Things Were Different Then

Rock Hudson was an iconic actor, noted for his exceptional good looks & comedic film performance who, later in life, contracted, and died from, the AIDS virus.

He passed away in October of 1985.

I was running my CitiPhone unit back in NY at the time & the whole AIDS subject was still rather new, and raw, to the general public.

In our department, we had an outwardly gay man. Let’s call him “Tom”. I believe Tom was already there when I first arrived in September 1983.

Tom was an absolutely great guy & one of the mainstays of my evening shift (3:30-12:00).

Back in those days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, CitiPhone was only available for customers to call from 9-5. We would handle calls from the autodialer phones at our CBCs/Citicard Banking Centers (ATM lobbies) around the clock as well as have a special phone # for handling reports of lost/stolen Citicards.

In order to improve operating efficiencies at the 4 CitiPhone Units around NY, every unit would automatically “call forward” their “midnight-8:00 AM”
CBC calls to the Upper Manhattan CitiPhone operation.

Life was a little different in those days…to say the very least!

24 x 7 customer service was not at all common & really wasn’t considered “important enough”. There were no cell phones, very little internet.

No social media.

We had cable TV, but nothing like we have today.

Even customer service itself was often viewed as a “necessary evil” instead of as a differentiator & a value-added service. Service as a religion hadn’t yet caught on.

We didn’t even have IVR/Interactive Voice Response & on-line banking (Direct Access) was still in its infancy. I believe he had 10,000 Direct Access households, with most of them being Citi employees in a “friendly user test”.

I remember working on the task force that developed on-line Bill Payment functionality!

And social consciousness & awareness was still planting its seeds.

As previously mentioned, Tom was openly gay & that was absolutely fine with (almost) everyone. Laurie & I were very good friends of him & Sal, his partner, as they had been over to our home on several occasions. They were absolutely wonderful people.

In fact, when Karyn Smythe (one of our reps) got married, there were 10 CitiPhone employees & their significant others at her wedding, including Tom & Sal. And afterwards, most of the 10 couples accompanied Tom & Sal as we went back to the Bunk House, a gay bar on Long Island’s South Shore, to continue the celebration.

We had a great time!

Then, Tom began to get sick. A few days here, a couple of days there. Then, he was out for a couple of weeks.

Upon his return to work, I spoke with him…not for disciplinary reasons, but, rather, to offer him some help.

He visited with our Medical Department down at 399 Park Ave in Manhattan (our corporate headquarters), a fully-operational facility with doctors & registered nurses staffing the place.

Not sure exactly when or how it began, but things slowly began to change with regard to how people interacted with Tom.

The way the unit was constructed, we had undergone significant volume growth in the first few years of my tenure there. We took over responsibility for different functions & significantly improved the level of quality service that we offered our customers & the branches.

We were bursting at the britches!

As a result, it was impossible for our smaller off-hour crew to have their own workstations.

As a standard operating procedure, they would normally sit around our Control Center as they handled other functions as well, e.g., dispensing of keys & combinations to the 2-person teams handling CBC repairs & cash replenishments, receiving lost/stolen Citicard claims, monitoring call traffic, etc.).

I started hearing chatter amongst some of the people as to whether “Tom sat at my workstation last night”.

Before he began calling in sick (with a yet-undiagnosed illness/ailment), there was never any of this talk.


But now I began sensing a changing attitude brewing. And a whole lot more Lysol disinfectant spray being used.

In addition to educating myself as quickly as I could on the whole matter of AIDS (especially, AIDS in the workplace), I spoke at length with our Human Resources people, Corporate Medical, my senior leaders & other well-respected experts in the telecommunications & medical fields.

More than anything, I needed to dispel any unfounded rumors & stem possible employee issues.

I felt very strongly that we (EVERYONE) needed to be much better informed about the whole issue of AIDS in the workplace while simultaneously protecting Tom’s & everyone’s privacy.

We brought in a number of different “experts” in the field (as much as anyone could be considered as an expert in that day & age) to speak with all our people.

Similar educational courses were offered to all Citi employees at our facility.

I pushed hard for Citi to take a much more proactive role in employee education as it came to this topic. We had a major Bankcards (Citi Credit Cards) Operations just down the street & a few Retail Services (stores’ co-branded credit cards) sites nearby.

I wanted Citi to get out in front of everything by providing educational resources to our people.

Let’s say that I was pretty disappointed when they wanted to “put a cover” on this.

I argued vehemently with a number of individuals in much higher positions than mine that society is constantly changing & that it was our corporate & social responsibility to get in front of the ever-changing landscape.

I maintained that not educating your people is just as bad as providing misinformation to them. We should not allow our people to formulate ideas, feelings & attitudes BLINDLY, without the benefit of having the necessary information to consider.

Allow all our people to be more informed & smarter about things that surround us in the world. I know, for sure, that I used the phrase “sticking your heads in the sand” way more than once.

And I used my best scolding, pissed-off voice to those whom I could clearly tell just wanted me to shut the hell up & go away.

The best that I could get out of them was a promise…I believe, a sincere promise…to look further into this & make it a point of discussion at senior mgmt conclaves.

It was unfortunate that Tom didn’t make it back to work while I was still there…he was out on a long-term medical leave.

But at least we provided information & knowledgeable speakers to our people & at a minimum, got the whole conversation started. As a company, it was imperative we be more aware of exactly what’s going on around us in society & exactly how that impacts our people & the workplace.

I would constantly tell my managers that your people are human beings, not robots. It’s only natural that they bring their true selves to work every day…it wasn’t necessary, nor recommended, that they keep their feelings, troubles, joys, experiences, etc. in their glove compartments when they come through that front door in the morning.

You must be aware that they’re not employees 24×7 out there in the “real world”!

They’re mothers & fathers & wives & husbands & sisters & brothers & daughters & sons & friends…and they ALL have other things on their mind – – yes, even while they’re at work!!! 😱 – – that will impact them as a person & as an employee.

Perhaps their child is sick or has a super-important test at school this morning.

Maybe they just had a really-tough morning or their spouse is going through a difficult time at their workplace.

Or their best friend just had a baby or their favorite sports team just won a championship.

You’re leading people…real, honest-to-goodness PEOPLE…not managing employees or work machines.

Be aware that you must take the COMPLETE person into consideration! Now that doesn’t mean that you need to interrogate every individual under a bright spotlight or stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, but you must consider that other factors or forces may very well be at play.

Are you noticing that someone’s performance isn’t up to their normal level?

Is Nancy’s “mood” so clearly noticeable & affecting her as well as others around her?

Do you have a close-enough relationship with your people that you’re easily approachable if they’d like to discuss something with you? Could be a problem they’re facing or some great news they’d like to share.



They’re not forbidden words when you’re “AT WORK”!

And ensure that you’re always doing absolutely everything you can so they’re able to make informed, intelligent decisions themselves.

Yeah, there will be times when their decisions don’t exactly match what yours would have been, but, at least, you’ll be OK if they went through a solid thought process to arrive at it.

That’s all you can do.

You can’t, nor shouldn’t, control the actual outcome of everything, each & every time.

You’ll drive yourself…AND THEM…crazy if you did!

But you can try your very best to ensure that they’re following a solid process, logically thinking things through & arriving at a decision that they can intelligently defend & support.

Thank you so very much for listening!

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