The Brightest Star

The darkest nights produce the brightest stars. — John Green


I first spoke to her in July 2018. I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet her a month prior at SHRM Conference 2018, but I had heard nothing but positive things about her. I needed help, so I emailed her. She replied, and I could read the enthusiasm in her email. We set up a phone call, and a few days later, we spoke for the first time.

“Hi, Paul, this is Callie. It’s so awesome to talk with you finally!” She helped me with my challenge, and a friendship was born.

A few months later, I got to meet Callie in person for the first time. The #StatelineCrew met at Hofbräuhaus Chicago for our second ever meeting. Mary Williams and I got their first. As we were catching up, Callie came in. She walked right up to me and gave me a hug. It was natural. No awkward first hugs for Callie. We sat together on the German bierhall style benches. We conversed. We broke pretzels. We clinked Biersteins. Most importantly, we laughed.

We did it again in February 2019, only this time in her hometown of Kenosha, WI. Her and I sat together and talked. She had a Bloody Mary, and followed it with a beer chaser – a common WI tradition!

As other members of the #StatelineCrew talked, Callie and I had an awesome one-on-one. She told me about some of her work challenges and how she was overcoming them. We discussed some of the happenings at SHRM National, and she told me she got wind of who was being booked as the Conference entertainment! A true professional, she wouldn’t budge on spilling the beans – even when I offered to buy her another Bloody Mary and chaser! I even offered to throw in beer battered cheese curds to sweeten the pot. She wouldn’t budge. I respected the hell outta that. (It ended up being Lionel Ritchie. I guessed Brittney Spears or Lady Gaga. Close, Paul. Oh, so close.)

A few weeks or so after that #StatelineCrew meet up, I got a Twitter DM from Mary Kaylor asking me if I’d like to join the SHRM Blogger Team for 2019. I was so excited and taken aback! ME?!?! Awesome sauce! But why me? I hadn’t even met Mary at this point, so how did she know who I was? Mary told me that Callie reached out to her and told her that I’d be a great addition to the team.

I messaged Callie: I got an amazing DM from Mary today. You recommended me to be a #SHRM19 blogger! I am so humbled you thought about me. You totally made my day, Callie!!! Thank you.”

Callie replied, in her trademark fashion: “Don’t mess this up!” 😊

Since then, we met at other #StatelineCrew meet ups. We emailed. We interacted on social media. We met at Illinois SHRM Leadership Conference. Callie presented to the Kishwaukee Association of Human Resources in Sycamore, IL. (She blew the roof off the house).

Our last in person meeting was at SHRM Conference in Las Vegas. We were at the Midwest Chapters Social Meetup. Callie and I were chatting one-on-one. She mentioned she was not feeling well. She was tired and didn’t know why. I told her I could tell something wasn’t right. I then confided in her something. I wanted her to know. She looked me in the eye, and I won’t forget what she told me. It was comforting. We hugged, and we went our separate ways socializing.

We didn’t see each other again. I won’t forget the night she messaged me to tell me about her diagnosis. I was gob smacked – helpless, other than offering words of encouragement, what could I do? What should I do? There was nothing to do other than that – be a friend. It’s what she needed.

I DM’ed her words of encouragement. I texted. I sent her a birthday card. She sent me a thank you card that I hung on the fridge. It won’t leave the fridge for a while.

The last communication I received from her was a text letting me know her fight was coming to an end. I thought about her family. I was heartbroken, but her family, my God, I felt for her and for them.

Callie was my friend, and now she’s gone to the eternity to which we all must enter. I will miss her. However, her influence will remain. A quick search on social media proves her influence was strong, and it will be a lasting influence.

Like the brightest stars, she didn’t last as long as others, but she burned brighter, and that is important to remember.

The last message I sent to Callie is below. I want to share it. I want people to know how important she was to the world. I want people to know that she was important, impactful, and inspiring. Callie was someone who has touched my life in ways she may never know, but if others know, then her spirt can live on. She deserves to live on in any way life will allow.

Callie, we’ve only known each other for a little over a year or so. Despite this, you’ve made a powerful impact on my life. You may not realize how important and meaningful you’ve been in my world. I want you to know that I’m so very thankful for our time together. Thank you for being there for me – especially in moments you weren’t likely aware that you were. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your world. I’m honored you let me in.

HR, Kindness, and Being a Street Level Influencer

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” – Seneca


I was scrolling through LinkedIn the other day when I saw a video of a young kid being cheered on by his classmates when attempting to break a wooden plank with a karate kick.

He kept failing. As the child struggled, his team around him began to cheer him on. He kept failing. His team began to chant his name. He again failed. His team began to chant his name louder. He then eventually broke through, and a loud cheer went out as his team piled on him in celebration!

It was really awesome to see. It was beautiful, really. These kids instinctually rallied around their guy, and celebrated as he succeeded. It was wholesome altruistic joy!

Then I began to think about it. Why was this scene so awesome? Should it be? Is it awesome because it’s seemingly rare? We get choked up because this childlike innocence inevitably evaporates the minute the “real world” (whatever that means) begins to break that innocence.

It isn’t a new question. Boiled down to it, it’s asking essentially, are people naturally good or naturally bad? It’s a question as old as human thought.

Are people naturally inclined to cheer for one another and lift each other up when they witness someone fall, or are people naturally inclined to tear one other apart when they’re down?

Maybe the answer is more complicated, but again, I ask, should it be?

I think about this question and its implications in HR. The field has so many positive, good natured people in it! I’ve met so many, and continue meeting many others. These HR folks are the ones that stand up and cheer when employees finally break through their perceived limits to shatter a wooden plank. These HR practitioners truly care about all employees and helping to put them in positions to succeed.

For HR to be truly respected as an organizational function – strategic, tactically, transitional, or otherwise – the answer is simple. HR professionals cannot afford to be thought of as anything but naturally good. HR professionals must work harder than others to ensure that employees turn to us with confidence.

I don’t think we’re there yet.

When I was walking through the Las Vegas airport following SHRM National Conference, I was wearing some free swag. My shirt said “What Happens in Vegas Gets Reported to HR.” I thought it was cleaver and funny – at least initially.

As I walked through the airport, I felt many eyes gravitate towards me. A few people stopped me and said,

“That’s too good!”

“Man, that’s true!”

“Ain’t that the truth! Don’t go to HR!”

I felt slightly embarrassed, admittedly. I was trying to have some fun with my profession, but instead, I was bringing some negativity to it.

These interactions, however seemingly small, can’t be taken lightly. At least I didn’t take them lightly. There is still a prevailing stigma that HR isn’t there to help people. HR is there to uphold “the law,” keep employees in their place, or mess up their open enrollment process.

This should obviously not be interpreted as universal! There are PLENTY of examples of HR departments that rise to the occasion – plenty that go above and beyond to bridge relationships, build trust, and act justly.

However, maybe not enough?

Regardless, the tide has been turning for a while. With high profile HR influencers making waves and disrupting the fabric of the industry, HR is finally being seen as a strategic necessity by many in the C-Suite.

HR influencers have helped lead the way at a global level, but equally important – some could argue more important – is that HR pros at the street level need to become influencers as well. They need to become influencers at the street level. You don’t need to be on any grand list to make a difference! To make a difference in one person’s life is easier than you think!

Simply notice when they need you, and be there for them – be there for them at the moment when they need you the most. All you need to do is smile at an employee who hasn’t been smiled at in a while. Take a selfie with an employee and ask to put it in the employee newsletter as a shout out! Listen to them – really listen to them! Be kind, oh for Heaven’s sake be kind.

