Me? The Terminator?

When I landed in DC, my first boss was an  ‘interesting’ character.   I use the adjective advisedly, in much the same way as ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’.   Shortly after I started working, she brought me a lovely Villeroy & Boch box for my desk.  She told me it was a welcome gift.  Given the environment in which I was working (HR Manager in a national law firm), I was struck by the thoughtful and gracious  nature of the gesture.  She was the least spontaneous person I had ever met.  In fact, she was my introduction to the world of challenging bosses – she was demanding, arbitrary, judgmental, obstinate and more than a little self-righteous.

A week later, she came into my office and told me to terminate G’s employment.  There was nothing in this woman’s file to suggest that she was skating on the edge of the employment abyss.  She was capable, experienced and had the tendency to arrive between five and fifteen minutes late a couple of days a week.  G was also quite confident and never really provided the administrator (my boss) with the deference she expected from everyone.  Of course, that really was the crux of the issue.  I wasn’t prepared to have such a dialogue with an employee who had never been spoken with about her lateness (or anything else for that matter).  So I offered to work with G, with the proviso that if I didn’t get anywhere within a proscribed and sustained period of time, I would do the deed.  The administrator relented – but not before reiterating that she didn’t like G at all and the likelihood of my success was somewhere between slim and none.

To abbreviate the story – G worked out her lateness issues and was more respectful of the administrator’s position in the office hierarchy.  I walked into my office one morning and found a $500.00 check in that beautiful china box, along with a note – “if you had gotten rid of her, it would have been $1,000.00″.  Pretty stunning (please see adjectives ‘interesting’, ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ above).  A single mom with two small boys; I needed the job even though I couldn’t stand the person to whom I reported.  Yet I wasn’t going to cave on these directives which occurred with far more frequency than I care to recount.  Suffice it to say I was there for two years ‘working with’ a ridiculous number of employees and receiving $500.00 checks instead of $1,000.00, before I was happily recruited away.

It really didn’t matter whether there was documentation to support these decisions.  It didn’t matter that she was exposing the firm to charges of unfair employment and/or discriminatory practices.  Her argument was that employment was at will, and at any given point in time she could decide that an employee wasn’t meeting her standard of likability or talent.  In the most simplistic sense, as an employer she was right.  If an employer is making decisions to hire or fire and those decisions have nothing to do with an individual’s protected class, both employer and employee are free to end their relationship at any time.  However, just as a realtor’s  mantra is ‘location, location, location’, HR people repeat ‘documentation, documentation, documentation’.  Arbitrary decisions more often than not upend peoples’ lives, adversely impact professional reputations and cost money (as they should, in my view).

I don’t like severing professional ties – or any ties for that matter.  I’m way too neurotic in my need to help make things better (as if I alone can do that).  Happily, I have never met a successful HR professional who enjoys the process either.  I maintain that if the time comes when such situations elicit no reaction – or worse yet, delight – it’s time to consider your other talents and re-career.  It is difficult, painful and disheartening to initiate these dialogues and I would imagine it sucks to be on the receiving end even more.

In an ideal world, every employee is stellar, productive, consistently enthusiastic, highly skilled and committed to team play.  All the time.  Oh – they’re also loyal, have the utmost integrity and remain motivated from the first day forward.  Did I also mention that every supervisor is killer smart, engaged, dedicated to their people, visionary…Ok, wake up now – the dream part of this blog is over.  Performance does not occur on one upward trajectory; performance waxes and wanes.  That’s a predictable and honest course of professional – and personal – life.  If a supervisor is offering consistent, regular feedback then an employee knows where s/he is on the performance spectrum (on a separate but related note – if conversations like this become the norm, the evaluation process wouldn’t be viewed with such derision).

