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.

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.)

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.”