Yesterday an employee stopped by my office and asked for 5 minutes of my time. I smiled, put down my pencil, turned off the calculator (I’d been figuring up the total cost increase on our benefits plan for the next 12 months), and said, “Sure! C’mon in and have a seat.”
90 minutes later he left, and I wasn’t smiling.
He told me he and his wife had separated, leaving him with their four boys. She’d given him no reason other than, “I’m not happy, and I need some space.” Without his knowledge she had signed a lease on an apartment. She moved out of their house and into the apartment the same day she told him about it.
Ah, but meanwhile she had been spending (mainly on credit cards) a LOT of money on outfits, furnishings for the apartment, pots and pans, and just “stuff.”
He managed to get her to agree to go to counseling, but after two visits during which she refused to discuss any issues of substance, she stopped going. She’ll stop in every now and then to see the boys, but that’s it. And she’s still spending (with credit cards) way more than she makes.
(At this point I reminded myself that I was only hearing ONE side of a complex story, and I knew there was a lot he WASN’T telling me. I figured he just needed somebody to confide in and talk to. That happens occasionally in HR. So I tried to be empathetic, but not actually take on any of his problems.)
He told me that they were both getting calls from collection folks on past due balances and non-payment of bills. I asked if he knew how much she owed (knowing that in Texas, he likely has a legal responsibility for at least half of any debts she incurs while they’re still married). He told me she owes $140 on one card and about $300 on another.
I thought, “That’s not so bad.”
Lesson number 1: What he meant was; those amounts were not her balance, but her current minimum monthly payment! And he told me that since she can’t pay that much, there are late payment fees added every month on TOP of the outrageous interest they charge. OUCH! (And those weren’t the only two credit cards she was using.)
Then he asked me for help finding a financial counselor he could talk to and maybe take his wife to go see. I told him I would think about it and try to come up with someone. He left.
I began to go through the resources I had, including our EAP counseling service (which includes legal and financial help), local church-related or other non-profit agencies that might help, the local United Way office for a referral, and more.
I made some calls. I thought about it overnight. I worried about it on the way to work this morning. In spite of myself, I had taken on HIS problem and made it partly MY problem.
Today I got back together with him at lunch time and began to review my list of possible sources of help. After just a few sentences he cut me off, and said, “That’s okay, last night I found a service listed on a web site that I think will help. They have an office in Victoria. I’m going to go see them.”
Oh... Okay... Good. (I shut up.)
Lesson number 2: As I KNEW, all he’d really wanted was for somebody to listen. He didn’t really want advice or help, just a sympathetic ear. But even though I KNEW that, I still took on his problems and worried (a little) about them.
Maybe next time I won’t have to re-learn these lessons.