After thirty years in this profession, I have arrived at a conclusion I can live with.  If I can say that I have done everything I can do to help an individual improve his/her performance, if I have mentored, advised and documented (and may I add that I can’t use the acronym P.I.P for I always think of Gladys Knight), if I have clearly articulated the expectations and consequences involved if they are not met – and there is no positive result, then I am not terminating the employment relationship – the employee is making that choice.  I realize that this is a little bit of a shift from the way we typically approach this topic.  Please recognize that I’m not suggesting that the employer is divested of responsibility, rather I am leveling the playing field so that these discussions leave no victims or passive recipients of terrible, life-altering information.

I can hear your rumblings in cyber space.  Certainly, there are mandated economically driven RIFs where there are truly victims and I have been the harbinger of those awful messages more times than I would like to recall.  That’s a topic for another day, I hope.  And yes, there are really lousy bosses and ineffective supervisors and employees let go for reasons that elude them and employees who aren’t let go for reasons that elude everybody else.  Perhaps that too is a future subject.  For now though, let’s go back to where we began – you couldn’t pay me to terminate the employment of someone without trying to improve the problem.  You couldn’t pay me to engage in this exercise if I didn’t have the employee’s buy-in to do the necessary work.  When it fails, the individual is making a decision and a choice and when it succeeds?  To paraphrase MasterCard – it’s priceless.

The Complaint Department

For those of you unfamiliar with the verb ‘kvetching’, I think it’s best defined as bitching in whine.  Though it’s a Yiddish word, it’s derivative is really irrelevant for we all do it.  I would suggest that it’s yet another aspect of the human experience, but I honestly think other species kvetch too.  Yesterday a flock of Canadian geese were heading who-knows-where, and clearly there were quite a few issues being addressed en route.  They sounded pretty much like this:

“Who died and put Louie in charge?  Didn’t we all agree I was going to take the lead this time?”

“I am SO tired and not in the mood for a field trip right now.”

“Why do always have to wait for Marge?  We could have been there and back by now.  She flies like a turtle creeps.” (you never know, geese may watch the Animal Planet too)

“Why are we going this way?  The traffic is terrible..”

“I hate flying in a vee.  Does anyone else hate flying in a vee?”

And so on.  They’re loud, sound very irritated and undoubtedly have a  few young ones in the group repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”

Kvetching is a side benefit of people sharing their day-to-day lives.  On your way to work you know that once you arrive, there will be others who will moan that they don’t want to be there either, understand your need for a second cup of coffee, appreciate how much work is on your plate (though arguably, if a lot of work is on your plate you really shouldn’t have that much time to kvetch about it), shake their heads when you mention the idiotic comment your boss made, etc.  People at my old firm used to complain about the absence of fresh fruit on doughnut day (we had bagels and doughnuts every Friday morning), even though no one was required to eat anything at all and the food was free.  Later, when fresh fruit was provided, the group kvetch reverted to the quality of the bagels.  Group sigh…

Parent groups, coffee room confabs, team meetings – kvetching goes on everywhere.  It crosses gender, age, ethnicity – and as I mentioned above – maybe species too.  On some levels, complaining is cathartic for one can get an irritant out in the open and be met with empathy and agreement.  That said, sometimes you do meet the person who responds to your comment about a ‘lousy headache’ with “You think you have a headache?  I’ve got a migraine”.  This is the kind of person who has to trump your kvetch with a kvetch squared.  These people defeat the purpose of a good whine.  For the most part though, a little whine and sympathy feels good.

A word of caution – all of this requires perspective and some semblance of self-control, for such conversations can easily derail and become dangerous to one’s spirit.  Where is the line?  At the place where kvetches turn chronic, complaints turn into gossip and vitriol replaces feelings of mild irritation.  Gossip is toxic and serves no purpose but to inject distrust and ensure the participants that they too will be the unpleasant topic of conversation sometime in the karmic future.  Gossip is conjecture that is offered as fact.  Where kvetching can be benign, gossip is malignant.  Ironically, it’s so easy to stop – requiring the simple phrase “I don’t want to hear it”.  A bit naive on my part I realize, for curiousity usually interferes with our desire to take the higher ground.  Sometimes though, I think we have to just reinforce our boundaries and despite the lure of a sensational story, stick to a kinder authority.

