Fair Enough

It’s the new year and time to empty last year’s OUT basket.

By this time, appraisals along with evaluations of long term potential, succession plans, promotions, raises, bonuses and so on are in the books. But, once all was said and done, it seems like something more should be said about some of the things that were done.

I admit to being particularly vexed by our bonus system. It is discretionary. That means, in theory, that we have a meritocracy and those who deserve greater consideration will get it. What generally happens, though, is that more senior employees gobble up greater chunks of the pie simply because they are perceived as more valuable. Which means that the bonus system is tiered, not by rating but by level. (See what I did there?)

Do you remember Jessica? She provides content for various social media platforms. She was able to play the system, getting us to pay half of her husband’s very expensive medical plan. That whole business left the Black Widow’s eight eyes looking out of a glass darkly for months. That’s a lot of glowering.

Jessica’s performance met expectations but did not go much beyond them. Whiny Baby, as usual, found reasons to dim the glow on any of her reports and Jessica did not rise above the dreary outlook on her department as a whole.

The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing.

As we have pointed out on several occasions, social media is not an area that captures the attention, much less the imagination, of our senior managers. They generally feel that social media is set up for self-promotion or mischief. Neither contributes to brand building but both could serve as a motivation and a weapon in wrong but capable hands. So take no chances, give Jessica something – a couple of thousand, say – and call it a day.

I argued that we are giving her too much credit. Rigor Mortis, our wise but weather-beaten legal advisor, pointed out that awarding a bonus is a de facto judgment on performance that can be levered against us if we ever decided to terminate. The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing. Jessica did enough to earn her salary, she said, but not enough to merit a bonus. “And would two grand even be enough?” she wondered aloud. To use an analogy from Winston Churchill, can you satisfy a tiger by feeding it cat’s meat?

Ironically, that last query settled the matter. Our practical and otherwise parsimonious CEO, the Man from Glad, figured that if no one was truly happy by the amount of the bonus, it must be fair. So, we shrugged two grand her way and moved on.

Still Waters Run Deep

“Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them… there is nothing.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Would that this were the case. But Sartre was wrong. He was overly existential. He believed that existence supersedes essence. To this observer at least, it is the essence – not the existence – of things that tell the story. Certainly, as inscrutable as things may appear on the surface, they tell this story.

Ben is a program manager who works with architects, engineers and other specifiers. He has boundless energy and speaks volumes when just a few words would probably do. But there is another side to Ben that no one sees. Or, to be more precise, there is an underside to Ben that no one realizes is there.

The first issue is that Ben disappears. The presumption is always that he is on the road, but that is not a certainty. Indeed, the constant query, where is Ben? has become something of a joke in the Small Office. I do not see it as a thing to be laughed at and worry that there is something amiss. But he does his job well and, short of prying into his personal business, there is nothing to be done about it.

His face was more stony than solemn.

Recently, the wife of a staff member died and most in the office went to the funeral. The church was large and, with its vaulted ceilings and majestic stained glass windows, something to behold. Ben sat alone, in the very far corner of the very last pew near massive oak doors. Ben is hardly a loner but, here, in this place, he kept to himself. He did not move through the entire service. His face was more stony than solemn; I am not sure he blinked even once. It was as if this place held for him a past he preferred not to revisit. I could not help but feel that there was something happening here but, short of prying into his personal business, there was nothing to be done about it.

Last week, the Black Widow, our very existential and, by her own assessment, very essential V.P. of human resources, came to see me. It had come to her attention that Ben has a drinking problem. She wondered if I knew anything about that. I looked at her quizzically. What do you mean by “drinking problem”? There are plenty on staff who can drink me under the table with no ill effects. Put Cowboy Bob at the head of the list. But of all those in the commercial team who would stop in for a pint at the slightest provocation, I would have considered Ben the least likely. Somehow, someone saw something that led to a conclusion that may or may not be valid. I imagine our Black Widow will pry into his personal business and then decide what to do about it.

So what is Ben’s story? Can we make it out based on the fragments we see and the snippets others hear? More importantly, should we try?

If Mama Ain’t Happy

“She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly, but at a distance.” – Winston Churchill

Churchill was referring to his mother, of course. Mothers will always have a place in our hearts… just not always, hopefully, at our sides.