All it takes is an uncompromising attitude of being relentlessly kind! You may not be able to control the attitudes of a cruel CEO, the benefit packages that don’t seem generous enough, or the overall morale of the workplace. But you can ALWAYS control your own actions and attitude. So, take that power within and use it to light the world around you.

None of these ideas are new, I know, but sometimes we need reminders! It’s why my office is littered with post-it-notes! The next time you see an employee trying to break a wooden plank, for the love of God STOP THEM! You don’t need a worker’s comp case on your hands!

But then, ask them what they need, and feverishly try to help them achieve it.

Above all, be kind; be there for your people; be HR.

The Importance of Spontaneity in D&I

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu


Indianapolis is a hidden gem, I believe. When discussing up and coming or unique urban centers, I rarely hear people discuss Indy. It has everything you’d want in an urban area! Food, entertainment, craft beer, and reasonable cost of living. Most of all, it has examples of diversity and inclusion in spades — especially for a Midwestern city in a state not necessarily known for D&I.

My in-laws live in the Holy Cross Neighborhood of Indy, which is a historic neighborhood on the near eastside of the city’s downtown.

On a recent visit, I wanted some fresh air, so I decided to go for a walk around the block. I observed quite a bit of activity. The neighborhood is being heavily gentrified, but in a unique way. Gentrification generally has a connotation of wealthy (mostly white) individuals rebuilding neighborhoods at the expense of poor (mostly minority) individuals who are essentially kicked out.

As I walked around, I didn’t see a lot of gentrification in those terms, though. Yes, I saw a massive rebuilding of a once runned down neighborhood for sure. Home after home was being remodeled and rebuilt with the intent of leasing or flipping, I imagine. I saw gentrification, but it didn’t look how it “should.”

What I saw was a beautifully eclectic intersection of America. I saw several white families working on rebuilding their homes and/or investments. I saw several black families working on rebuilding their homes and/or investments. I saw several Hispanic families rebuilding their homes and/or investments. They were all neighbors – doing this work next to one another.

I saw several gay couples mowing their lawns and or doing yard work. I saw a woman wearing a hijab getting her mail with a toddler playing in the front yard. I saw American flags, gay pride flag, flags of countries I didn’t recognize, Indy flags, Colts football flags (to this Bears fan’s dismay), and dozens of “All Are Welcome Here” lawn signs – written in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

I saw people of all colors jogging through the neighborhood. Amid the backdrop noises of hammers pounding nails and lawnmowers mowing grass, I saw, heard, and felt harmony and peace.


While being a positive place on the surface, Holy Cross is not paradise. As I was waking, I saw a black family being visited by an Indianapolis Police squad car. A person who looked like the father (or possibly the head of the household) was using his phone to video the police from the front porch. This is a scene that likely plays out all over America every day. Nothing happened that I saw, thankfully, and the police drove away. But the man wasn’t recording it for no reason.

I saw several homeless sleeping on a park bench or walking with all their worldly possessions in their torn and disheveled backpacks. I saw grimy needles next to a dumpster. I don’t want to assume why the needles were there. I don’t know for sure. All I know is I saw them laying next to a home with beautiful bushes and flowers springing up through the mud below.

Holy Cross isn’t perfect. Yet, despite its imperfections, or maybe because of them, there is clearly something interesting going on in this Midwestern neighborhood in the heart of Indiana. Indianapolis bills itself as the “Crossroads of America.” Holy Cross is an intersection of so much diversity and, I’d argue, inclusion! It’s beautiful to see, warts and all.

Holy Cross is both intentional and spontaneous. Intentional because all gentrification is on purpose. Clearly, the residents of this neighborhood are acting purposefully in their daily routines and construction projects. Spontaneous because there seems to be no pattern to why or how this gentrification is happening. There’s no uniformity in how anything is happening, and it’s beautiful to see. People of all backgrounds, colors, races, nationalities are working side-by-side to reinvest in a beautiful neighborhood.

Much like the diversity and inclusion in Holy Cross, diversity and inclusion in our workplaces needs to be intentional, yet we cannot discount the power of spontaneity.

HR needs to advocate for D&I as an organizational priority. It needs to set the tone by explaining expectations of interactions and behaviors. It needs to set goals and measure them. All these acts are intentional. Yet, that’s where it should end. Give the direction, and then get out of people’s way. Let employees be spontaneous in their dealings with one another.

Spontaneity shouldn’t be feared in the D&I context. If it is, then why hire people if you can’t trust them to do the right thing once you set the tone?

Spontaneity allows groups to figure out on their own how to mesh and jive. It allows people to work together on their own terms in ways others from above wouldn’t have thought of or considered. It allows for an organic growth of mutual understanding and adaptability. And, just as importantly, if not most importantly, it allows for true ownership from the groups involved. They can look at their shared results that they did it on their own with each others help, not from help of the boss who “forced” D&I onto the masses.

That type of positive development cannot come from above. It cannot be dictated.

Now, spontaneity can sometimes yield negative results – sure. People are messy and sometimes don’t act in accordance with what is correct or appropriate.

However, in the workplace, that’s where HR steps in to kindly and gently (in best case scenarios) or forcefully and strictly (in worst case scenarios) guide staff back in the right direction. D&I is something we need to tend to regularly, like rebuilding a home. Yet, we cannot discount that the people in that home know what’s best at times, not those walking past observing the world through a different pair of glasses.

A key to successful D&I initiatives is acceptance and understanding of those involved. That can only come through working one on one and living side by side. Allow people to do that and good things can happen. Trust and let go. People generally do the right thing, and if they don’t, use the system to step in and help them see the error of their ways.

I Used to Wear My Shirt in the Pool: Don’t Let Others Steal Your Self-Worth

What you think, you become. What you feel, you attract. What you imagine, you create. – Buddha


Quick side note: In my last #HRPhilosopher blog post, I discussed one of my favorite bands ever, Killswitch Engage. Their new album dropped yesterday, and if you’re of the heavier musical persuasion, I highly recommend taking a listen if you haven’t already! #BangTheHeadThatDoesntBang #HRMetal

I was that kid who wore his t-shirt into the pool.

At #SHRM19 I had the opportunity to talk with Steve Browne. Any time I have that opportunity, I saver it. As we were sharing a pint and a laugh, I shared that his influence was helping me be more intentional about doing things I normally wouldn’t do. For example, I told Steve, I normally hated my smile and never showed my teeth because they’re crooked, but that I was intentionally showing my teeth when I smiled at the Conference.

In his authentic empathetic style, Steve looked me in the eye with an almost sad look. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Paul, I would have never noticed if you didn’t tell me.”

A lightbulb went off in my mind as if I was struck by the HR god of lightning. Can you imagine Thor as the HR Director? I believe the Employee Handbook would be so much more interesting! But I digress.

Image result for thor yes gif

My lightbulb/lightning moment: The only person who notices your crooked teeth is you! By and large, people don’t notice or care! Or, should I say, the people who matter, don’t notice or care.

That’s the point. Some people will notice, and those people will try to exert power over you. Don’t let them.

I have dealt with weight issues since the sixth grade. It’s a part of my history. It’s a part of whom I am as a person. I wore a shirt in the pool because I didn’t want people to see my tubby body. I was embarrassed. However, I was missing the point.

The white t-shirt was a symbol of my giving other people power over me. I was too worried about their seemingly judgmental eyes and thoughts.

By my hiding my teeth, I gave others power over me. I was worried about their seemingly judgmental eyes and thoughts.

Key word: Seemingly. Eyes and thoughts only hurt you if you let them. And I let them. What I felt, I attracted. I felt embarrassed, so I was embarrassed — despite having nothing to really be embarrassed about! My thoughts became my reality.

