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Employees still need a safe harbor

Wed., Oct. 19, 2005

Glenn Horstman’s office was always right next to an outside entrance, so nobody in the Human Resources department could see his visitors. With slick-backed hair, the fidgets befitting the recovering alcoholic that he was, and a demeanor that screamed “I’ve seen it all, buddy, you ain’t gonna surprise me,” Horstman was the perfect employee assistance director in the early ‘80s before he retired.

Confidentiality was his currency. Nobody was supposed to see who visited him and he kept no notes. He had personally struggled with practically every problem an employee might encounter. He wasn’t a refined “suit,” and his most important degree was the one from the school of hard knocks. He was a quietly confident guy with unquestioned integrity who knew how much hurt employees could feel. He could just as easily call a phony a phony and he despised whiners, complainers and victims. That made him THE person employees and management could trust. Employees knew he would find them help and would never betray them. Executives knew if Glenn told them something, they were taking a huge risk if they ignored him.

There were countless Glenn Horstmans across America, employee assistance counselors who made every relationship meaningful, confidential and focused only on finding solutions. But employee assistance became corporatized in the ‘90s. Health insurance, concerns about privacy and the bottom line made many employee assistance programs appear distant, impersonal and numbers-focused. Simultaneously, many human resource departments were perceived as “management” and less trustworthy. Employees had fewer places to go for help. We lost something dear when that happened.

Cut to the present. Kristin Evenson can charm fish out of water with her 10 million-watt smile. She’s an experienced businesswoman who dealt with some of the country’s largest companies. Evenson, the founder of LifeWork Corporate Care in Minneapolis, is now intent upon promoting corporate chaplaincy into today’s challenged workplaces.

Her passionate description of how workplace chaplains are “confidential, accessible and available” resonated for me. She explained that confidentiality is crucial, but so is the actual presence of a chaplain. Evenson is convinced the need for chaplains is more urgent because of the short-term financial orientation of so many companies. She worries the instability of work forces increases the need for the kind of guidance chaplains can offer. She cites numbers that show disengagement and absenteeism are rising.

Evenson surprised me when she said in addition to those problems, productivity is suffering because so many employees are seeking greater meaning and purpose. Since I advocate for such meaning I was ready to argue with her until she explained that when employees lack that sense of deeper meaning and purpose their engagement with their job is undermined. She believes ecumenical chaplains are part of the answer.

Tip for your search: Try to spend a few hours a day shedding your self-interest. Do your work with high quality as the only goal without considering how comfortable it makes you. In the same way, pay special attention to the people you encounter and try to understand their perspective and shed your own.

Resource for your search: “Church on Sunday, Work on Monday,” by Laura Nash, Scotty McLennan (Jossey-Bass, 2001).


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