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.

Hired Gun

“The average girl would much rather have beauty than brains because she knows the average man can see better than he can think.” (Ladies’ Home Journal)

Linda is responsible for social media. To be honest, the Small Office pays lip service to social media, being more of a “push” kind of company than a “pull” one. It focuses on the channel first and the end user second. Few of our C level executives know the difference between Instagram and Pinterest and most can’t imagine why they would care. They know about Google, but Google+? None would ever tweet or blog. The notoriety, accessibility and reciprocity that make social media work make them nervous. So Linda has her work cut out. And she works for Whiny Baby, which has its own challenges.

So it was a big deal when the company agreed to hire a second person to work for Linda. The title would be content marketer. The job is to create interesting and relevant material that will drive visitors our website. The person would have to be creative and talented and have a university degree.

Linda was in the process of interviewing candidates when one of Whiny Baby’s superiors came in from left field and offered up a candidate of his own. The message was: do the interview and, if everything is good, hire her. Case closed. So Linda interviewed this person. Everything, however, was not good.

What this person had going for her was a very healthy ego and a very useful connection. What she did not was creativity, talent or a university degree. She was not worried about being able to do the job. After all, how hard could it be? And is Linda really going to be her boss?

So Linda told Whiny Baby that this particular candidate was not right for the job, thank you for asking. Can she continue on with her original list? The message came back that, in fact, the job was pretty well promised to this person, so make it work.

Linda complained that, if she is to have an employee, she should be the one to decide who that employee would be. The message came back that this is her first hire and that she should not get ahead of herself.

When Linda protested again, an impatient and rather impetuous message came back suggesting that perhaps the issue here is that she is threatened by another woman, that perhaps the other woman is prettier than she is. Linda went ballistic.

The illusion of strength is his greatest weakness.

At this point, I was asked by Whiny Baby to intervene. Find an old cat to catch an old rat, I suppose. She came to see me, frustrated both by the situation and the need to ask someone else to resolve it. It was, she believed, a serious matter and no one, she suspected, would take her seriously. I invited her to sit in a comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

The unfortunate thing here is that once Whiny Baby’s superior “stepped in it”, it could be difficult to remove the stink it will almost certainly cause. He could well become very defensive and aggressive down the road, resentful that Whiny Baby went over his head. With seniority, after all, comes prestige and prerogative and she had challenged both.

Bertie Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, once said that it is not a disgrace to be defeated, but it is one to stay defeated. The thing about our senior manager is that he behaved inappropriately and then compounded his difficulties by being even more inappropriate. For reasons and, perhaps, obligations that only he would know, he dug a hole for himself. And then kept digging. He had better hope that our no nonsense CEO, the Man from Glad, does not come upon the hole and spot him there.

I will give him a way to climb out, though I imagine he’d have to hold his nose the whole time. First, he would have to lose his imperious attitude. Then he should invite Linda to his lofty perch and talk with her about her job and the new posting that she is trying to fill. He should neither mention nor apologize for the “looks” comment; the less said about that, the better. Then he should tell Linda that he trusts her judgment and she should hire whoever she thinks is right for the job. And don’t worry about the person he suggested; he will take care it. After the hire is made, drop in to see Linda and ask her with the most sincere voice he can muster how it is going. If he is lucky, that is the last anyone will hear of it.

Now this senior manager may think he has no need to be contrite. But he is not nearly as strong as he thinks he is. Indeed, the illusion of strength is his greatest weakness. And thinking he could leverage that strength was his greatest error.

Dead End

Today is fire, tomorrow is ashes. This adage-like statement owes its roots to the Inuit, but has been lifted and flipped around by a heavy metal band called As We Fight. It is the title of a song in their album, The Darkness of the Apocalyse Has Fallen Before Us. (And so on and so forth.) I have not been able to differentiate the song from the apocalypse, the noise of the first being the finest expression of the second. But that’s another post for someone else to write on a terribly dark and stormy night.

One of our young and very promising accountants, James T., was transferred to a recently purchased, wholly owned subsidiary to become its Director of Finance. He is a math wizard who is able to make the numbers say whatever we want them to say. Which is one of the reasons he now finds himself in a mess not of his own making.

The subsidiary is not doing well. It is trailing its targets by a fair bit. The President of that company has been there for years and knows full well what it is capable of achieving between now and year end in the hyper-competitive market in which it is competing. All indications are that the company will lose share and probably money this year. But those are not the indications it is giving the Small Office. The numbers finding their way to General Ledger, our CFO with the Frisbee ears, show an upward swing in the second half of the year. The turn-around will be sparked by some aggressive pricing tactics the company has already initiated on a few core products. Apparently, at least one major customer conversion is in the mix.

