Slowing Mustang Sally Down

We have a cashier who is nearly 80 years old. Miss Sally, as everyone calls her, because people add that title to older people’s names in the south as a sign of respect. She works 4 days a week for 5 -7 hours, ringing out customers and keeping the customer waiting area tidy. And she has been working this way for almost 10 years now. Sally’s seen changes in leadership, administration, policies, procedures, uniforms and store appearance. Through it all, she’s still here, performing her cashier duties on her scheduled days. In the retail world, this is really an accomplishment!

The problem is we no longer have a “cashier” position. We removed the designation about 3 years ago in favor of the Sales & Service Consultant (SSC), who assists the customer, markets services and handles the ring out process. No one ever bothered to transition our sweet Sally, though. She worked at one of our busiest locations so management decided to use her in a dedicated to the cashier function and use a second person as the SSC. To them, it was a win for all parties involved!

Then, Sally got sick. She told her manager that her medication disrupted her vision and made her drowsy. She began showing up late for work and taking pigeon naps at the cashier station in full-view of customers. Management’s solution was to move her start time back so Sally would have more time to rest before coming in to work. But Sally complained to the Operations Director that the manager cut her hours because she’s old. He made the manager put her schedule back to how it was. She continued to be late without calling and falling asleep on the clock. And the manager didn’t document the incidents for fear of getting in trouble with his boss.

Then, Sally started walking with a cane. She said she could no longer help with cleaning because she couldn’t bend or stand for long periods. The manager complained to the Operations Director, who told him to stop picking on Sally and get someone else to take care of her share of the cleaning.

Then, Sally started making mistakes on the ringouts. Twice, she flip-flopped invoices and ended up charging one customer’s credit card for another customer’s purchases. Another time, she misplaced a decimal and auto-debited over $400 from a customer’s checking account. Sally said it was because she needed new glasses and brought in a note from a doctor, asking that she be excused from work until her new glasses arrived. Since she only worked 4 days, she ended up out of work for about 2 weeks while she was supposedly waiting for these glasses. The manager just assigned it as vacation and didn’t notify anyone about the issues or leave time because he didn’t want to get fussed at for picking on Sally again.

However, when she returned with her new glasses, she made 3 more ringout errors on her first day back. The fallout caused all the employees at the store to lose their sales bonus for the month. Sally was suspended for 7 days – which meant another 2 weeks out of work. She threatened to call a lawyer so the Operations Director shortened her suspension to 5 days and Sally returned about a week later.

When she came back this time, she made 2 more ringout errors and refused to sweep the customer waiting area at closing time, which caused the store to fail their weekly appearance inspection the next morning. The entire staff was issued warnings because that’s what the policy mandates when stores fail inspection. The rest of the staff issued the manager an ultimatum: either Sally goes or we go! The manager contacted his Operations Director. Fearing a lawsuit or a mutiny or both, the Ops Director finally told the manager to contact Corporate HR.

Suffice it to say, I was appalled and peeved when I heard this story. What parallel universe had we wandered into that made any of this ok?!? We had been accommodating this woman for almost a year without a single piece of supporting documentation!

Oh wait—that’s not true. Apparently, Sally brought a few notes but she wouldn’t allow her manager to make or keep a copy because she told her manager it violated her privacy under HIPAA. And they bought this load of crap, without once even thinking to contact anyone to see if any of this proper! Obviously, Sally had knew more than me. I just work here. I’m just the person they call when $#%& hits the fan and they don’t know how to mitigate the liability.

But we were more liable at this point than we would have been if someone had taken the time to contact HR just one time to see if any of what Sally was threatening was legitimate. Now, it was a hot mess and they were all running away, leaving me to deal with the fallout. Great. Just great. I braced myself for the showdown and cursed my colleagues for throwing me under this bus.

I decided the best course of action was to find out what Sally really could and could not do on the job. Maybe she had some legitimate conditions we needed to know about and plan around. We wouldn’t know until we asked her and got real, legitimate documentation from her doctor. That’s the thing with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – if you want to avoid violations, you have to address the issue head on. Managing based on assumptions about what’s wrong with a person and what he/she is capable of doing is what will get an organization into trouble.

No one believed Sally was able to perform all aspects of the job as intended – including me and Sally! And even if she was cleared medically, was it a healthy working situation for her, the other employees and our customers? Her attitude and errors had alienated her from the rest of the group more than her age or any illness/disability. I wasn’t sure we could mend that fence in a way that would be manageable once the situation was put back in the hands of operations to handle on a daily basis.

About a week later, we got the feedback we’d been waiting on from Sally’s doctor. She couldn’t work before 10am, she couldn’t work more than 6 hours in a day and she couldn’t lift her arms above her waist.

That was it. After all that, that was all she asked for.

I was surprised – and scared. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d asked her
doctor to limit the restrictions to things easily accommodated so she wouldn’t
end up being removed from working and placed on leave. If she was hiding something, I didn’t want to send Sally back to work, have her assigned to some
task and hurt herself! But the accommodations she was asking for were more than
reasonable. I had to trust that she and her doctor were being forthcoming about
her needs.

So we moved forward with the accommodation. We told Sally that she would now be required to perform more of the complete SSC duties which necessitated additional training.  We made it clear that any performance issues or refusal to perform duties that did not contradict her restrictions would no longer be tolerated. She seemed relieved and borderline grateful. She thanked me for giving her a chance. She said I was the first person in a long time who hadn’t made her feel like a nuisance or like they were nervous to deal with her; she said I just talked to her and explained thing like she was a regular person.

I was touched that she felt that way – especially since I was nervous and I didn’t see her as a regular person.  Sally was old, disabled, female and Hispanic. That’s what I saw when I looked at her. I see the same things when looking at my own reflection and all it entails. But knowing those things were a part of her didn’t make Sally less human to me.

That’s what the ADA is all about. And as concerned as I am with the amended regulations going into effect in just a few days, I understand that this is really what it is all about. Whatever our differences or limitations, people are still human and want their humanity acknowledged. If any place should make someone feel acknowledged, it is HR – even when we’re delivering hard truths or bad news. I was glad that was clear in all my communications with her. It felt good to have someone acknowledge that. It is something we don’t hear all that often in HR anymore.

Sally wanted someone to be candid with her about what was going on and why it was happening. She wanted to be given a chance to do the work instead of people assuming that she shouldn’t or couldn’t.  She wanted to continue working and feel part of the team.

Three weeks after we extended the accommodation to Sally, her doctor took her out of work for problems with her hip. She ended up having surgery and ran out of time under the FMLA before she was released to come back. To date, she hasn’t reapplied for a job with us. But I would bet we haven’t seen the last of Sally …






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