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This piece of advice changed my life, but not in the way intended

That little piece of advice

During my third year of undergrad, I had the great idea to apply for MD/PhD programs.  These are joint programs that would allow me to practice medicine and conduct research.  My goal was to use my MD to provide medical care to the medically underserved (particularly transgender, low income, and non-white populations) while doing biomedical research in health disparities.

As part of my preparation for the application process, I needed to shadow a physician.  This proved more difficult than I first thought, partially because I didn’t know any doctors (I didn’t have a primary care physician) and apparently didn’t have anyone who could really hook me up with one either.  My university lacked the resources to pair pre-med students with local doctors.  I mentioned this to several of the pre-med advisors.

One mentioned an opportunity at a clinic to me that he could connect me to.  I won’t go into the details, but I knew the clinic rather well for some very harmful things they did to the transgender community.  For that and other reasons, I declined the offer, and let this mentor know why I declined.

His answer?

“Well, that’s even more of a reason to do it.  As a doctor, you’ll have to treat people you don’t like.”

This is the statement that I want to focus on today because it had a lasting impact on how I view a healthy working environment.

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Sounds reasonable enough, right?

Let’s just start by saying that this statement is false.  Many people have been and are denied healthcare because of their skin color, religion, gender identity, sexuality, orlack of insurance.  There appear to be no repercussions for a physician to refuse service to a patient.  And while I believe that this is (probably) against the Hippocratic Oath, it does happen.  And if I wanted to be one of those people, except instead refusing to serve Neo-Nazis (for example), I could do so.  I’m not saying I would or that it would be right.  I’m just saying I could.

But more importantly, what does this statement say about this person’s view of a healthy working environment.  To me, it reeked of someone who has had generally good relationships with coworkers, generally good success when trouble may have come up, and generally healthy working situations.  That’s a fantastic sentiment, but difficult for me to swallow.  As someone who has been harassed, denigrated, slandered, and more at my workplace, it didn’t sit right with me.  And it wasn’t until this mentor said this to me that I really understood how important a statement this actually was.

The parts of society I have lived in have had this to say about working:

  • “You’re lucky to have a job.”
  • “I can fire you anytime, for any reason.”
  • “You’re easily replaced.”
  • “You’ll do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it.”
  • “[You’re work] … isn’t good enough.”
  • “Get more done with less time.”
  • “Get more done with less pay.”

And more.  I was at the whim of corporate management, and in between awards for customer service and for sales, I was told each and every one of these things.  And these are some of the nice things.  When a higher-up said something nice or tried to be supportive, they usually disappeared very quickly.  I worked with some fantastic people over the years I was in retail, but I also worked with some horrible ones.  And sadly, the horrible experiences stick with me far too well.

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The statement he didn’t know he made

The answer my mentor gave me, “you’ll have to… [do things] …you don’t like”, was an obvious one.  Of course, in any job, there is no perfection.  There will always be hard days and tasks I wish I didn’t have to do.  This was what he meant by this statement.

But what he didn’t say, but that really got me when I started to think about it, was that I needed to choose my future carefully.  Instead of taking the power out of my own hands (e.g. “I’ll get this job and hope everything works out.”), I started thinking about my future as a block of clay, something I could mold into a happy and healthy and (hopefully) successful endeavor.

I realized, when thinking about my future, I needed to ask more questions than just “does the job sound fun”.  

So, what else should I ask:

  • Is the physical working environment comfortable?
  • How far/long am I willing to travel to get to work?
  • How much time do I want to spend with my partner?
  • How much time do I want to have available for hobbies?
  • How important is money?  How much is enough?
  • Am I willing to trade money for happiness? (higher pay for worse working conditions)
  • Do I get along with coworkers?  Will I still get along with them after a year?
  • How much “drama” and gossip is there among coworkers?
  • Do I get along with my supervisors?  Will I still get along with them after a year?
  • Is there anyone here “like me”?
  • How much autonomy do I have?
  • Do I work for someone who doesn’t understand my job?
  • Is it flexible enough for my changing needs?
  • Can I be “out” here safely? (This means explicit statements including gender + benefits for trans* people, not just the contact person saying “we’re LGBT friendly”, which means nothing)
  • Will I be forced to work with people who I have ethical issues with (like the Neo-Nazi example above)?
  • Are grievances met with hostility?

We’ll stop there.  

A healthy working environment

As you can see, for me, a healthy working environment is a thoughtful process.  I was recently reminded of this by someone telling me that I should always be concerned about my next job, making sure I’m always presenting myself in a way that’s hirable.  And while I already have the mindset of “I don’t put something online if I think I’ll regret it later”, I don’t want my speech or presentation or personal choices to be hindered AFTER I get a job.  In other words, if someone doesn’t want to hire a politically active, jewish-raised, queer, trans*, pagan person with mental health issues, I’d rather know that up front.  I’d rather not be in the same situation I have been in the past, where someone suddenly “finds out” something about me, and then I’m ostracized and fearing for my safety at work.

My hope is that I’m hirable as is.  I have good recommendations and I’m attempting to build a good portfolio.  But where do I go from here?  What job do I choose?  Well, we’ll just have to to see, won’t we?

What are your must-haves for a healthy working environment?  What steps have you taken to ensure that people you manage are happy?  Any horror stories?  Let me know in the comments!

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