What’s That Smell?

I am a pretty good judge of character. Character is a good thing when it falls within that fairly narrow band of behaviors we generally accept as normal and when it comes in moderate doses. To be sure, we get a lot of characters applying for jobs; it just takes a keen eye and about six minutes to weed out the dubious and the downright strange. Of course, that depends on your definition of dubious.

The Small Office makes the hiring process difficult for applicants. They must run a gauntlet of interviews and submit to a series of written tests, along with background checks by the NSA and blood work by SETI looking for alien DNA. Well, not quite, of course, but close enough. And even so, some ditzes, defectives and duds slip through the cracks.

Not on this day, however. For some reason, I was asked to meet with a prospective mid-level accounting clerk named Glen. I only received Glen’s CV minutes before the interview and so I had to look it over on the spot. The footer of the CV had the name Amanda on it. I asked him who that was. He said it was his girlfriend. I asked why her name was on his CV. Despite being outed so early in the game, he replied with no apparent discomfort that she had written the CV for him. I then noticed that his reference was also named Amanda. I scratched my head in mock misapprehension. Is the Amanda that gave you the reference the same as the one who wrote your CV? Sure is, he answered proudly. A friend in need, eh?

I scratched my head in mock misapprehension.

I once had to interview a prospect for an executive assistant post. She was a bit matronly, her hair tightly wound into a bun in a way that made it look like she was asking a question. A silk scarf hung loosely around her neck. When she walked into my office and sat herself down in the leather chair I keep for just such occasions, I detected an odd but familiar scent. As we talked and compared her experience with the job’s requirements, that smell and its mysterious origins became a distraction. Menthol? Camphor? Old people? She talked, I sniffed. Is that smell harmful to pregnant women? Cats? I sniffed, she talked. Then it hit me. “Got it!” I exclaimed aloud, startling her. It’s Bengay. Hah!

There was a lip smacker, an eye roller, a persistent farter, and a Gen Yer who, in a stupefying moment of Darwinian self-destruction, when asked what she liked about her old job responded that she appreciated how all her colleagues covered for her when she missed assignments or came to work late.

H.L. Mencken claimed that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Perhaps. But you could well go broke hiring them.

Terminal Velocity

“Hell… as every frequent traveler knows, is in Concourse D of O’Hare Airport.”  – Dave Barry

I have spent, over the course of my career, too much time in airport terminals. Chicago’s O’Hare, which in the past I have cited as the only airport in the world that screams at you, is endlessly dreary. Your senses and sensibilities are under continuous assault. You are surrounded – or, more accurately, engulfed – and invariably jostled by people who want to be somewhere else. And, oh, good luck finding Concourse D!

I was travelling with our overly methodical and obsessively punctual CEO, the Man from Glad. We were waiting to board a plane; since we were flying United, we knew waiting was more a reality to be endured than a process to be followed.

Suddenly, his cell phone began to ding. Ding. Ding. What the heck is that? To his horror, our CEO realized that he had screwed up time zones and we actually (theoretically?) had a presentation to give in 10 minutes to a major investor.

First we ran to the United desk and cancelled our flight. Then began a frantic search for a quiet spot with Wi-Fi where we could set up. Restaurants along Concourse B were not going to provide the privacy we needed, most certainly not Tortas Frontera with its griddle-baked pork chorizo tortas, Wolfgang Puck Café or the Garrett Popcorn emporium. Eventually, with only minutes to go, we found a place approximately near nothing in particular, under stairs, with little but a narrow ledge to sit on.

He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips.

We were able to hook up with the investors and, cool as ice, as if presenting on the fly was standard practice, began our Powerpoint presentation.

Just one slide in, an airport ground crew employee in navy ARC-rated coveralls pulled up alongside, tore open a crinkly bag of Doritos, and launched into a very loud, open-mouthed chew. Munch, munch, crunch, crunch. Soon a buddy of his joined in, with a hoot and a high five. He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips. Crunch, crunch, munch, munch. Seriously? I thought to myself. I mean, seriously?

