SibsCorner: What I Learned When my Brother Joined the Workforce

By Erin Coleman

If I had to describe my brother in one word, the word would be “unpredictable.” If you gave me two words, I would say he’s “a character.” He’s spontaneous, gregarious, and charismatic – sometimes I wonder if we’re really related.

Eric and Conor Coleman

Erin and Conor Coleman

He has a certain charm that made all three of his employers immediately agreeable to taking him on as a volunteer; and later, along with his proven dedication, convinced two to give him a paid position.

But, let me be clear, I wouldn’t have called his unpredictability “charming” when we were kids. It meant never knowing when he might model a DD bra in the middle of a crowded department store, or request a sip from a fellow restaurant patron’s soda. That’s the kind of embarrassment you don’t just get over in 20 years.

I was happy to have my brother apply for a job at the independent toy store where I work; but, given the above, you can imagine my trepidation when his application was accepted!

I’m pleased to say, it turned out better than expected. Since starting his first volunteer job at our local library, eight years ago, my brother has learned a lot about workplace etiquette; and I have had the privilege of learning something as well – the same unpredictability that translates to embarrassment for a sibling translates to an asset in the workplace.

Here are just a few of the things I have learned from working with my brother…

Take initiative:

The arrangement was that my brother would volunteer at the toy store once a week; curling the ribbon we put on presents. But, ever determined to be at the center of the action, he often strayed from his station behind the counter to the sales floor. A couple weeks after beginning his volunteer job there, he made his first sales pitch. He approached a customer browsing the plush animals, and said, “Would you like a new friend?” The woman looked at him for a couple seconds, perplexed, and then hesitantly responded, “Sure, I’ll be your friend.”

“No,” my brother corrected, producing a plush kitten from behind his back, “I mean, would you like a new cat friend?”

“Oh,” the woman smiled as my brother stroked the kitten a couple times and passed it gently into her arms. “Yes, I think I would!”

Our manager said it was perhaps the fastest, and certainly the smoothest, sale she had ever witnessed – and he had executed it without training!

The lesson here is, don’t wait for an invitation to exhibit your natural skills. Trust your instincts and take initiative.

Speak your mind:

More recently, an Orthodox Jewish man came in to shop. After extending the prescribed welcome to the store, my ever-improvisational brother added, “Great beard!”

Our colleagues panicked, but needlessly.

The stunned expression that froze the man’s face melted into a smile upon recognizing the unique authenticity in my brother’s words. Rather than storming out in anger, he seemed to appreciate the sincerity.

It is worth noting, here, that the exchange could have ended much differently. I am grateful to our colleagues for gently and patiently explaining why, under different circumstances, my brother’s comment may have been deemed inappropriate, or even offensive. But, my brother helped us understand something too – the best way to win someone’s trust is not to recite the conventional script, but to speak your mind.

Request what you deserve:

My brother was fortunate to be part of a fantastic transition program for three years following high school. He worked with a job coach to gain vocational skills and become familiar with the Denver public transportation system. The objective was clear from the beginning – gain the requisite experience to eventually acquire a paid position. He graduated from the transition program in May 2013, and by the end of 2014 decided he had waited long enough for the elusive “eventually” to arrive. After his graduation, he was no longer supervised by a job coach, but he no longer needed to be. He had increased his focus and his stamina – working his way up from a half hour shift to a two-hour shift at the toy store. And, in addition to curling ribbon, he had taken on the responsibility of cleaning demo toys and straightening some of the racks. He felt as though he had proven himself. So, taking matters into his own hands, he asked our manager, “Do you think I could start getting paid?” Though the thought that my brother deserved payment had already crossed her mind, it was his explicit request that really got the ball rolling. He received his first paycheck from the toy store in January 2015, making this his one-year anniversary of being an official, paid employee.

Combining both his volunteer and paid jobs, my brother has been working at our local library for eight years, Rocky Mountain Human Services for four years, and Timbuk Toys for three and a half years.

There is nothing about my brother’s approach to life that is rushed – ask anyone who has waited for him to finish his meal at a restaurant. But, unlike most people, he seizes opportunities when the time is ripe. That is what makes him so unpredictable… and so successful!

Erin Coleman is a board member and volunteer for Sibling Tree, an organization that provides support groups and activities for siblings of individuals with Special Needs. She has lived in Denver her entire life and is grateful for the opportunity to connect with, and empower, other local siblings.

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