What to do with the 'Flo's' of Child Protection

If the work made passionate people act like Flo on the TV series "Alice," then the work can bring them back.

Remember the TV series "Alice"? It ran between 1976 and 1985 and featured a trio of waitresses making it through life at Mel’s Diner. If you don’t remember the show, you probably have at least heard actress Polly Holliday’s catch phrase, “Kiss my Grits,” which her character Flo seemed to use almost as much as the show used that 70’s laugh track.

Alice was the star, but I remember Flo the most, probably because I hated her. I don’t know why, but I always wanted Mel to fire her on the spot. She was rude to customers, yelled at her boss and seemed flippant about the entire ordeal. I just wanted her canned. I remember wondering why Mel would have hired her in the first place.

Last year, I was working with a child abuse investigation office and had stopped to ask someone questions about their routine and the process of entering report information into the computer system. I introduced myself and tried to explain what we were trying to do. She interrupted.

“I don’t have time for you, but they told me I had to cooperate, so please just tell me what I have to do to get you leave.”

I left. Total Flo.

At the next cube, figuring I would break the ice, I started with a comment about the artwork tacked to the fabric wall.

“It’s from my kid … back when they were small and cute. How can I help you?”

A bit better, but not what I was expecting from people who have been “called” to dedicate their lives to helping children and families. I use that word intentionally. These workers are not recruited nor did they come to their positions through some cosmic coincidence or by simply seeing a wanted ad. Those people don’t make it in the field for more than a few months. The people with careers in this area have a gift; they are called and they answer the call.

It takes a special human being to do this work each day. To get a constant stream of phone calls about neglected or hurt children, to have to knock on a stranger’s door to determine if the state is going to have to take custody to keep their child safe, to sit down with a four-year-old and ask unimaginable questions. I can’t do it. For me, the worst part wasn’t the potential of taking a child away from their parent, it was leaving them with the understanding that while that child may have a hard life ahead, no laws have been broken. I did a few ride alongs and I was done. People that can do that day in and day out are amazing. They get a phone call at 2 a.m. and head out without hesitation. They bravely walk into drug houses, stand up to violent criminals and make the tough calls in order to bring hope to a child who is hurting. These are the amazing people of government.

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So, why were they treating me like Mel when I was just collecting data? Not all, but a lot of these investigators, had a chip on the shoulder. They don’t think twice about arguing with their supervisor, rolling their eyes at a colleague or tossing an allegation around to see the response. In some cases we had entire offices of Flo’s with no fun loving Vera’s to balance them out. How is it that these are the amazing people? How did they get past HR? When is Mel going to start firing all of them?

Then, I met with a group of investigators who had just graduated from their training. They were still in the first six months of working with families. They had stories of kids they had worked with, they had tears for families that were not going to make it together, they had doubts that they could deal with the stress that comes with the territory. This is what I expected: amazing people.

And then it dawned on me: We didn’t hire Flo. We hired the amazing people who answered the calling, and then we turned them into Flo. Between the nature of the work, and the twisted gunked-up pipes we force them to work in, we created a workforce that would rather be left to do what they were called to do and the rest of us can all “Kiss their Grits.”

I understand it, but I’m not sure I like it, or that we can’t make it better for everyone.

First, three indicators that you have an office of Flo’s:

  1. They self prioritize. One of the things I learned early on in my studies is that if every procedure and policy was followed on every case, no one could possibly keep up with the workload in a timely manner. If there are no clogs, it takes 22 hours to get through the pipes. That means if every family member was available for interviews when the investigator was on site, that every assessment and visit that needed to occur occurred without a hitch, and that the paperwork was completed the first time without being interrupted, we would need 22 hours to work a case. But, the people I worked with were getting three to five cases a week, or 66 to 110 hours of work for a 40 hour work week. Every week they were falling 22 to 70 hours behind. It is not physically possible to do it all, so they prioritize what needs to be done. If you ask about policy, they would most likely tell you it’s all a priority. But the truth is, putting eyes on a new family is often more of a priority than following up with a cousin who isn’t accused of anything, but lived in the house of another case for a short time last year. Flo’s find the time for what they feel are the most important aspects of their jobs and the others can “Kiss my Grits.”

  2. They hear you, but the behavior doesn’t change. The Flo’s get it when they are called in to be chastised for not getting report paperwork done in a timely manner, or for missing a deadline on a family visit, or seemingly wasting a day in court for a hearing that was postponed. They know you’re upset, and they understand why they are being disciplined. They also know this is the way of the world they live in and you might as well schedule another “coaching session” for next week. Flo’s understand, or at least blame, the conditions of the work environment as the root cause of their shortcomings. Until that is fixed, the supervisor can “Kiss my Grits.”

  3. The passion is buried pretty deep. Flo’s don’t chat much about families they have worked with, don’t celebrate the little wins and don’t cry over the little losses. Make no mistake, the passion is there, otherwise there’s no other reason to come to work. It’s certainly not the pay or the accolades. It’s still their calling. It’s just not easily seen. Flo’s know why they come to work. If you don’t believe them, “Kiss my Grits.” There are other indicators I’m sure, but those are the three I see most. Unfortunately, once you have a staff of Flo’s it is very difficult to have the diner you desire. It seems as a coworker, a manager, or even a passerby, that what you have is Mel’s: a place that gets the meals done, and occasionally has some laughs, but no one is coming to do a Food Network series on the blue plate special. It also makes it extremely difficult to get staff to engage in anything innovative, as they often see any change as more work or a potential altering of the system they have come to know.
It might not sound like a pleasant work environment, but I suggest we (managers, HR, coworkers, training coordinators, and advocacy groups) don’t try to change your Flo’s. If we all act like Mel, yelling back and fighting with Flo, then much like the sitcom, we simply embolden them as they become used to the yelling. Worst case scenario, they leave the place they once felt called to and we have to fill their experienced seat with either someone new or less passionate. We have to realize that if the work made amazing people act like Flo, then the work can bring them back.

The first thing we need to do is remove those factors that suppress their passion. We cannot continue to give them an unrealistic workload and pile on seemingly infinite policy changes that cannot possibly be upheld. We need to trust their skills and the training to make the right decisions at the time and prepare to support them when things go wrong. We need to remove the fear that when a child is hurt it is somehow going to land on their desk alone.

Removing those barriers allows the amazing people to generate amazing results. That said, eliminating barriers can be quite difficult. We simply cannot hire 100 more investigators or stop people from calling in with allegations. It takes a serious look at the pipes and the way we work. After all, we all want the same thing: healthy, happy families and workers that feel a calling to be a part of that process. When given the proper environment to thrive, Flo’s rise to the occasion every time. The motivation is built in.

The show "Alice" won eight Golden Globes before going off the air. I’m not sure any of those were for best catch phrase, but I imagine one reason the show was so popular was because we all know our share of Flo’s. The secret isn’t how do we get rid of the sassy back-talking staff, but how do we turn our diners into places where people want to come and eat, and work and enjoy. Let us know your thoughts on the Flo’s that work in your area, how to reignite your own passion when work is overwhelming. To wrap up this series on child protection agencies, the next article will talk about the roles the various organizations play in fixing the pipes!

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.