Tick, Tax, Toe

Equitable treatment of employees is one of the more enlightened corporate policies to which the Small Office can lay claim. The company is, for the most part, a meritocracy; you do the job well, you are rewarded. If two employees at the same level do their jobs equally well, they are rewarded equally well. Perhaps more equal than well, but that is another story.

Which brings us to J.C. He is a senior sales rep working out of our Seattle office. He is a fine employee, a salt-of-the-earth fellow with little to deride and nothing obvious to admire. He is vanilla pudding in a job where you’d prefer a bit more flavor, but that, too, is another story. The real story is that he earns, net, more than virtually all his peers.

Why? Because he lives in Seattle, Washington, and Washington does not have a state tax. It is one of seven states that levy no income tax at all. So right off the bat, J.C.’s net is considerably more than most of his peers – a whopping 9.3% more than those living in California. If one happens to work in Canada, the same salary is worth (or at least costs the company) 30% less because of currency exchange. If that Canadian employee happens to live in Quebec, an $85,000 salary is subject to provincial tax of 24%.

One could argue – and, indeed, some employees have – that the system is unfair. The Black Widow was unmoved by their arguments on the basis that apples are not oranges and Seattle is not San Jose and certainly not Quebec, not just in terms of taxes but also in terms of the cost of living and even the job market itself.

Add one cup of fresh blueberries and one teaspoon of cinnamon.

Well the story takes an odd turn – as they usually do in the Small Office. J.C. lived in Seattle and paid no taxes. When he moved to Atlanta, he realized that, after tax, he would earn 6% less. We couldn’t expect him to make a move and lose income at the same time. We eventually relented and increased his gross by just over 6%.

If you follow the Small Office long enough, you could guess what comes next. J.C. moved back to Seattle just a year later. It was clear to him that we couldn’t expect him to make a move and cut his gross salary at the same time. In making his case, he told the Black Widow that apples are not oranges and Seattle is not Atlanta, not just in terms of taxes but also in terms of the cost of living and even the job market itself. We eventually relented and so, in the space of 12 months, J.C. got for himself a raise of 6% excluding any adjustment for merit, cost of living or promotion.

He was always one step ahead of the company. Take that vanilla pudding, then add one cup of fresh blueberries and one teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

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.

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.