The manager of our Customer Care Center was hiring an inside sales person, someone who would be prepared to come in at odd hours to accommodate West Coast customers. One prospect showed up for his job interview with his mother. Astonishingly. The receptionist was astonished to see the two enter the building together, she with a purposeful stride, he barely able to keep up, virtually clinging to her petticoat. The Customer Care staff was collectively astonished to see the two strolling as one into their supervisor’s office, an uneven but inseparable couple. The manager was astonished and could only blink… though it might have been more of a twitch. And the Black Widow – who at the best of times has a propensity to devour her young – was astonished that the two could so easily pass through her otherwise impregnable web.

The mother not only sat through the interview, but also let it be known that she would negotiate the best deal for her son when, not if, they did the only logical thing, which was to hire him. The manager assured her that in his deliberations, her inclusion in the process would definitely factor into the decision making process. He thanked her for clarifying things that may not otherwise have come to his attention.

Newspaper editor Hodding Carer wrote about a wise women who once said to him: There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children: one of these is roots, the other wings. This poor lad was tethered by his matriarchal roots and smothered by her expansive wings. He was clearly unable to lift himself off the ground and fly on his own.

She pleaded her son’s case… explaining away the circumstances of his minor indiscretion.

Our very own Black Widow was not off the hook just yet. Only days after the Mother Hen Affair, an employee at one of our distribution centers was suspended for bringing a case of beer to work. (It was over-hoppy Heineken to boot, not one of my favorites, so we could add bad taste to bad judgment.) Had he actually been drunk, he would have been terminated on the spot, such is our zero tolerance policy on the issue of alcohol and the workplace. A grievance was filed by the union, instigated not by the employee, but by his mother. She pleaded her son’s case, vouching for his character and explaining away the circumstances of his minor indiscretion. Again, astonishment reigned among our C-level executives. Do we need to create a corporate policy on breast milk as well as booze?

Apparently, this is already occurring at a number of major industrial concerns. In her book, How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the Dean of Students at Stanford, notes that several big companies are already holding job information sessions for parents.

Let’s just say that there is no place for helicopter moms in the Small Office and that, for the record, both our not so intrepid youths were summarily and unceremoniously grounded.

Drill Pickle

Like pretty much every company, we have randomly held fire drills. It is not like we represent a potential liability for insurance companies. Our industry is not high risk by its very nature and our offices, operations and distribution centers are not in high-risk areas. This is important because insurance companies have become more discriminating about who they will insure and where.

On a sleepy Friday afternoon of a nothing week sliding headlong into a week-end of insignificance, we had one of those fire drills. It was like putting an exclamation mark at the end of a very dull sentence.

For each floor of our head office complex, we had assigned two fire marshals. In the event of a drill or a real fire, their job is to clear their designated areas quickly and without drama. Everyone in their respective zones must be accounted for. They have absolute authority once the alarm sounds. Evacuating our head office should take around three minutes.

Bryan C. is a mid-level manager. On this hypnotically somnolent day, the siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy. It was a most welcome distraction. I was only too happy to lead the charge out of the building.

Bryan C. obviously was not. He kept working on his computer, undeterred by the ear-splitting cacophony of the alarm. And, unfortunately, unimpressed by the young female fire marshal who tried to wave him out of his office. The marshals can easily be identified by their red hard hats, so it’s not like he could say he didn’t know who she was or what her purpose might be.

The siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy.

In 15 minutes, the drill was over and each of the Small Office denizens returned to his or her office. Our intrepid fire marshal was furious that Bryan ignored her requests, then entreaties, then demands that he vacate the premises. She subsequently complained to the Health & Safety Coordinator of the Black Widow’s human resources department.

There was quite a discussion held at the highest levels about the incident. Bryan’s boss did his best to defend his employee, arguing that he was facing strict deadlines and would not be dissuaded from completing his task on time. He should be lauded, not lambasted. The Black Widow tapped the tiled floor impatiently, then let out a silent hiss. Bryan flaunted the rules, she said, and disrespected an employee doing her job. She wanted an example set. Our legal mind, Rigor Mortis, addressed the question of whether following safety protocol was a condition of employment. The discussion went hither and thither till it landed square at the figure of our Solomonesque CEO, the Man from Glad.

He spoke softly but held the big stick. Bryan made a choice, he said. When it comes to safety, however, there is no choice. When it comes to respecting others, there is no choice. When it comes to adhering to company policy – especially one on which lives depend, there is no choice. If there is no choice, there is no need for discussion.

Bryan was suspended without pay for two weeks. He apologized to the fire marshal.

Throne for a Loop

Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator. (Why do you laugh? Change the name and this is your story.)

