Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words CAN hurt too.


I want to share a story about the power of words.

At the place where I work, we all get paid by direct deposit. What that means is that the company we work for submits all of our hours worked to another company who processes and puts our salaries directly into our bank accounts. This is done instead of getting a paper check or cash handed to us directly. It is a fairly common practice and with electronic time card systems for clocking in and out of work it is all done online.

A while back, sometime last year around the holidays, I arrived to work a little early to find a group of people who work for and with me very upset because their pay wasn’t in their bank accounts. Being perceived as a member of “management,” I had many angry questions made to me about why people didn’t get paid. I had just arrived and had no idea what was happening, so I said I would look into it. I logged into my online banking system and sure enough, no paycheck in my account either. It appeared that no one got paid that morning, which was our normal payday.  I figured it was due to the holidays and told everyone to calm down, there was probably a glitch or delay due to it being around Christmas and New Years, and that I would tell Human Resources when they arrived.

A short while later, my coworker from the HR Department who handles payroll arrived at the office and I told her about the problem. Several other employees also approached her to express their concern or that they were upset that they were not paid at the normal time. The HR person, who also had not been paid like the rest of us, said she would investigate the problem as she was unsure why this happened. She, like me, thought it was just some kind of delay due to the holidays.

She called the other company that is responsible for putting the money into our bank accounts to find out what was causing us not to be paid on time. By working together online and over the phone they discovered that we had not submitted the information properly. You see, the online system we use to submit payroll information to be processed has a box that must be checked saying “Verified.” If that box is not checked, the data can still be sent but the payroll company will not process the information, and the employees don’t get paid.  Unfortunately my coworker made a mistake and did not check the box before submitting.  She fixed the error, and everyone’s pay got sent to their bank accounts, but for some people it took an extra 1 to 2 days before they got the money in their account.

Now, my coworker was the only person who knew why the glitch happened.  She could have just told everyone that there was an error and she fixed it.  But instead she told the entire truth that she had made the mistake and apologized for it.  That in itself was pretty brave, and I admired her for that.

Some people, when things are different than what they expect, can get very upset. Especially when it means your paycheck isn’t in your bank account on time, because that can cause problems with paying your bills for your housing, transportation and food. When people get upset, they can say things that are mean and hurtful. And I heard many of the people I work with saying those types of things both to the HR person and about her to others.  But what good does that do?  The money won’t get into our bank accounts any faster.  And who has never made a mistake before?  Being in quality control, I had to deal with the mistakes that many of those peole made every day.

So later that day when I ran into the payroll person again, we talked and she was telling me about the error and that she had missed that one small item.  I said I knew a lot of people were upset, but that I understood we all screw up some times and not to worry too much about it.  She did what she could to fix the problem and it wasn’t that big of a deal.  I told her something along the lines of “Other people might be mad, but don’t worry about it too much.  It really isn’t the end of the world, and we all make mistakes.  I forgive you.”  And that was that.  Everyone got their pay and after a week or so it was forgotten about.

Fast forward to yesterday.  It was my last day working at that company, as I had accepted a new position elsewhere.  I was finishing up some paperwork in the lab and my coworker stopped by to talk to me.  Many of the people I work with had been coming by to see me and say their farewells, but something seemed different with her.  With tears in her eyes, she told me how much she would miss having me at the office, but also she told me that she remembered that conversation we had last year.  That it was probably the worst day she had on the job ever, and that I had said I forgave her.  That small phrase had made a huge difference to her.

And to be honest, I didn’t even remember saying it.  Who remembers every conversation they have every day months and more later?  But when what you say makes an impact on another person, they will carry that with them.  They will remember those words.

Do you remember something a person has said to you that was particularly not very nice, rude or mean?  Likewise, do you remember something that someone said to you that was very nice?  I bet all of us have examples of both.

This is the power of words.  Once you say something to someone, it can stick with them forever.  Both good or bad.  You can never truly take it back.  Even the smallest conversations or offhand remarks can have lasting affect.  There’s an old saying, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  But in truth, they can hurt, they really can.

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