Thoughts are powerful – so powerful that you become the sum of your thoughts. Whatever you think about yourself, there you are.

Use this line of thinking in all areas of your life, and especially in your career when you hit those inevitable challenges. Lack of training? Ineffective communication? A lousy manager? Toxic workplace culture? Don’t let your thoughts give these things power over you. As Karlyn Borysenko says in Zen Your Work, “You are the only person who controls the stories you tell yourself.” So take control. Don’t allow negativity to destroy your inner self-worth and sense of who you are.

In Stoic thought, this is known as the “reverse clause.” It’s a backup option. It is using your reason and strength of mind to find a way out and turn the situation on its head.

Lack of training? An opportunity to teach yourself some new skills or find a new mentor to teach you what you need to know!

Ineffective communication? An opportunity to experiment and try new communication channels in your workplace!

A lousy manager? An opportunity to work on your patience and self-control!

Toxic workplace culture? Your job is not a life sentence! An opportunity to update your resume and test your networking skills!

I recently told a friend who has known me for only a year and a half, “I used to be almost 300 lbs.” They remarked in disbelief: “What!? I can’t believe that.”

Believe it, I said. It was true, but I was sick of it being true, and I decided to change the story, so I worked hard for two years shedding almost 100 lbs. It was difficult, yet easy. Difficult because losing weight and changing your lifestyle is HARD. It was easy because I made up my mind that this was my new reality. In the end, my thoughts led to my new reality.

I’ve since gained some of it back. You can take control of your thoughts, but you can’t take control of biology and time. However, I don’t wear my shirt in the pool anymore. I’ve decided to change that story. Now, I’m just showing off my incredibly enviable dad-bod. It’s all the rage these days! And damnit, I’m rocking it!

Silence is Acceptance: HR Cannot Avoid Talking about Mental Health

Killswitch Engage.

“I see myself in you, I know you can make it through.” – I Am Broken Too by Killswitch Engage, Lyrics by Jesse Leach

There is always more going on behind the veil.

I was 18 years old when I first heard Killswitch Engage. 2002 was a strange time in heavy music history. Nu metal acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were dying out or losing steam while legacy acts like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, or even the likes of Slayer and Testament, were not yet in full recovery.

Something had to fill the void. And something did. Enter Killswitch Engage – godfathers of the “metalcore” scene, which combined thrashy riffage, harsh melodic death metal vocals, and lyrics that dug deep into societal issues.

The moment I heard Jesse Leach, vocalist for KSE in 2002, belt “THE TIME APPROACHES!” in Numbered Days, the opening track of Alive or Just Breathing, I was a different person. I was hooked and immediately stopped everything I was doing and ran to Best Buy to buy the CD! Do people still buy CDs at Best Buy? Anyway….

And then, in a blink of an eye, it seemed over for KSE. Vocalist Jesse Leach abruptly left the band. I was crushed. Another amazing up and coming band was seemingly undone by egos and selfishness.

Thankfully, the band continued and released some classic tunes with Howard Jones replacing Leach. KSE continued stronger than ever blasting hits like the emotional The End of Heartache and their interesting take on Holy Diver from Dio fame.

And then, it all happened again! Howard Jones left the band abruptly, and all seemed lost. Again, typical Rockstar ego and selfishness destroyed a great thing.

Or did it?

Eventually, after KSE held tryouts for yet another new vocalist, Jesse Leach rejoined the band! And then the story came out.

Jesse Leach had struggled with mental health during his first stint with KSE, and truly, his entire life. It had gotten so bad that he couldn’t function as a bandmate anymore and was forced to leave KSE.

In addition, Howard Jones also struggled mightily with mental health challenges, including an almost suicide attempt, which forced him to leave the band, as well.

We’ve all reached rock bottom. Some of our rock bottoms are lower than others. Many don’t understand why people act the way they do. Many don’t understand mental health in general. That’s OK, but it’s not an excuse for those individuals to not show empathy and support.

Unfortunately, the stigma of mental health in society is still rampant. I thought we were better, and people can be, but we have a long way to go.

This morning, I received my daily SHRM email with the title “The Workplace Stigma of Mental Illness.” The article “Mental Illness and the Workplace” is a good read. A theme is that to stamp out stigma, we must be willing to discuss situations and have hard uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise, stigma has unfettered environment to grow strong and rooted.

“It’s hard to be the first to talk about mental health,” says Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer. “To have someone like Joel say he’s going to a therapist and what he’s working on paves the way for someone else to say something about what they’re going through.”

Talking about “it,” whatever “it” is, is paramount. HR professionals NEED to talk about mental health in their workplace. HR professionals need to be sounding boards for others. HR professionals need to be advocates for employees.

Why HR? Because we are uniquely situated to handle such conversations. As the old joke goes, HR is part administrator, part lawyer, and part psychologist. People inherently go to HR with their concerns. We are trusted, and we have a responsibility to read between the lines and look for signs of mental health challenges. We ARE NOT doctors and should refrain from diagnoses. However, we can see signs and probe and try to get people to open up about bigger underlying issues. And from there, we need to be advocates and ask how we can help, if we can help.

While HR should take a lead, that doesn’t excuse anyone else from avoiding such conversations. No one should avoid these hard discussions. Too much is on the line. The mental health crisis in the United States (and across the world) is not going to get solved without discussion. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. – 43.8 million, or 18.5% – experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. – 9.8 million, or 4.0% – experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13 – 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8 – 15, the estimate is 13%.
  • 6.9% of adults in the U.S. – 16 million – had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
  • 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias.
  • Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5% – 10.2 million adults – had a co-occurring mental illness.

The consequences of inaction for families, friends, coworkers, businesses, and society in general:

  • Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
  • Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18 – 40.
  • Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. Adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 10 – 34.
  • More than 90% of people who die by suicide show symptoms of a mental health condition.
  • Each day an estimated 18 – 22 veterans die by suicide.

And yet the stigma persists. Comments are made and go unchallenged.

“Joe just doesn’t care about his work as much as others do.”

“Keyshaun took a month off work? Wish I could just leave work like that.”

“Diane’s behavior is so rude and irritating. Why can’t she just be happy?”

It happens frequently unfortunately. The stigma remains unchallenged. Joe does care. He just doesn’t have the internal strength right now. Keyshaun isn’t on vacation. He’s battling the urges to put a gun in his mouth. Diane can’t just “suck it up.” Being happy is a choice, yes, but mental health battles can rob people of their choices. It’s hard to explain and can’t be unless you’ve gone through those challenges.

At work, whether you’re in HR, the receptionist desk, the frontline on production, the janitorial crew, or in the C-Suite, if you come across such conversations, don’t just walk away or be silent.

Silence is acceptance, and we cannot accept this type of behavior anymore. Our family and friends and coworkers need us all to support them – to be their strength when they have none to give.

I am not writing anything new or groundbreaking. Google “work conversations mental health” and 172,000,000 articles pop up. I don’t care. I’m not trying to be innovative or new on this.

I am trying to do my part by being open, honest, and direct. I am trying to do my part in furthering necessary conversations. I am trying to do my part in letting others know it’s OK to talk about mental health – no, it’s NECESSARY to talk about mental health in the workplace, and in general. Someone’s life literally depends on it. Isn’t that cause enough to be brave, strong, and unrepentant in having those conversations?

There is no other answer than “yes.” And if you are reading this and cannot relate, please find someone to talk to about their mental health experiences. The only way to understand is to seek understanding. If your brother suffers from cancer, do you tell them to “suck it up! Just be happy!” If someone suffered from a heart attack, do you show contempt for them by saying “what a wuss. Pull yourself together.” If not, why would you say that to someone who’s brain isn’t giving them the opportunity to live as well as they deserve? Be kind. Be empathetic. Be overly so.