What’s that noise? inquired one our straight-laced investors. Chomp. Hold on for just a minute, replied our insouciant CEO. Munch. He leaned over to our two interlopers. Lunch. Would you mind so very much moving elsewhere so that we can make a presentation? He pointed to my laptop with an exaggerated air of resignation and shrugged heavily. Sure thing, mate, said one of the crew. The two cinched their chip bags closed, rose with a noisy flourish and sauntered off.

It all reminds me of a line from Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of publishing giant Random House: Good manners, he said, is the noise you don’t make when you’re eating soup.

There’s Something About Mary

I like Mary. She was an executive recruiter and did a pretty good job of it over the years. Plus her daughter, Kim, is training to be an astronaut. I must say that this is a source of great fascination to me and any updates I get on Kim sends my imagination to far away places, all of them more expansive than, say, the Small Office.

A couple of months ago, Mary started having issues – headaches, blurred vision, dizzy spells. She went to a neurologist and had an MRI. It turns out she had not one but two tumors behind her right eye. This is an unusual and unusually dangerous situation. Most of the time, these tumors are only found during the autopsy.

Fast forward… Mary underwent surgery. They removed one of the tumors but were afraid to touch the second, recognizing that if it ever dislodges, Mary becomes a fond memory. While she did survive the surgery, there was some brain damage. Essentially, she found herself unable to think quickly, to follow normal conversations, to focus intensely for any length of time. Clearly she could no longer do the job for which she was so well trained.

But Mary had done well for the company. She had been the company’s first contact for a number of senior managers, including me. And there is the whole astronaut thing.

However this turned out would be of our own devising.

At our Executive Committee meeting, our on-staff arachnid, the Black Widow, opined from her silken perch that we could not very well cut Mary loose but we could not keep her either. Black Widow’s mandibles clicked madly as she talked. Putting Mary on long-term disability would be one option. Rigor Mortis, looking at the legal side, suggested that Mary would likely not have the means or the energy to take us to court, so however this turned out would be of our own devising.

It was left to Bull Terrier to come up with a solution. Our V.P. Sales is wiry with buzz cut hair and a tenacious hold on his perception of reality. He has invariably been there and has almost certainly done that. Bull is a foe to be reckoned with and a friend to reckon on.

As automated as we are, he figured, there are stacks of reports to be filed. This is something Mary could do. She could work three or four days a week, at a slightly reduced clerical salary, but with her benefits package remaining intact. Rigor Mortis pointed out that there is precedence for such a solution since we have, in the past, put employees hurt on the job on reduced workload.

I watched with some satisfaction as my fellow managers worked their way through this issue. And I remembered the words of John Bunyan: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

Beer O’Clock

“The opposite side has its opposite side.” – Japanese Proverb

We have a consulting division that advises industrial and commercial customers on security installations. Obviously its financial metrics are totally different from what our product-based divisions use to measure their effectiveness. Things like inventory turns and return on assets are fairly meaningless. The team is comprised, for the most part, of techies. They are young and far-flung, working out of small, often home offices, in a dozen different cities.

Every Friday evening, they get together online for what they call Beer O’Clock. They share information, anecdotes, jokes, favorite Pins and stories on Digg. For every member of the team downing a pint in his basement lair, another has a toddler scooting through the dining room without her Huggies on. Skype keeps no secrets.

That said, the concept of Beer O’Clock intrigued a number of our Small Office denizens. What if every Friday afternoon, the Marketing Department, say, knocked off early, sauntered off to the local pub and, over beer and nachos, discussed strategy, shared project updates, told war stories.

The topic came up at one of our management meetings. In attendance were the usual suspects. Rigor Mortis, who heads up our legal department, seemed thinner and more distracted since his wife died. The Black Widow, our VP Human Resources, dangled overhead, a spectral presence, peering down on the unwary passer-by.

She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting.

Rigor Mortis warned us that any company initiative that involves drinking could well end up in a lawsuit if a booze-related accident occurred subsequently, even if there is no direct link. The jurisprudence exists and the liability is significant. The Black Widow, questioned the motives of those who were promoting the idea. She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting or economically productive. She comes from the same school as Washington Irving: They who drink beer will think beer. I have to admit I’m more from the University of Frank Zappa, who cleverly observed that you cannot be a real country unless you have your own airline and your own beer.

