Are You Only Seeing the Tip of the Iceberg?

James was a long term hard-to-employ individual with many barriers to employment. He worked hard in our program and while he had some setbacks, over time he made good progress. We connected him with an employer and everyone celebrated when he got the job offer. However, James did not show up on the first or second day of work! No one could find him. Then on the third day, he showed up at the employment program. What happened? It turned out this his “best friend” showed up the night before he was supposed to start work. This “friend” said that he wanted to celebrate James starting work. The “friend” proceeded to get James so high and drunk that James did not wake up until several days later! This “celebration” cost him his job.

Why did the best friend sabotage James progress? The friend knows if James goes to work, the friend will lose his life long hang out buddy. The friend is also worried that work will change James and the friend will not like the new James. The friend also fears that James will become friends with people from work and lose interest in his old friend. If James is successful, it will make the friend question his own lack of progress in life, which is not something he wants to do. The friend is right about each of these concerns and they are the reasons that the friend does not want James to go to work. There is just too much loss for the friend if James is successful in the world of work.

How did our employment assessment miss the potential for this common problem? We missed it because we traditionally focus on assessing the individual and not their social system. This is like assessing the tip of the iceberg and missing the bigger picture. When a person goes to work, every relationship in their life will change. Physically they will be in a different place so they will not be able to be with the same people. Work can make them think differently about life and they may start setting long term goals. Work can introduce them to new people. It will require a working lifestyle, which can mean the end of long nights of partying, sleeping all day or improvising their activities. This lifestyle will be replaced by the discipline of maintaining a regular schedule which will have an impact on other people. They will want the support of other working people and not the negative pull of people who are not working that want them to quit their jobs. These changes are very powerful and touch every relationship in their lives, but we often miss what going to work means to other people.

Some people will support them going to work and others will work against their progress. It will depend on who feels they benefit from the person going to work and who feels like they are losing when the person gets a job. In order to sort this out and help your job seeker prepare for the changes that will happen in their world of relationships, you have to do a Social System Assessment. Draw a bulls eye with two rings and put your job seeker’s name in the middle. Then ask them to tell you about the people that are on those two rings. The names on first ring are the people that are closest to them and the next ring are those that are still in their lives, but to a lesser degree. As they tell you about these individuals, your job is to help them figure out if these are pro-work or anti-work people. Will they feel like they win or lose when your person goes to work? Some of the anti-work people are not bad people. They are just in a position where the loss is greater than the found and they will try and restore the social system to its pre-work state.

The children of a long term unemployed parent can become an anti-work force because they will lose time with their parent. The child may develop a mysterious illness that no doctor can diagnose, but it is miraculously cured if the parent stays home! They may get in trouble in school so the parent has to leave work and take care of the problem. These children feel the loss of a parent when they go to work and they do not like it at all so they work to go back to the old not working way.

The gang leaders do not want to see a gang member go to work. The working gang member cannot participate in the daily activities of the gang. Other gang members may reconsider their allegiance and start thinking about going to work. This poses a threat to the stability of the gang so the leaders will do all they can, including beating up the working gang member so they cannot go to work to keep the social system intact.

A young man visits his grandmother every day because he is not working. When he starts working, she goes into a deep depression and becomes very sick. Her illness makes him quit his job to take care of her and she gets well.

No matter whether the anti-work people are bad people or just innocent people who feel loss, our job is to help our job seekers prepare for these shifts in their social system. Sometimes it may mean difficult choices like cutting loose a friend or group of friends that try to sabotage their new job. Other times it may be having a heart to heart talk with a friend or relative about how important their support will be to the individual that is going to work. In the case of the children, is it possible to give them some kind of a win in the going to work process? Can they get a dollar for every day they help the parent go to work by doing their chores, homework and helping the parent make their lunch or get their work clothes ready? One brilliant parent in our program who became a waitress made her daughter a waitress uniform. The daughter earned playing waitress when she did her part so her mother could go to work. In this way, there was teamwork and a win win in the social system.

The gang member may need an older relative who is not gang oriented to have their back for a while so he or she can go to work. In the situation with the grandmother, we should have figured out how she could continue to get support from other people while her grandson was working. Perhaps the grandson tells her how he is going to buy her something from his paycheck that she really wants to have. All of these strategies are about turning loss into found for the people around your working program participant. They are about readjusting the relationships in the social system to prepare them to support work. Try not to only focus on the tip of the iceberg as you help people go to work. You should keep thinking that an individual never goes to work. Their social system goes to work!