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.

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.

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.

Shape Shifters

Like many companies of size, the Small Office has a health and safety policy. Related to the policy is a very enlightened philosophy of wellness: the belief is that good health and attention to safety lead to greater mindfulness and improved attendance. You don’t show up, mentally or physically, if you are sick or hurt. It’s that simple and it’s something the company is willing to invest in. So, as part of the wellness program, the Small Office is subsidizing gym memberships.

It is practically unfathomable that one or both of General Ledger, our CFO with the whirlybird ears, or Black Widow, our cranky and autocratic head of humane resources, agreed to the plan. But consent and collaborate they did, so compelling an idea it had become.

Compelling, perhaps, but it has also had an unintended consequence: a sizeable body of employees is taking off at noon every day and going to the local gym for whatever amount of exercise a person can fit in over lunch.

Color me skeptical.

It is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months’ time.

To me, you cannot get to the gym, bowflex on your in-motion nordic track elliptical hybrid cross-training cardio air walker machine, shower, eat lunch (say, a light mélange of kale and avocado), properly digest your food, and get back to the office refreshed and ready for work. All within a one-hour span.

Usually the people who would take advantage of this kind of offer don’t need the exercise nearly as much as those who wouldn’t.

Most of all, I think it is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months time. At the outside.

Besides, looking fit is the job of the tailor. You know… God makes and apparel shapes.

Yesterday, one of our marketing people left his laptop in the trunk while he was working his deltoids with competition grade cast iron kettlebells. No surprise here, someone broke into his trunk and stole his laptop. It was the second such incident this month.

I clearly differ from my colleagues on this. I believe there is a time and a place for everything. And I am sure that lunch and exercise are what physicist John Wheeler had in mind when he said: time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.

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