It took our sagacious CEO, the Man from Glad to bring closure to this discussion.

“If any employee wishes to extend our office to another location”, he said, “then they should continue to follow the rules of our office. Which means no drinking on the premises.”

And that’s that.

What’s Up, Doc?

A half dozen of our senior managers were on a two-day leadership course. The topics ranged from negotiation tactics to handling troublesome employees to effective communications. One of the attendees was Cowboy Bob, resplendent in his Corral boots – the ones with the whiskey goat inlays and square toes. General Ledger, our dour CFO with the saucepan ears was also there.

We had several different instructors and group animators. Cowboy Bob had his eye on a woman named Mandy who looks suspiciously like Kate Winslet. She is high-class and high-spirited, and was clearly the object of his affection. Her outfit was conservative in theory but suggestive in practice. To be sure, Cowboy Bob was ready to practice. He is no youngster, but his broad shoulders and infectious smile easily melt away the years. Both he and Mandy were very professional but neither was above flirtation.

Her outfit was conservative in theory.

At the end of the second day, we were all handed out certificates. One by one, we were called up to the front of the room. Mandy would hand out a certificate and kiss the participant on the cheek. I could not miss the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms when it came time for my close up. Eventually, it was Cowboy Bob’s turn. Mandy called his name, but he didn’t budge. She looked around, caught his eye and smiled seductively. He still didn’t move. I leaned over slightly and said, hey Bob, what’s happening? He looked at me with helpless eyes and whispered, “I can’t get up”.

I looked down with a grin. Poor Cowboy Bob. Hoisted by his own petard.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas

I was travelling with our usually restrained and carefully guarded CEO, the Man from Glad. He never says anything that he might regret later. He knows that people could well misinterpret his words, binding the company to a perceived benefit that he had no intention of extending, so he is well versed in the art of waffling when asked for a commitment. He is warm without being intimate, helpful without overstepping his bounds.

So it was a shock when, waiting for a taxi at the airport, I heard him on his cell cooing to an albeit important client, “I love you Hans”. Hans is a million dollar customer and knows it. He is an old style Prussian with little patience for the niceties of relationship building.

I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

I have to admit to being really uncomfortable with the terms of endearment and, after he hung up, I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

“Excuse me? I love you Hans? Really?”

My travelling partner looked at me quizzically. “What?”

“I heard you talking to Hans. You said…”

“I was talking to my wife”, he interjected. “I said, ‘I love you Hon.’ What is wrong with you?”

“Oh,” I said, staring off into the distance, admiring a fluffy cloud that looked ever so much like a cow. “I knew that.”

Chowderhead

Kyle C. is a no-nonsense Yankee clipper who grew up in a small fishing village in northern Maine. He laughs easily, is hospitable in the way of small town folk and way too sensitive. He can be, by his own assessment, rude and ignorant, especially when he feels wronged. But he is honest and has a big heart – for this reason above all, customers up north love him to bits.

Kyle was helping man a booth at a trade show in Boston. He wasn’t feeling well and, at the advice of colleagues, left the venue and went to a nearby hospital. It became pretty clear that the clam chowder he had at lunch had become unsettled. He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour, but figured there was sour cream or something of the sort in the mix. He was wrong.

His stomach was now churning, his lunch, breakfast, dinner the night before, perhaps one from a week ago when he was in Milwaukee, were returning to the scene of the crime.

He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour.

Well he pitched and he spewed and he cast out the chyme and the chyle of his innards along with, he was certain, whole chunks of his thorax. His bowels disgorged all the evils in the world in a chum like sauce. He groaned and he grimaced at the sight of his soiled gown.

And then, as he looked up, to his horror and dismay, in walked one of the dealers he knew. And then another. One by one. Then two by two, like his room was Noah’s Ark. Word had spread at the show that Kyle had fallen ill. Well they loved him to bits after all and they all felt the need to offer their support and best wishes for a speedy recovery. In person.

Kyle covered his face with a pillow, groaned again, then pulling the pillow away began to laugh. He laughed in the way of small town folk.