So here’s a few things you’ve got to know about black widow spiders. Not the Small Office version, not our head of human resources, filled with venom and shrouded in mystery though she is. No, the real black widows. They are rather shy creatures, preferring to stay low to the ground, hidden in dark corners. They seldom bite unless threatened or (literally) pressed hard and, even then, won’t necessarily waste their venom on you; they’d rather save it for a meal. The venom won’t kill, though it could make you quite ill.

Black widow spiders are also kind of neat, with a very complex system of communication. They can transmit very detailed messages using vibrations and pheromones deposited on the silky threads of their sticky webs. The scent will tell visiting males if his female host has mated before and if she is hungry. Both would be of keen interest to the male if this particular female is the kind that consumes her mate after sex.

Now you are likely very confused, still unsure if I am talking about black widows in general or the one in particular. I cannot blame you; personally, I can hardly tell them apart.

Anyway, our Black Widow has an office with its very own bathroom. It makes sense to be self-contained; everything HR should be kept under wraps after all. And low to the ground and hidden in dark corners.

Earlier this week, she had an important management meeting to attend and, knowing it was likely to drag on, decided to lighten her load. On this day, however, fortune was not on her side. Her toilet blocked.

So more latin: Media vita in morte sumus. Smack in the middle of the day, her life going along just fine, everything came to a sudden stop. Our Black Widow was in deep… uh… trouble.

Now she was not totally helpless. She had a plunger standing at the ready in a corner. And a knife and fork for that matter. This happened before and Black Widow knew what to do. She plunged. But nothing. She plunged again. Nothing again. Plunge, plunge. Nothing, nothing. This was not a good thing. The hourglass tattooed on her abdomen was filling with panic. Plunge, plunge.

She tried to break up the pieces, but the hardness she showed others was coming back to her in spades and the pieces held firm. The cookies, shall we say, wouldn’t crumble.

A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Time passed. The meeting had already started. The secretary poked her head in the doorway. Is everything okay? she called out to her boss. Black Widow answered her meekly. Vibrations. Pheromones. She tried to explain her dilemma as delicately as she could. The secretary tried not to laugh. Don’t press the spider.

Well, whoever said “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” wasn’t in Black Widow’s office that day.

Her colleagues, wondering where she was, decided to check in on her. The first to arrive was – fortunately for her – Rigor Mortis. He has a calmness about him that is contagious. Is everything okay? he asked the secretary. Not quite so, came the reply. Does she have a plunger? Yes. Always. Does it have a flange at the bottom? He asked our awkwardly inconvenienced arachnid though the door. Is the flange out? I can help you if you need. Noooo!, Black Widow wailed.

General Ledger then appeared, straight as an arrow. To the heart. Then Bull Terrier. When the nature of this particular beastly situation became apparent to him, a wicked smile began to form at the corners of his lips. Can I help, he asked our mortified araneomorph. Plunge, plunge. I don’t want to bowl you over with advice, he went on. All that plunging must have made you quite flushed. He snickered.

The Black Widow went into a frenzy, pumping so hard, the soupy mess splattered all over her pants and shoes. A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Our supportive and mostly sensitive CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the fray. As did his bosomy secretary, Miss Pigeon. The circumstances may not have been auspicious, but you have to give Black Widow credit: she is certainly able to draw a crowd.

Well, Miss Pigeon may be top-heavy and hard to take but, as in the Desktop Affair, she took matters in hand (so to speak) and shooed everyone out of the room. She called down to maintenance and apprised them of the situation. Then she told Black Widow to clean up and get out. This she did… and well she did because the maintenance guy appeared shortly.

Undeterred by the odiferous and oleaginous slop, he worked on the blockage and quickly resolved the issue. He left with a tip of his cap and without a word.

Aesop’s fables made use of humble incidents to teach great truths. There was no great truth to our tale, however, no moral to learn, no aetiological function to derive. There was nothing to learn from it at all except, perhaps, that misery does not really love company. But, like a traffic accident, it certainly manages to attract it.

A Bitter Pill

A while back, I wrote about J.C. and how he turned state tax – or, more precisely, the lack of one – into a salary boost. This gave him an unfair advantage over his peers. Well, the Black Widow and her multi-legged HR minions had another weird one to deal with this week. I am never quite sure what she sees from her vantage point (tucked away as she usually is in dark places), but I do know this one had her wickedly pacing back and forth across her sticky web.