Never a believer in the “big December”, I headed down to talk to their senior managers and commercial folks to get their view of things. While there, I dropped in on James.

His door was slightly ajar. I should have knocked. Well, I did knock, but I should have waited for some acknowledgment. When I entered his office, I found James hunched over his computer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was certainly not ready for that. I gently closed the door and sat down, waiting for him to regain his composure.

James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma.

James turned around slowly. His chest heaved as he sucked in oxygen. “What the heck is going on?” I asked softly. He shrugged. Then, after a pause, he unwound a very tangled tale of financial woe. Apparently, our fears were justified. There was no way the planned initiatives were going to change the results in any appreciable way. There was certainly no way they were going to meet their forecasts. Everyone in the company knew this, but the President was insistent that they move ahead with their plans and that James sticks with his numbers.

Now James had a fiduciary responsibility as chief accountant to go behind the President’s back and make all this clear to General Ledger. But that would mean betraying his boss to whom he was loyal. If they didn’t make the numbers and all this came out – that he was hiding the truth – both the President and James would be instantly fired with cause. James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma. Or, to borrow from our adage, James was under fire and would soon see his career turn to ashes. He could see the end but could not find a way to avoid it.

Whether or not a turn-around is really in the offing, whether or not the year can be saved, it is absolutely imperative for James to come clean. General Ledger would then be in full possession of the current facts and correctly advise the analysts of what to expect; he cannot afford to lose their trust.

I told James that I do understand his situation and I sympathize with him. But he shouldn’t have to fall on his boss’s sword. If he can’t get himself to go over his boss’s head, then confront him and refuse to fudge the numbers any longer – even temporarily. Or, as the politician said, “There comes a time to put principle aside and do what’s right.”

So now, let us zip to the end of the story. James did listen to me. He drew a line in the sand. His boss informed the Man from Glad that, despite their best intentions and best laid plans, it was unlikely they would meet the numbers they had only recently provided head office.

Our no-nonsense CEO reacted swiftly. Both the President and James were summarily dismissed. An interim General Manager, one from General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade, was appointed.

All of this proves that it is easier to die for a cause than to live for it.

To the curious reader: The actual Inuit adage referred to above goes: Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly. The message is about hope, redemption, resurrection, that the burnt forest will soon regenerate and become green again. So, perhaps, there will be a new, brighter beginning for James ahead. Then again, perhaps not.

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.)

Three’s Company

“Be yourself, forget yourself.” I have no idea who said that and under what circumstances. Whoever and whatever, the idea is oxymoronic in the extreme. It is something like: Remember who you are but think nothing of it. Or: You are what you were but aren’t any longer. As a graduate of the School of Yogi Berra, it makes perfect sense to me that it doesn’t. Or is it the other way around?

On the other hand, listening to the odd way some people talk in the Small Office, you must wonder if they took this advice literally.

Angela is an office manager who has thick ankles and talks in the third person. She heads up a task force created to get the various, rather autonomous, divisions in the Small Office to combine their purchases in order to save money. I recently overheard her giving hell to an underling. “Angie is not happy that we overpaid for these business forms. Angie wonders why we didn’t bother getting three quotes. Angie wonders what certain people were thinking.” I can imagine what the underling was thinking… something like: maybe Angie should seek out a short pier.

Thomas, without looking up said, “I’m right here, Helen”.

Then there is Helen, a spinstery type who I believe was a sea urchin in a former life. She doesn’t talk in the third person; she talks to the third person. Helen is a coordinator in our Customer Care Center. I heard her telling an inside sales rep named Richard “Tell Thomas to not leave orders in the OUT basket when he goes home, hoping that someone else will pick them up the next morning”. She was not using her inside voice. Thomas, without looking up, said, “I’m right here, Helen.” Helen turned quickly to Richard and replied, “Tell Thomas that if he’s right here, he should enter his own orders before he leaves”. Thomas, without looking up, said nothing.

My favorite sideways talker is Don, our west coast sales manager with weirdly moveable hair. He was in a sales meeting and was addressing a dozen or so reps. It was his habit to turn every conversation into a question and answer period and to use the royal “we”. “Are we happy with our results?” he asked the assembled. “I certainly hope we aren’t. Are we going to do something about it? Yes, indeed we are.” Questions. Answers. We are twice blessed.

