I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said something like this: “Everyone hated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer until they discovered they needed him. Then suddenly everyone was his best friend.” It was a tad dark, a bit humorous, and surprisingly thought-provoking, mostly because it was correct. Unsung in the ballad that tells the tale, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, and those other reindeer were all workplace bullies and first-class A-holes.
Merely because he was different. Just because he had an impairment; an impairment turned disability purely by the attitude of his community. We all know that everyone would laugh and call him names. Heck, they wouldn’t even let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games.
Until, of course, that fateful foggy Christmas Eve, when Santa came to say, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you save my ass tonight?”
Current versions of the song word it differently, but believe me, that is what Santa was really asking Rudolph to do. And the rest is history. Rudolph saved Santa’s fanny, was returned to full duty without restrictions, and they all lived happily ever after.
The key to this success was in recognizing that a being with impairment, who was different from the rest, could still be a functionally contributing member of society. In fact, Rudolph could have been a valuable member of his community much earlier, if those around him had not hampered that progress with their ignorant pre-conceived notions. This is a lesson we could use in the world of workers’ compensation, and more specifically, in the realm of return to work.
In fact, the story can be quite similar to those we hear of in workers’ comp. Many injured workers, once injured and off the job, find themselves feeling abandoned by those they worked with. Workplace friends they socialized with stop calling. Their employer doesn’t talk to them anymore. They are cast alone into a system they don’t know or understand and feel deserted in the process. The word they often use to describe themselves is “pariah.”
No one wants them in their reindeer games. Or any other game for that matter.
Certainly, this is not the same as the overt bright-nose bigotry initially displayed by the employees of Santa’s North Pole facility, but the tacit responses by those whom they felt close to can have the same result. Fortunately for Rudolph, there was a special need that allowed for accommodation in the workplace. They simply needed to put him at the front of the team to take advantage of his particular skill set.
And everyone was better off as a result. Even those bullies Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.
There are things we can do to avoid the Rudolph scenario. Working with injured workers to help them adapt to new realities is one. Creating a world they can once again participate in is another. And an essential part of accomplishing that is communicating openly and clearly during the healing process.
And it goes without saying, don’t be a bigoted a-hole about their particular condition.
One more thing: This holiday season, remember any Rudolphs who right now cannot be part of your team. Reach out, if for no other reason than to say hello and ask how they are doing. You might be surprised how much it means to them.