The Small Office has a medical plan, which means you do not have to default to The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known familiarly as Obamacare. The company pays the standard cost of a private health plan in whatever location you reside. If you live in Canada, where Medicare has been around since forever, the company outlay is low. If you live, say, in Denver, Colorado, the outlay can be very high indeed. Jessica, a social media maven, lives in Denver.

The cost of health coverage through a private health service provider could run as much as $20,000. This, like the J.C. situation, further hampers us in our attempt to create a fair and equitable hierarchy-based salary structure.

So Jessica made us an offer she was sure we could not refuse. Her husband already has a health plan of his own. It is a Platinum level family plan covering checkups, vaccines, urgent care, lab and hospital services, as well as prescription drugs. It costs him that $20,000 a year. If we were to pay for half of his plan, we would be able to provide the promised coverage at half the cost, saving $10,000. That her husband’s plan would now only cost them half as much should be irrelevant to us. It’s a win-win. The net effect, however – the real bother – is that we would be paying ten grand for coverage she already has. In other words, it is a simple money grab.

What we do becomes what we are willing to do.

But Jessica made her offer in such soft and sincere tones that we could hardly ascribe spurious motives to her proposal.

In the Charles Dickens novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a wonderful image of a similarly calculated expression. Madame Todgers, who owns the boarding house where the Pecksniffs stay when in London, “stood for some moments gazing at the sisters (Seth Pecksniff’s daughters, Charity and Mercy) with affection beaming in one eye and calculation shining out of the other”.

You would imagine the Black Widow, likely trained by the greatest trickster of them all – Anansi the Spider – would have an answer for Jessica. That she didn’t was quite vexing to her. And once again, we were creating precedents, something anathema to the Small Office way of being. We checked with Rigor Mortis, our counsel, who basically said that the exception defines the rule. What we do becomes what we are willing to do. Or, simply put, our actions define our policy.

As usual, it was left to our level-headed leader, the Man from Glad, to end the deliberations. This, he said, will leave a bad taste in our mouths and $10K in the bank. That’s not a bad trade-off. Swallow hard and make the deal.

Which, of course, we did. Which, of course, we were always likely to do.

(Note to Small Office visitors: If you wish to meet the likes of Montague Tigg, Augustus Moddle, Lafayettte Kettle and Zepaniah Scadder, to say nothing of the ladies Spottletoe and Gamp, give Martin Chuzzlewit a read.)

Hire Education

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft-a-gley”
– Robert Burns from To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

There is no doubt that even the best-laid plans can go askew. Including those that are well conceived by those who are well intentioned.

Someone is always being hired at the Small Office. Although I can see the benefits of adding new talent with diverse backgrounds and other points of view, my first inclination is to fill openings from within. Our calculating and, at times, contrarian CEO, the Man from Glad, prefers to go outside, caught up in the notion that recycling talent keeps the company where it is while adding talent moves it forward.

Matt is a talented kid who has the skills and the drive to be a good product manager. But he is young and has yet to prove he can successfully pilot a portfolio into fierce economic and competitive headwinds. Although his boss has lobbied for his promotion, our senior management – led by HR’s ominous overlord, the Black Widow – have their doubts. They’ll believe he could do it when he has done it and not likely before.

So we brought in a consultant to put Matt through a series of psychometric tests. These tests were designed to determine Matt’s ability to interpret numerical data, measure his critical and inductive reasoning skills, and evaluate his situational judgment.

It was a gruelling exercise conducted by a hardened and unsympathetic old timer.

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in they breastie!”
(Small, crafty, cowering, timid little beast,
Oh what a panic is in your little breast!”)
– Burns, To a Mouse

It was a grueling exercise conducted by a hardened and unsympathetic old timer. A very old timer. His bald head was decorated with age spots. A short, grizzled beard and sunken cheeks gave him the look of a Maine fisherman. His nose jutted out aggressively and his ears drooped. He was stooped, as if his 80 or so years were still carrying the full weight of his four marriages.

As it happened, the old gent took a liking to Matt. He informed Matt that the test results were surprisingly favorable and that he would recommend him for the job. His arthritic hands, shaking from Parkinson’s disease, clung tremulously to the test papers.

Matt went to bed that night, content and convinced that the world would be his very obliging oyster by the morning. The old timer went to bed that night and died.

He never submitted the results to his company or to ours. In fact, the results were not to be found anywhere. It was like it never happened. The Black Widow decided to hold off on the promotion. A month later, an outsider with a diverse background and another point of view got the job. And that was that.

“Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane.”
(Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one.”)
– Burns, To a Mouse