When one of my dearest friends was alive, she used to call  me  and when necessary, preface our conversation with “Hi sweets, this is a kvetch call”.   And I would listen to her gripe of the moment, share the indignation du jour and she in turn provided me with the same forum.  The most cherished element of the memory though is how we laughed when we were done.  You have to hold on to a bit of humor when you feel a good kvetch coming on, for in the incomprehensible hugeness of the universe, there are bigger injustices than stale bagels.

Food For Thought

I go to the gym now on a regular basis; I still look like an apple.  My trainer says it takes patience and commitment (two qualities for which I can take little ownership) – after all, it took a lot of years to lose my waist and replace it with such amplitude.  It is true that gravity is no longer my buddy – I’ve shrunk, I truly don’t know what the hell happened to my waist (but it would seem that it’s a developed a frighteningly close relationship with my hips).  And I haven’t experienced this much frustration trying to see my toes since I was pregnant.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t commit to Spanx for longer than a cocktail party – too many people come over and ask me if I’m ok because my face turns an indescribable hue of purple.

I’m also not sure how I feel about having my body type compared to a piece of fruit.  ‘Pear shaped’ seems troubling too.  I was peeling one yesterday to use in a recipe, and all I kept wondering was who I knew who even remotely resembled an Anjou pear.  Instead of saying “you look well”, am I to say “you look really ripe”?  What if you’re short and an apple?  Does that make you a Ladysmith?  Maybe a Macoun – they’re smallish.  Certainly can’t be a Granny Smith – the proportions are all off.

Nora Ephron wrote about her neck.  I beg to differ.  In the interest of full disclosure, I wear a lot of turtlenecks – it seems a kinder, gentler approach to  these pathways that now trace their course around my neck.  My hair is long now – it’s way cheaper than Botox and hides a lot more (like my ears which insist on growing despite my repeated exhortations that they stop).  But it’s the hands!!  Nora, what about the hands??  Have you seen Madonna’s hands?  They reveal all that her efforts deny…the knuckles protrude, what was lithe and graceful is now bony and beginning to gnarl.  This is the greater injustice, I’m telling you.  Let’s not even talk about the little ‘freckles’ that are beginning to create a picture a la Seurrat.  I wonder what they’re going to look like when they start connecting.

Old peoples’ hands.  I know, I know – embrace their beauty.  The tears those hands have wiped, the baby baths they’ve given, the hugs and healing they have provided, the gazillion gestures they have made to emphasize a point.  But they’re right there – reminding me daily that regardless of what I do, my hands blatantly reflect my age, without a skosh of willingness to play the denial game with me.  Porcelana – puleeze.

I know I could have some procedure that would minimize the appearance of these blue rivers that course below this thinning skin.  I could zap away the freckles.  Who knows, maybe they now have knuckle lipo.  I can’t do it.  I mean, there would be way too much work that would have to be done on this body – the hands don’t even make it as a line item on the ‘frivolous expenditure budget’.  I totally get why spouses tell you that you look great just the way you are.  A new roof is more important.  Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

And yet, I’m starting to realize that I better like this body now.  It sure as hell isn’t going to get any better (even if I do locate my waist at some point).  I spent so much of my adolescent and young adult years hating my appearance, it really seems time to give it a break.  For the most part, it does what I ask of it, and I can still rock a pair of Converse sneakers and rolled up jeans.  True, I don’t go to the supermarket in Laboutins and leggings (I’d frighten the produce guy and desperately seek the motorized scooters if I hope to make any progress).  A formal night out requires serious planning – there’s no such thing as just throwing something on anymore and getting away with easy chic.  And it’s hard to use eyeliner without my glasses (you try it, it’s tricky).

All of that said, I still have some constituents out there – ok, mostly homeless men, but they’re very complimentary even on the rare occasions when I don’t give them money.  My husband insists I’m beautiful in his eyes (granted he may be watching a football game as he says this).  But I’ll take it.  Maybe I’ll just keep my hands behind my back – what do you think?