I encourage you and challenge you to lead a conversation.

I still listen to Killswitch Engage. And thankfully, they’ve even made amends with Howard Jones. Jesse Leach and Howard have never had a beef, and the band to their credit invited Howard to join them on tours, as well as a guest spot on their new upcoming album! I’m stoked!

For their kindness, tenacity, and edge, KSE are one of my favorite bands ever. Not just because they make great music to my ears, but because their musical themes matter beyond superficial things. Since Jesse Leach rejoined the band, he’s been unabashedly open about his mental health struggles. He says talking about mental health should be as common as discussing a sprained ankle.

And for his part, he’s lived those words by penning amazing lyrics that let others know they are not alone.

Songs like “All in Due Time” and “Cut Me Loose” are powerful reminders that no one needs to suffer alone.

And with their newest song “I Am Broken Too,” KSE continue to do their part demonstrating the power of conversation by pledging profits from the song to Hope for the Day, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention through proactive outreach and mental health education.

As Jesse so eloquently states his motivation for writing the songs he does:

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a language for it, and I didn’t have people around me talking about it or bringing it to light by saying words like depression or anxiety or bipolar,” Leach says. “It was not talked about.

 “I’ve lost people to suicide, and you didn’t see it coming because they weren’t talking about it. [It’s] something as simple as telling someone you’re not doing OK and having a discussion about it. As simple as that sounds, it’s a game-changer.”

I challenge everyone, HR practitioners and those who don’t understand mental health issues especially, in being a game-changer for someone in need. A life may seriously depend on it. Remember, there is always more beyond the veil.


So You’ve Ruined Your Life: Embrace It

“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” – Marcus Aurelius


One of my favorite shows of all time is the Simpsons. I am juuuuust young enough (or old enough) where I don’t remember a time that the show hasn’t been on TV. I grew up with it, and it pretty much shaped many of my favorite memories growing up! My friends and I would spend HOURS laughing and joking about Simpsons’ references.

Even today, I make connections with other Simpsons fans by sneaking Simpsons phrases into casual conversations. When I nonchalantly say “stop, stop, he’s already dead” or “you’re dumb as a mule and twice as ugly” or “Lisa needs braces” or “everyone is stupid except me” – like Captain America, I could do this all day – many people who “get it” will instantly laugh.

There’s a running joke between me and my boss, who is a baby boomer (I tell you that for context). The joke is I am only aware of things she references because it was on the Simpsons. Tennessee Williams, Rear Window, John Waters, the Beatles, Watergate, Thelma and Louise, A Clockwork Orange… I could go on and on. Right or wrong, I understand <insert pop culture reference> because I watched the Simpsons.

Seasons 3 through 8 is some of the greatest television ever broadcasted. In the classic Season 3 episode, “I Married Marge,” Homer and Marge (do I need to explain who Homer and Marge are?) decide to get married because they accidentally become pregnant with Bart.

In classic Simpsons satirical fashion, Dr. Hibbert gives Marge a pamphlet called “So You’ve Ruined Your Life.”

Ultimately, Marge and Homer didn’t ruin their lives, even thought they thought they had. Despite the unplanned pregnancy (and Bart’s hellion personality), they love him dearly, and their marriage is actually a model for Americans! Who’d have thunk it? Despite their dysfunctional family dynamics and character faults, a “ruinous” situation becomes wonderful and fulfilling.

In fact, the Simpsons aren’t simply self-aware of how “dysfunctional” their lives are, they’re happy just the way they are!

There’s a stoic concept for this: Amor fati – “a love of fate!” Friedrich Nietzsche, not necessarily a stoic, but an influential philosopher nonetheless, came up with the phrase itself. He wrote:

That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”

How POWERFUL is that mindset? It’s incredibly freeing – to feel not only at ease with everything that is happening in your life, but EMBRACING it. Everything good, everything “bad” – not merely accepting it, but LOVING it!

Like the quote by Marcus Aurelius above, our own fires (our lives) are made brighter and more powerful by everything thrown into it (good, bad, everything). Fires grow powerful by added inflammable items, which is everything in our lives.

That’s the philosophy. Reality is much different. The truth is, life is messy much of the time, and the human mind hasn’t evolved to think in terms of “enjoying one’s problems,” to steal a Zen proverb. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism to dwell on our pain and misery – to be pessimistic, to desire that things be different. It goes against the human mind to think in terms of “embracing the suck.”

Fortunately, the mind can be trained! It takes A LOT of work, hard work, but it can be done! Through mindfulness and awareness, we can train the brain to be loving of our “woes.”

This type of training is so important in the human resources field (and any work profession, really)! I don’t need to rehash the point here that HR is a TOUGH profession. People are messy and they will try us! Personal events, health events, work events, life events in general will destroy us if we let them.

Don’t let them control you! You control you!

Recently, I completed a 10 Day Gratitude Challenge issued by Kevin Monroe. You can sign up for the next 10 Day Challenge here! It was an incredibly powerful challenge. It forced me to think differently about things – big and small. There is so much to be grateful for in seemingly innocuous things. We can be grateful for even seemingly “bad” events if we shift our perspective and approach a rewiring of our brain.

Your shitty micromanaging boss? Working with them is an opportunity to develop your patience and negotiation skills! Be happy you have a shitty boss, so you can learn what you don’t want to be! “I’m glad this is happening because I get to grow, which I wouldn’t have experienced had I not had this person as a boss.”

Your diagnosis of a mental health condition? It’s an opportunity to be grateful for a family that is supportive and loving and understanding. By embracing autism, for example, an individual will become aware of what an amazing artist he is! Without the condition, he may not have ever developed or had such inspirational talent.

The Gratitude Challenge is a small step in the right direction towards “amor fati,” or embracing the suck. And actually, when done right, there is no “suck.” Regardless, it’s a starting point, and hopefully, more people sign up for this style of positive thinking! It doesn’t ignore the negative; it takes the negative and destroys it.

Yet, I understand many people who read this post would be skeptical. Again, the human brain is not hardwired to think in these terms. “How the hell can I or should I be grateful for my cancer diagnosis?!?” I would never fault anyone for being angry, mad, upset, etc. That’s being human.

Full disclosure, I have immense difficulty thinking in these terms, but I am grateful that I am aware enough to try to rewire my brain! In a few years, I hope to be better. (That’s how long it takes to rewire decades of pessimism!!! D’oh… I mean… woohoo).

What I am saying is that little afflictions and big afflictions happen. No one can change this fact of life, yet changing the way we react to such things makes all the difference. Powerful individuals are those who can look at such afflictions and see no affliction. They see opportunities to grow, to influence, and to be grateful. They see matches to grow their fire.

That is true power. That is true freedom. That is true peace. I admire the hell out of these individuals, and I wish to emulate them to the very best of my abilities! And one day, I hope to make it with them, no matter how many times I fall!

The Vinegar Tasters, Pooh Bear, and HR: Willy, Nilly, Silly, Old HR

“The further one goes, the less one knows.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

 “The world belongs to those who let go.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Vinegar Tasters – Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu.

My parents divorced when I was a little boy of only seven years. It came suddenly and out of nowhere, at least to me. My three brothers and mom moved from our home to my uncle’s home. It was challenging. Yet, I remember not feeling much else but resignation. It’s an odd feeling for a seven-year-old to show – complete acceptance of what was happening in the moment. I didn’t ask many questions. I just was. The situation just was.

