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 units 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 yet & on-line banking (Direct Access) was still in its infancy. I believe he had 10,000 Direct Access households, with a lot of them being Citi employees themselves.

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 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 how people interacted with Tom.

The way the unit was constructed, we had undergone significant 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.

Never.

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 management & 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 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 bad information to them.

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.

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.

Thank you once again for listening!

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