But Words Are All I Have

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” – The Bible, St. Matthew 7:20

For most people, that is to say, for ordinary people, what we feel we can do and what we actually do are seldom the same thing. Patrick K. is a very ordinary person making an extraordinary salary and, frankly, for the salary, we thought he would do more.

PK is a senior account manager. Having been around a long time, he is well known in the industry. But being well known in the industry is like being a large hen in a henhouse. So what? If you want to make an impression – if you really want to impress the hens – hire a fox.

In fact, the Small Office recruited PK away from a competitor based primarily on a reputation he himself carefully cultivated for over twenty years. But reputation is a shadow. It gets longer or shorter depending on where you stand. Ultimately, it disappears in the light of day.

If you truly want to impress the hens, hire a fox.

PK certainly talks the talk and in the evangelist role for which he was hired, I suppose that should be good enough. But it is a year later and PK is still talking. And talking. And in all that time, I have not found that he has had a singular thought of his own. Winston Churchill once said that large views will always triumph over small ideas. But what triumph is there over one who has no ideas at all.

He can come up with a perfectly compelling argument, but here, in the land of PowerPoint, PK has yet to put together a cohesive presentation. He cannot analyze, strategize or plan. How could he have advanced his career to this level without any skills whatsoever?

The last straw for me came yesterday when we visited a potential client that PK has been wooing for months. He has wined them and dined them and placed their company on a pedestal like it was the Statue of Liberty and we were the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of some teeming shore.

Shortly after our arrival, a senior manager from this potential client leaned over to me and said, curiously, “So what is it that your company does?” I was astonished.

Perhaps that is PK’s greatest strength. Having virtually nothing to work with, he still manages to astonish. That alone is an achievement worthy of note.

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.

Maternal Instincts

Sam is a troglodyte who works in the Corporate Development group. He has strongly held views of women that I would have imagined most of his kind discarded once they left the cave.

Sam refused for years to hire women of childbearing age on the assumption that, sooner or later, they’d get pregnant – something they might do, say, out of spite.

A short enough while ago, he needed to hire a business analyst. He was warned not to impose his anachronous criteria for employee selection on the process. And so it was that, despite his disinclination and much to his discomfort, Sam hired a younger woman. Surprisingly, to him anyway, she seemed to be working out. He taught her well and, within just a few months, she became a trusted lieutenant. Until, that is, she announced that she was pregnant. And had been the whole time. And thanks for taking the time to train her because now she can use her new skills to get a better paying job elsewhere when she rejoins the job market. It was all too much to bear.

Despite his inclination and much to his discomfort, Sam hired a younger woman.

In his subsequent rant, Sam said something akin to the knuckle-dragging Harold Ryan in Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Wanda June. Ryan famously opined that educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch; everything stops.

It’s a good thing Sam doesn’t live in Canada, where moose and leftists share common ground and where women can go on maternity leave for up to a year and be guaranteed a job at an equal level and at equal pay when they return. If they return, that is. You might go into a holding pattern in anticipation of their return only to be informed two weeks before that they found a job elsewhere.

To be silent is not necessarily to be persuaded, of course, but Sam did eventually let it go.

Last I heard, though, he had a new… uh… more mature analyst.

Double Dipping

The Sundance Kid was always one of my favorites. He was a marketing manager who I once described as “a sandy-haired, terminally under-dressed fortysomething with an idea a day, some of which actually worked”. He laughed easily, but there was an underlying sadness about him, likely related to an ailing child for whom prospects were dim. Marketing was, for the Kid, both a vocation and an escape. He had been with the company for a long time – long enough, in fact, to be part of our Defined Benefit Plan. And therein lies the sum and substance of our discontent.

The Kid is now in his early fifties, his hair infused with grey, making it less espresso and more caffè crema. The sadness is now permanently etched into the corners of his eyes which no amount of collagen will cure.

As it happened, he received a fairly lucrative offer from our largest competitor, one he could hardly refuse. The additional salary augmented by a pension would result in a significant cash flow increase for his family. Loyalties and prejudices aside, the Kid could hardly be blamed for jumping at the opportunity.

This was no comfort for our senior managers who felt he was feeding at two troughs. Because he knew our programs, products and practices so well – many of which he actually put in place – he could help our competitor while we paid for the privilege.

He was feeding at two troughs.

Bull Terrier was livid when this competitor beat us to market with a device he remembered first being sketched on the backside of a restaurant place mat. He asked Rigor Mortis if there was anything we could do to prevent the Kid from revealing trade secrets that possibly we legally owned. And he asked the Black Widow if we could withhold his pension, in whole or in part. And because he knew the Kid was my protégé, he asked if I could do something, anything at all.

Bull was met with a chorus of shrugs, eight from Black Widow, two each from the rest of us.

In truth, while I am sorry to see the Kid gone, I cannot have my conscience be his guide. He served us well when he served at our pleasure and, now, he serves himself and his family. So, yes, I cannot muster more than a shrug and a furrowed brow for show. I feel only slightly bad that I don’t feel worse.

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.”