I’m not saying this was normal, or even healthy. I am simply stating it was where I was at the time. Maybe it was healthy. Maybe it showed a level of maturity not seen in many children my age, who were supposedly being showered in participation trophies. I don’t have any participation trophies, by the way. But I digress.

It was at my uncle’s house that I first remember seeing Winnie the Pooh. I don’t remember much other than the silly theme music. My aunt, bless her heart, put it on for my cousins and my brothers to watch. It wasn’t my favorite Disney movie, show, or whatever. But I watched it. I did like how innocent Pooh Bear was, how infectiously kind and gentle he was. Nothing bothered him – Pooh just was. Even if I didn’t “like” it at the time, I believe it was what I needed.

Fast forward almost thirty years later. I am sitting at the SHRM Conference in Las Vegas awaiting a presentation by Erich Kurschat, called “Network Like an Introvert.” Like the stereotypical introvert I am, I’m sitting with Tracie and Chris, two other introverts I met maybe an hour earlier… introverts are powerful people, yet I digress again.

Erich is a good friend. Before he begins his presentation, he comes up to hug me and hands me a book. He says “I read this and thought of you. It reminded me of your stoicism.” The book was The Tao of Pooh.

I’m touched, of course, and begin reading the hell out of the book – not DURING his presentation! Afterwards, I read it. Erich seemed to have a pretty good grasp on my philosophical leanings and interests. I’ve studied Taoism casually. It’s a fascinating philosophy (or belief system depending on your point of view), if not one that’s a little outside my understanding. But, maybe that’s the point of Taoism! Those who don’t understand truly know! Or something like that.

The book opens with the ancient Chinese parable of the Vinegar Tasters. In the parable, vinegar represents life. In Chinese history, there are three major influences (essences) on society, culture, and religion.

First, there is Confucius. As he tastes the vinegar, he has a sour look on his face. Modern life, represented by the vinegar, is out of whack with tradition according to Confucius. He is obsessed with order and rules. The only way to build a sound structure in society and honor the past is to factitiously build a system of rituals and rules that links traditions of the past to modern life. We need to maintain the social order by enforcing rules and regulations on the people. Only through strict bureaucratic leanings, which is the result of the rituals and rules, can one find true happiness!

Second, there’s the Buddha. According to the Buddha, life is suffering, thus he has a bitter look on this face while tasting the vinegar. Attachments and desires lead people astray! Modern life is too obsessed with what it doesn’t have – attachment to desires, possessions, statuses, etc. Therefore, people must focus on attaining enlightenment, or a complete detachment of desire and want. Only by detachment can one find true happiness in life!

Finally, there is Lao-Tzu. As he tastes the vinegar, he smiles. Life is sweet. You see, heaven and earth are mirror images of each other. The rules of heaven apply to the earth. When people try to change the rules or try to live a life outside the rules of nature, suffering emerges. The point is to live in acceptance with nature as it truly is. That’s why Lao-Tzu is smiling. Modern life is exactly as it is supposed to be. So, smile, and be happy. Happiness comes out of working with life’s circumstances. A perceived negative can be changed into a positive when one let’s life flow as water flows.

What does this have to do within the realm of HR? I believe it points to the type of HR professional we can strive to be. (And in the grander scheme of things, the type of person!)

Do you want to be the stuffy HR pro who obsesses over the rules, all else be damned? I think of these individuals as the Rabbit of HR. Everything must be just so! “Excuse me this document wasn’t signed on line 12 properly, and the policy states we need to follow this to the exact letter, and then we need to stamp this page, this page, and then this page….” Look, following policies and procedures is important – to a point! However, policies are GUIDES not LAWS. We deal with people. People are messy and cannot fit into every situation exactly. Use the guides as consistently as you can, but be flexible enough to ensure we’re treating our people justly according to what is right and just, not according to the arbitrary policy. I don’t want to be Rabbit.

Do you want to be the frumpy HR pro who finds pain and suffering in all things? I think to these individuals as the Eeyore of HR. “Well, I guess today is going to be another day where I get yelled at by Joe in legal for not following the policy ‘to the T.’ Woe is me. And Georgette in accounting is always looking at me cockeyed. She just doesn’t like me. Woe is me. And my boss is always angry at me. I’m not sure what I’ve done today, but I just know I will get yelled at. Also, my red stapler is missing.” It’s sad really, because these people generally are great workers who can’t get out of their own way! I don’t want to be Eeyore.

Or, do you want to be the harmonized HR pro, who finds situations as opportunities exactly as they are meant to be? I think of these individuals as the Pooh Bear of HR. These HR professionals see that harmony exists between heaven and earth, employer and employee. Every situational challenge is an opportunity to further this harmony. The bad cannot exist without the good. The rough cannot exist without the smooth. They weave and move and accept things for what they are. They change what they can and do not change what they can’t. They accept. They simply are. I like the idea of Pooh Bear. I want to be Pooh Bear.

Sour expression, bitter expression, smiling expression. Which HR professional (or person) do you want to be?

So, as I determine which HR professional I strive to be, I remember that little seven-year-old – the one who just was. The one who was strong in the face of distress and hardship. The seven-year-old who remained steady, calm, and in control. He just was. So, too, will I strive to remain as is – to remain.

I guess the point is, if I wish to be the person who smiles at life’s vinegar, I must remember my experience as a child. If seven-year-old Paul can simply “be” in the midst of a traumatic event such as divorce, then how can adult Paul act any different under far less traumatic events? Let’s face it. HR is a tough field, but employees bickering or a boss yelling at me pales in comparison to a family being demolished from within.

It’s about perspective, and to gain peace, we sometimes need to lose that perspective. Children don’t have any, or much of it, so they are the wisest amongst us many times, at least according to the Tao and Pooh.

What Happens in Vegas at #SHRM19, Doesn’t Stay in Vegas – It Gets Blogged About! A Recap of My Incredible Experience as a SHRM Blogger in the Mojave Desert


“Just hang around people, and good things will happen!” – Steve Browne

So, I am sitting on the airplane back to Chicago following my trip to Las Vegas for the 2019 SHRM National Conference and Exposition when I begin to ruminate on my time. I wasn’t sure what to expect being this year I attended as part of the SHRM Blogger Team. However, I can say without hesitation, #SHRM19 blew away any expectation I had.

I learned. I listened. I conversed. I laughed. I (nearly) cried. I experienced quite a bit. But most of all, I lived. This experience was, just as #SHRM18, life changing. As a pretty determined introvert, I used to keep to myself and build my walls. Being isolated, however, is no longer an option I give myself.

I planned on further exploring what this experience meant to me and my own professional and personal development on my personal blog at HR Philosopher, and this will be my jumping point into that – a beautiful recap that will serve as a bookend to my first foray into blogging for SHRM.

Five Meaningful Moments:

Honestly, it seems rather counterproductive to distil 96 hours into five smaller pieces. I had SO many amazing interactions, conversations, and experiences. By no means do I intend to imply these are the only moments that mattered. If I wrote a blog about all the things that were amazing at #SHRM19, this would be the length of War and Peace! I only wish to share what stuck out to me as exceptionally thought provoking, fun, or inspirational.

  1. Connecting with So Many People!
#SHRM19Blogger selfie from Anish! He’s the selfie master!

My number one goal for #SHRM19 was to meet as many people as I could. Veni, vedi, vici! I apologize in advance because I will inevitably miss some names. However, I wanted to give a shout out to the following peeps whom I met IRL for the first time! If you’re on social media, make it a point to follow and learn from these incredible HR pros!