Was I witnessing a strange kind of displacement disorder or, perhaps, a subtle manifestation of passive-aggressive behavior? Or was it all simply a case of people being what they are and then forgetting themselves. The bard, anticipating Yogi Berra, would likely have said: To be and not to be.

Cheap at Twice the Price

“I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.” – Warren Buffet

Okay, I concede. A 40-watt bulb in a cheap lamp gives off the same light as a 40-watt bulb in an expensive lamp. And a monkey dressed as a bum or dressed as a bishop remains a monkey still. But dim is dim and cheap is cheap; this is something I cannot get around.

It seems that there is competition among senior managers in the Small Office to prove who can be the prince of parsimony, the paragon of penny-pinching, the pearl of the paltry and the picayune. There is this idea that thrift equates to good corporate citizenship.

I recently described how our otherwise particular CEO, the Man from Glad, goes all penny-ante on me when it comes to hotel accommodations. In the past, I have written about a regional manager who surprised me as we exited a cab by leaping out almost before it came to a full stop. This left me alone to pay the fare and the tip. And there was the senior sales rep who, when he had to give a hotel staffer a tip, simply said, “Don’t plant potatoes in the fall”. Man Mountain, of whom we will hear more later, is a gargantuan fellow who covers more real estate than Century 21 simply by standing still. Yet when he flew into head office last month, he rented a Smart Car to save a couple of bucks. General Ledger, our CFO who pays even what is overdue grudgingly, gives restaurant waiters precisely 15%. That is, a before tax restaurant tab of $14.25 will net a waiter a tip of $2.14. He would pull pennies from his pocket to come up to the right change. Not a penny more, though he would brag that it was not a penny less.

The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain.

The other day, though, I believe we found our Black Knight of the nickel and dime. A few of us sauntered over to a nearby deli. A club roll is basically five different grilled deli meats on a hamburger bun. It is about $2 cheaper than a corned beef on rye. So Ned, a member in good standing in General Ledger’s white shirt brigade, orders the club roll. He then asks the waiter if he could change the hamburger bun to rye. He then asks the waiter if he could cut the five different deli meats to, say, one, namely the corned beef. Oh, and can he throw in a pickle?

Grasp all, lose all. The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain and said, shall I throw in fries with that? Ned smirked. The waiter kept looking at him, the dollop having grown to a gob. I’ll see what I can do, he said finally.

That, I thought to myself, is something I prefer NOT to see.

Finger Lickin’ Good

Dave: My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?
Dr. Erin Mears: Not really. And stop touching your face, Dave.
– Contagion, 2011

Sue O’ is my assistant, as she has been through most of my years at the Small Office. She can find order in chaos. She can see the positive where others find regret. She looks forward, never back. I am the opposite in all those things.

What she does best is many things at once. We recently acquired a small company and Sue O’ is coordinating the change in corporate identification. That means updating government registrations, signage, stationery, promotional material. She doesn’t necessarily do the work, but she does make sure it gets done, with no detail left unattended. To help her, we temporarily assigned a secretary from the Marketing Department.

Alissa is young and keen and has just the right amount of ambition. She also has a strep throat. She informed Sue O’ of this fact on the second day of her transfer.

Sue O’ shuddered as she saw Alissa pick her teeth.

Alissa has this bad habit of licking her fingers as she rifles through papers. Those fingers must be awfully dry because she licks them often. Then she brings her files to Sue O’ or perhaps a cup of coffee. So how long do those little streptococcal buggers last as they crawl along No. 1 bond watermarked paper or cling to porcelain mugs? Do those repugnant pathogens continue to multiply in their little grape-like clusters as they transfer to new hosts? Sue O’ shuddered as she saw Alissa pick her teeth.

Dr. Erin Mears: Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat. – Contagion, 2011

On Day 3, Alissa showed up with a cold sore on her upper lip. It was at the blister stage. Swollen, slightly oozing a white viscous substance, not yet ready to scab. She kept poking at it. And then she’d lick her fingers as was her habit and rifle through papers and bring them or perhaps a cup of coffee to Sue O’. Who would wince and clench and repeatedly scrub her hands with sanitizer. And every time she passed my office, she would look at me, her eyes blazing, accusing, threatening to take her vengeance on me for having brought pestilence to her doorstep.

Alan Krumwiede: It’s a bad day to be a rhesus monkey. – Contagion, 2011

Now, of course, the cold sore had nothing to do with the strep throat, and both, in the fullness of time, went away. These things either get better or they get very much worse. None of this provided even the smallest measure of solace to Sue O’ who, I discovered, can be very unforgiving and not the least bit amused. Licking my fingers, I realized that I am the opposite in those things too.