told us to check with a tax advisor before making any big moves. He even told us we could do nothing with the money for a while, seein’ as how we might get a severance check. There’s just one thing he didn’t tell us. What am I supposed to do?”

“Well, first, you sign the forms we gave you, then you call the benefits center, and then”…

“No!” Mel stopped me. “What am I supposed to do with my time? What do I do with me? Susie and me had talked about travel ‘n all, but I can’t do that now. I can’t do it without her. I can’t barely get going most days since she passed.”

Mel’s wife received her cancer diagnosis way too late to do much about it. They had a little time to do a few things they hoped to do later in life, but she was gone too soon. And now, 10 months later, Mel had an opportunity to leave a little early. Only that looked like another ending to him. And he wasn’t ready for that.

“You can stay, you know,” I told him. “This is optional. If it doesn’t meet your needs, you shouldn’t take it.” I can’t give you advice on this. I can just say you need to do what you think will be best for you.”

“But I know my boss doesn’t like me. I know he’s hoping I take this. I may look a little worn, but I’m fully functional. He’d regret it if I left.”

He was right on both counts. His current team leader didn’t recognize the value, only the blemishes. What looks like rust and chipped paint on an old iron gate was really the experience of 35 years. Mel still had a lot to offer. He wasn’t one of those guys who lived in the past, he had a genuine interest in making things better than before.

“Look,” I told him. “I’m not going anywhere. If you are worried about George forget it. He can’t make you take this, and he won’t make you wish you did. I’ll make sure of that. If you can look me in the eye and tell me you’ll keep bringing that same work ethic with you every morning that you have for all these years, that’s all I need to know. It’s your choice. No strings attached.”

I wasn’t surprised when the deadline passed and Mel’s papers were never signed. He tried, but he wasn’t ready to walk away. His family and friends were the people he worked with, and he needed them right now more than anything. He did sell the house though, and moved to something smaller and easier to manage. And true to his word, he brought that same strong ethic to work everyday until about three years later, when he was ready to leave.

There’s not much more enjoyable about work for me than working with people who are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. Mel’s last few years were among his best at work. Because he chose to be there and he didn’t need to be.

We can’t all say we are working when we don’t need to. But we all have the choice to do work we enjoy and can grow from. How about you?

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