Baskaran Ambalavanan

Tiya Jaison

Paula Harvey

Sarah Purcell

Mary Kaylor

Osasu Arigbe

Kevin Hubbard

Nicole Roberts

Anish Aravind

Amy Curtis

Chris Orozco

Mofota Sefali

Andrew Morton

Ben Watts

Tiffany Kuehl

Tessa Brown

Tracie Sponenberg

Gemma Toth

Kiran Ali

Jon Thurmond

Wendy Dailey

John Baldino

Dr. Karlyn Borysenko

Jennifer McClure

Dr. Melanie Peacock

Diane Fennig

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

Alexander Pullen

Julie Ann Sullivan

Chip Weatherbee

Sean Sullivan

Mike Shaw

Jenni Stone

Renee Robson

Amanda Brunson

Heidi Pancake

Phyllis Wallace


Tim Sackett

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the colleagues, friends, and family I got to spend lots of time with over the past week learning from and getting to know on a deeper level.

The #StatelineCrew! IL-WI HR pros that meet up bi-monthly to engage in Shenanigans!

Claire Petrie

Callie Zipple

Jeff Palkowski

Kyra Matkovich

Mary Williams

Steve Browne

Erich Kurschat

Rhonda Owens

Dave Ryan

Michelle Kohlhof

Keith Enochs

Overall, not a bad four days of connecting!!!

  1. Blake Mycoskie’s Keynote

Blake Mycoskie is the founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS, the shoe company built on providing a pair of shoes to children of underdeveloped countries for every pair purchased. I’m not a huge shoe guy, but I am learning! After his keynote, I will definitely purchase a pair of TOMS in the near future. What struck me was what a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and support Mycoskie is. He discussed candidly and passionately about his own personal mental health struggles and how he overcame them. As a passionate mental health advocate who’s written about the topic in the past here and here, his discussion resonated with me. I am so thrilled to see mental health discussions becoming routine rather than relegated to the darkness as in days gone by. In addition, he has a new venture in he works called Madefor, and I for one can’t wait to see how this goes at helping others through their darkest times.

  1. #NetworkLikeAnIntrovert
Erich Kurschat’s Smart Stage presentation.

This was the first session I saw at #SHRM19. Erich Kurschat has fast become a dear friend, and to see him on stage at a large national conference made me smile! His session revolved around how introverts, such as himself, add great value to networking events. The common misconception is that introverts don’t network, but he wanted to prove that notion wrong by challenging attendees to go up to people they didn’t know and share their story with the hashtag — #NetworkLikeAnIntrovert! Some of the stories were pretty cool! He also gave a Smart Stage presentation on the power of collaboration. By the looks of the picture above, it went well!!! (That’s Erich on the left). Again, I am very happy for his continued success and presence on a national platform. It’s well deserved!

Introverts unite! We all went to our rooms to relax after this picture! 🙂
  1. SHRM Foundation Brunch – The Pullen Speech

I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 SHRM Foundation Brunch. The food was amazing! I mean, bacon bar, hello!?!? And mimosas? And the company was also great! I was loving it! But what made the event for me was a speech by Alexander Pullen. He’s a rising HR star who gave an impassioned speech on the importance of HR in the experience of everyday people. It gave me all the feels. You can see his speech here, and I highly recommend you take the few minutes to watch it. You won’t regret it!

  1. Jennifer McClure Follows Me on Twitter?!?!
Jennifer McClure and me after her Disrupt HR presentation. She’s so kind and gracious!

Lastly, I wanted to share that I have been a huge fan of Jennifer McClure, advocate for DisruptHR. I wasn’t missing her session on the topic, and I didn’t! In fact, I went full fanboy and rushed the stage to meet her! After I introduced myself and explained that I was a huge fan, she said “Yes, Paul, I follow you on Twitter. You post good stuff.” My mouth dropped like Wild E. Coyote noticing he was no longer on solid ground about to plummet hundreds of feet to the earth below! It’s not that I didn’t believe her, but I whipped out my phone to double check. She did follow me! It’s a small thing in the universe, but it made my day that someone as influential in the profession noticed me.

  1. One extra: #ThumbKyra!!!

Go to Twitter and search the hashtag. Hope you get a kick out of it.

Five Disappointing Moments:

As the Tao goes, all Yang must have a Yin. While #SHRM19 was overall something I will remember the rest of my life, I can’t help but feel like I left some money on the table… using a gambling phrase. By the way, I lost $100. I am still not over it… guess I could have lost more! 😊

  1. I wasn’t able to spend more time chatting with Dr. Karlyn Borysenko
The amazing Dr. Karlyn Bor

I interviewed Karlyn on her presentation Zen Your Work. You can read or reread it here and here. I felt a great connection to her through our interview, and I was so happy to meet her IRL. I attended her presentation and was so energized and excited after leaving! I wanted to sit down with her and discuss more! Sadly, time didn’t permit this. So, I hope she allows me the privilege to interview her on other items in the future!

  1. Missing Some Key Presentation

There were SO many high-quality breakout sessions and presentations, it was impossible to attend all the ones I wanted to or needed to. Presentations by Lara de Leon on Invisible Disabilities and by Gio Everduin on People Analytics particularly sting me that I missed. However, I am happy to report via Twitter that overall things seemed to go well regardless!

  1. Not getting to meet everyone I wanted to…

Too many to name. I just wish there was more time.

Roaming the exhibitor hall with Claire had it’s weird twists and turns!
  1. Losing the SHRM Foundation Step Challenge

I am a competitive person. I don’t like to lose. I was on the team Marchers4HR, led by my good friend Jeff Palkowski. For most of the day, we were winning! I could taste the victory, and then the tide turned around 6:00 p.m. We fell to second, then third, and never recovered. I was crushed (not really), and my feet felt like Jell-O puddin’ pops after logging over 31,000 steps (yes, really – ouch). However, the sting of defeat was quickly cooled when I reflected the reasons why I wanted to join the challenge. I joined the SHRM Foundation Step Challenge hoping to make an impact for the Foundation’s cause, which champions positive workforce and workplace transformation, such as disability work initiatives, hiring of veterans, and inclusion of senior workforce, at least in their 2019 plans specifically. I believe all steppers did a phenomenal job helping to support these causes! So, in the end, I’m not too disappointed about this loss. Because, SHRM Foundation won!

  1. Not visiting the Pawn Stars Shop

Chumlee is an American hero! I was hoping to haggle with him about the value of my great grandfather’s watch. He brought it from Germany in 1886, and the clock hands are sausages and when the alarm goes off every hour someone says Gesundheit! I swear it’s worth $75,000! Chumlee would offer me .50 cents, and I’d walk away disappointed, but know that the real worth is in knowing my great grandpa is wearing Lederhosen im Himmel singing “O du schöne Schnitzelbank!”

Nothing about that story is real. I just really used to like Pawn Stars.

Five Takeaways:

Leaving the Convention Center for the last time!

So, as I conclude my 2019 SHRM Blogger journey, I look back more deeply into what I learned along the way, and how it changed me for the better. My journey began in Chicago in 2018, and only intensified in Las Vegas in 2019. Thank you to everyone who touched me along the path.

  1. Our journeys never really end – they simply shift along the way.
  1. Put yourself out there, and good things WILL happen.
  1. Don’t let your fears and insecurities win. The only person who truly notices if your teeth are crooked is you!
  1. The people I’ve intentionally surrounded myself with are infectiously positive, supportive of who I am as a person, and want me to succeed, and that’s one of the best feelings in the world. As someone who hasn’t always surrounded myself with the right people, this shift has been a revolutionary act.
  1. HR as a profession is thriving! 20,000 people packed the Las Vegas Convention Center. 20,000!!! That’s a population greater than my current residence of Sycamore, IL! HR practitioners are hungry to learn, hungry to make a difference. That energizes me and reinforces that I made the right decision to focus on HR as a profession.

