Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0May 2007

I attended my son's graduation from college yesterday. That should be an unqualified joyous celebration, except my son graduated in engineering from Virginia Tech University. Twenty-five days earlier, a student killed 32 people on campus and then killed himself. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Tech_massacre)

There was joy and celebration at the graduation ceremony, but there were many tears as well. I cried; my wife cried; all the people sitting around us cried. As one commencement speaker put it, "You are the most famous class in the history of Virginia Tech. You didn't seek this fame, but it came upon you."

Sadly, I wrote about something similar some five years ago when the "D.C. Sniper" was shooting people in the Washington D.C. area (see "Working During a Community Crisis" in the Cutter IT E-Mail Advisor during November 2002). Many of this weekend's graduates lived through that while in high school.

Virginia Tech awarded degrees posthumously to those students who died. Honors were given to the faculty and staff who died. The most emotional moment for me was a presentation to a widow of a young faculty member.

Terrible events happen sometimes in our lives and the lives of our co-workers. As managers, we try to keep the workplace working even though work is the last thing on anyone's mind. How do we do that? How do we keep our unit productive without being an insensitive monster?

The answer is: we don't.

We should not - must not - ignore events in our lives. As one colleague told me years ago, "We will not leave any bodies on the floor. We will delay things so that we first attend to what has happened." When he said that, he was speaking of addressing strong emotions in the workplace - not physical bodies, but his advice applies here.

Stop work. Grieve.

Celebration is a part of grieving. The vast majority of Virginia Tech students and faculty were not harmed physically on April 16th. They continue to live. They celebrated during part of this past weekend. The celebrations send them into the rest of their lives instead of leaving them stranded in the sadness and horror of the tragedy.

Most of us ensure that we celebrate at work to mark our accomplishments. We deliver a product early - we celebrate. We solve a difficult technical problem - we celebrate.

More of us should celebrate at work when things don't go so well. A project is canceled because of continuous schedule delays - let's celebrate because we are no longer saddled by it. A project is canceled because current technology provides no method of building the product - let's celebrate because we no longer beat our heads against the wall in vain. Celebrations during those events can help us to move forward instead of lamenting what might have been for years.

At the engineering commencement at Virginia Tech, one student climbed the stairs, walked across the stage, received his diploma, and walked back to his seat. His graduation above all others brought thunderous applause, a standing ovation, and tears. What was different was that he needed a crutch to make his walk. He was shot on April 16th, but survived his wounds to graduate.

The thousands attending learned of this the same way I did, through a flood of whispers swarming the building, "He's a survivor."

He survived his wounds and grief to celebrate. I urge managers to do the same at work. Grieve with your co-worker. Grieve personal tragedies and professional setbacks.

And celebrate as well.