Now, it’s time to take all we’ve learned at #SHRM19 and bring it home with us. It’s up to you to Build Better Workplaces! Until #SHRM20 in San Diego, build yours! I want to hear about it in San Diego!

Steve Browne is an HR legend. #StatelineCrew members meeting with him after his session on HR Rising!

Women, Power, and Influence: A Story of How Women Have Shaped My Life and How I Try to Give Back

I’m a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. – Maya Angelou

Businesswoman and business plan

This blog post is dedicated to all the women who have influenced me over my life. I am who I am because of the strong, powerful women who have showed me the way – especially my mom, grandmas, and my loving, patient, supportive, kind, (1000 other amazing adjectives) wife.

I woke up last Saturday morning ready to watch Bayern Munich clinch the Meisterschale and again rise to the top of the Bundesliga! (Which they did, by the way, Mia San Mia!).

And as is my custom, I try to watch the match while I peruse the internet and try to write a blog or so. That’s when I came across the following article:

Men are afraid to mentor women after #MeToo and it hurts us all: study

According to the article: and SurveyMonkey’s new #MentorHer poll reveals Friday that 60% of male managers report feeling “too nervous” about being accused of harassment to interact with women in “common workplace” activities such as mentoring, socializing and one-on-one meetings. 

That’s a 32% spike from 2018, with an additional 36% of men saying they now actively avoid women in junior-level positions — effectively chopping down their shot at climbing the corporate ladder.

The article continues by quoting Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, that this is not a good sign since the majority of senior leaders are men. Women will not get fair shots at promotions if men are “too nervous” to have meetings and one-on-ones with them.

This isn’t the first time I had read an article about this topic, but it still didn’t stop me from feeling a myriad of emotions: Anger, annoyance, incredulousness, confusion, and SMDH (if shake my damn head were an emotion).

First and foremost, let me give you a little background into some personal and professional experiences that shaped my values and viewpoints.

My three brothers and I were raised by our single mother. Typical divorced family situation – our dad was around every other weekend, occasional phone calls, and even the occasional visit when we screwed up or had an event to celebrate (first communions, graduations, etc). My dad is a good man, and he was there for my brothers and me, and still is to this day. He was instrumental in my becoming the man I am today. I am taking nothing away from him.

However, children in a divorced household cannot escape their destiny, in that, one parent almost inevitably wields far more influence on one’s growth and development. In my situation, it was my mom. She was the parent that I interacted with 80-90% of the time. It’s only natural that she’d have more direct influence on my thoughts, beliefs, and values.

And it may seem obvious, but my mom is a woman! In addition, my grandmas (also women) on both sides of my family wielded considerable influence. I spent a lot of time around them as well – learning family history, how to cook, family traditions, etc. Being around powerful, strong women leaves its mark. It was a Materfamilias situation if there ever was one.

So, I grew up considerably more comfortable around women, and in many cases, I preferred being around women to men.

That continued as I grew up and was being influenced and mentored. Some of the most influential teachers in my life have been women. To this day, I still keep in touch with my high school German teacher, known affectionately as Frau. In grad school, I earned a Masters in Public Administration, which is a male dominated profession, but I gravitated towards women professors because it fascinated me to learn their perspective as female city management professionals in a male dominated workforce.

My current boss is a woman with over 40 years’ experience in climbing the ladder. She has taught me so much about how to build relationships that help sustain and grow business and move it forward. She also has taught me about how women continue to struggle in moving up the ladder. It took her nearly 35 years until she was made CEO. But she never gave up, and never changed who she was as a person. She did it on her terms. That is admirable.

These interactions and relationships have influenced me since day one on the job.

My first professional position was at a transit agency. I was charged to build a new county transit program from the ground up. There were no staff. I was it, and I had to build it, so the seniors would come (to ride the bus).

The first hire I made was a woman I actively recruited, and it was a position of influence. She served as my first dispatcher, eventually being promoted to operations manager, who was second in command to me. The first maintenance director I recruited was a woman, and she was EXCELLENT! She could diagnose problems in a bus engine and FIX it like few people I ever knew.

As I grew at my agency, I began expanding my line of thinking, knowing that there was more I could do to surround myself with women of influence. When I began becoming more understanding of the struggles minority women face, I began actively recruiting and placing women of color in positions of impact. Our current training manager is an African American woman, and she is absolutely amazing! Her professionalism is second to almost no ones, and her dedication to building a professional, high quality driving staff is inspirational. She commands respect – most of all from me!

And as I was promoted and helped build VAC’s first HR department, the first hire I made for my HR assistant was a bi-racial woman with zero HR experience, but a passion and dedication to people, so I knew she’d be great for the position. It didn’t matter that she had no experience.

I’ve seen her grow and become more than competent at HR management. She’s become a Rockstar. She takes her HR craft seriously, and has become the go-to person at our agency for employees seeking consulting and advice. We have grown together, and continue to grow, as we figure out this thing called HR.

She was recently promoted to HR Generalist, and I am so proud and humbled because one day she told me that I was one of the best mentors she ever had. I was taken aback because I had never thought of myself in those terms. I was just trying to be the best boss I could – sometimes failing – but she didn’t see it that way. In her words, she wouldn’t be in HR or care about HR if it wasn’t for my seeing something in her she didn’t see in herself.

I could go on and on, though I want to make one thing clear: The point I’m trying to make isn’t “look at me, I’m so ‘woke’ and amazing since I treat women fairly, and I’m just better than other men, who suck!!!”

Please no. This has been an incredibly difficult piece for me to write (and I don’t want to hit the “submit” button) because I HATE discussing some of the more personal experiences I’ve been through, especially on such a challenging topic – one that I myself readily admit to knowing much less than I’d like to.

The point I am trying to make is that since I had looked up to so many women growing up, it was natural and easy for me to view women as more than just equals to men – women were to be respected, learned from, and admired. Women add value in so many ways to our professional organizations and our lives.

That’s why the article I started this blog post with so many paragraphs ago really upset me. It just doesn’t make sense in my DNA to not think of women in respectful terms.

I’m proud that I’ve spent much of my young professional career building up woman and providing opportunities for them to succeed. And in all those cases I discussed, it was the women themselves who created the opportunities by demonstrating to me that they had desire, skills, professionalism, work ethic, etc. I simply got out of their way and let them do what they do, and THEY succeeded beyond what I could have predicted. That’s incredibly powerful and inspirational to me, and gives me motivation to keep getting better myself.

So, when I read sentences like “men are nervous of being accused of harassment if they spend one-on-one time with women,” it pisses me off. That line of (il)logic is a damn excuse weak men tell themselves to justify in their minds that treating women unfairly is OK. Only men who have something to hide say something like that.

It’s coward talk. Men of character and courage do not fear spending time with women. They seek out opportunities to further empower women. They don’t hide behind excuses. If a man feels nervous about being around a woman in a professional setting, that speaks to his lack of character and confidence, or his inability to control himself. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be in a position of power or influence to begin with and should seriously take a look inward.

Maybe I can put it in terms those men may understand: Man up! Stop being afraid of phantom threats and false narratives. At minimum, admit you’re scared that the woman in question is powerful and influential and you can’t handle it. Admission is the first step to recovery.

Maybe I am being too harsh and direct. Maybe not harsh or direct enough. I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that things need to change. Men of influence need to be confident in mentoring women and providing avenues they can take advantage of. If they don’t then we keep perpetuating the same broken wheel.

And that’s the issue at hand. A lot of men too afraid to face their own biases are in positions of power, and thus, the cycle continues. Women won’t get opportunities to advance and grow and obtain positions of influence and power, keeping more weak-willed men in those positions, and so it goes.

Ultimately, men need to do better, and I am hopeful that many are! That is why I am sharing these stories. Throughout my entire professional career, I have been actively placing women in positions of influence and power at various levels throughout the agency I work. I have placed women in non-traditional roles, such as oversight of vehicle maintenance and training of drivers. I’ve placed women in roles in which they had no experience and coached them up to be highly successful in those new roles. I did this because it was natural to me. I did this because it needed to be done. I did this because it was the right thing to do!

And, I have not once been accused of harassment. Go figure. I haven’t been held down. I have been succeeding! I have been promoted, I believe, in part, to placing the right women around me to help me get better. And, the women I mentioned in this article have all been promoted multiple times. Our agency is bigger and more productive than ever! A large part of that is because we diversify our positions of leadership, as I do not fear women of power. I admire them and want to be near them.

Society has a long way to go, but I am hopeful. I have seen much progress in my short time paying more attention. My hope by writing this piece is that it can influence at least one person to reconsider and think differently about how people should be treated and can be treated. Empathy is a powerful thing. Overall, men, we can be better, and women can show us the way if we pay attention.

When Looks Deceive: Detecting and Accommodating Invisible Disabilities — A #SHRM19Blogger Interview with Lara de Leon

“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone.” – Martina Navratilova


Note 1: This blog post is a contribution to the #SHRM19Blogger website. If interested in discovering other amazing HR bloggers, please click the link to read other posts!

Note 2: Being #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, this blogpost goes out to all persons challenged with mental health conditions. Together, we can help end stigma and get people the help and love they need and deserve. No one is ever alone.

One of the most gratifying things about working at the Voluntary Action Center (VAC) is that the agency’s work helps provide integration and support for individuals with disabilities. VAC is a social service nonprofit that provides community transit and community nutrition services to seniors, individuals with disabilities, and low-income persons.

As the lead HR person at the agency, I try very hard to extend the agency’s mission into how I perform my HR functions and strategies. Serving persons with disabilities is very important to me. Especially so is helping bridge gaps for persons with “invisible disabilities.” Having several family members and friends who have invisible disabilities, this topic is one I am very much connected to and passionate about.

So, when I had the opportunity to interview Lara de Leon, an expert on disability accommodation, on the topic of accommodating invisible disabilities, I jumped at the chance!

Lara is hosting a Session at the SHRM 2019 Conference called “When Looks Deceive: Detecting and Accommodating Invisible Disabilities.” The session will be held on Tuesday June 25th from 3:30 PM – 04:30 PM. Attendees will discover ways to discover and accommodate invisible disabilities in the workplace. I was looking forward to her presentation, but after this interview, I believe it’s can’t miss!

PL: Thank you for taking time to discuss your session with me. As a person who has several family members with invisible disabilities, this topic is very close to my heart. Can you please explain the term “invisible disability” for those who aren’t familiar with it, and provide some examples?

LL: The term “invisible disabilities” refer to those conditions that may not have an “obvious” physical manifestation, and may not be readily apparent to others. Often, individuals with these conditions seem to suffer in silence, and their need for assistance or workplace accommodations may not be as apparent as with other more physical conditions. Examples of these invisible disabilities range from various forms of mental illness, to learning disabilities, to neurological conditions.

PL: The title of your session mentions detecting invisible disabilities, which is likely difficult for the untrained eye! Like “visible disabilities,” invisible ones are diverse and complex with multiple or contradictory indicators. Without giving too much away, can you elaborate on how an employer can be more aware of when an invisible disability is affecting an employee

LL: This requires an element of awareness of your employees, and the ability to recognize any signs of struggle or changes in behavior. Examples can include having a stellar employee who is suddenly unreliable or struggling with performance, or one who begins to act erratically or has uncharacteristic outbursts. Managers should be cautioned not to attempt to “diagnose” or make assumptions about employees and their behavior, as that can have legal ramifications as well. Rather, we encourage managers to know how to observe behaviors, ask the right questions about needing assistance, and escalate to get the help needed.

PL: How can an employer detect an invisible disability without crossing the line into diagnosis? 

LL: Managers should focus on objective behaviors that they observe, rather than make assumptions or attempt to identify the underlying cause of the situation. Managers should also be trained to have conversations about employee performance and potential need for accommodation without delving into sensitive information such as diagnosis or treatment.  

PL: My understanding of ADA is that employers have the same responsibilities in accommodating invisible disabilities as they do other disabilities. Have you seen or heard of more resistance by employers to offer accommodation since it’s not as “apparent” as more visible ones?   

LL: Yes, employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to the known disabilities their employees. Anecdotally, one hears that accommodations for invisible disabilities are viewed more skeptically; however, the more educated we become about these conditions and understand their prevalence and impact in the workplace, we will see these stigmas go away. Many workplaces are already seeing increased dialogue with mental illness, for one example, along with a focus on wellness initiatives, which is a refreshing change.

PL: Do employees have any responsibility in disclosing their invisible disabilities to their employer? How does HIPPA play a part in this complex situation? 

LL: Employees are responsible for notifying their employers of any need for accommodation due to a disability – they do not necessarily need to disclose the medical condition or diagnosis. Often, once an employee discloses a need for accommodation, human resources will become involved and request supporting medical information for the request. A dialogue then occurs between the employee’s healthcare provider and the company. HIPAA is a complex statute, and it does have some limited applicability in the accommodation context. Employers will find that healthcare providers will not provide necessary information about their patient’s condition without consent. For this reason, it is important to makes sure your forms are updated to contain this consent. There are also other federal and even state laws that impose requirements on how employers must maintain this medical information once received. At a minimum, employers need to keep this sensitive information in a separate file, apart from the employee’s personnel file, and only provide the information to those who have a legitimate business need to know.

PL: How can employers better equip managers and supervisors with being aware of and assisting with (if needed) their employees’ invisible disabilities?  

LL: Training is key, as is having sound policies and practices for addressing accommodation requests. Managers should feel empowered to manage, and have conversations with their employees without fear of “messing up”. Training should involve not just the legal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also training on “softer” skills of discussing these matters with their employees, and knowing where to go to for help.

PL: There has been a lot written about the growing mental health crisis in many parts of the world – especially in America due to the stigma attached to it by society. When it comes to mental health, what can employers do to help fight the stigma of invisible disabilities in the workplace?   

LL: I saw a statistic recently that in 2018, roughly 1 in 4 adults in the US experienced a mental health disorder. Employers should encourage communication about mental illness and how it affects individuals in and outside of the workplace. Employers can also implement outreach and mindfulness initiatives as part of their benefits strategy, and provide employees with resources such as EAP to provide help when they do not know where else to turn. 

PL: I really appreciate your time. One final question. What resources can employers use to learn more about accommodating employees with invisible disabilities?   

LL: There are so many amazing resources out there – one place to start is with the employee or his/her healthcare provider. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this, and the best place to start is to identify what the particular employee’s needs are. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and its Searchable Online Accommodation Resource is a good starting point.

Lara de Leon is a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins.  She works with employers of all sizes to provide practical and strategic advice in all aspects of employment law.   She is licensed to practice law in Texas and California, and is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Labor and Employment Law.   Lara counsels and trains clients on matters including discipline and termination, leaves of absence, accommodations, harassment, investigations, and wage/hour compliance.  Lara is co-chair of Ogletree’s Pay Equity Practice Group.    Lara also has extensive experience defending clients in federal and state courts, arbitrations, and before administrative agencies.