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.

Where Are All The Mentors?

I love people of my gender.  I love being a woman.  I listen to the original cast album of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and belt out ‘I’m a Woman’ with pride of ownership (as a side note, I never liked Helen Reddy’s  ‘I Am Woman’..what can I say?  It’s a taste thing).  I applaud our ability to balance conflicting priorities, the way we check in with each other when someone is having a tough time and how we ask good questions.  I am constantly impressed with how hard we’re willing to work on our relationships, career paths and still remember birthdays.  I like how we think and how we love.  And I’m calling us out.  Meet me at Starbucks at noon.

What is it about women at work?  Where are the mentors for young women?  Why aren’t we bringing our younger colleagues along with the same commitment with which we focused our efforts on our own growth?  Yes, this is a generalization – don’t get defensive if it doesn’t resonate with you.  Nonetheless, I submit that there are fewer successful women directing their attention to those just beginning their climb up the ladder than there are women who will strategically place the heel of their stiletto on those manicured hands if they get too close.  Hattie McDaniel once said that “…there are only eighteen inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the rump”.  I watched this happen all the time at the firm.  Women protesting the paucity of female leaders, decrying the absence of opportunities and protecting their areas of expertise with the ferocity of a nursing lioness.  Classic approach avoidance  – ‘come here – no, go away’.

I get it – perhaps it took more work for us to get ahead.  Perhaps we escalated professionally without the guiding hand of another woman and with a man’s hand groping our butts.  It can make a person jaded, territorial and defiant – all with good reason – but why do other women bear the brunt?  I have had a supervisor harass me sexually and watched as women in more powerful positions than mine shake their heads with disgust, pat my shoulder with sympathy and do nothing to help me stop it.   Ironically, the person who took action was a man.  My best professional role models and most ardent mentors were men.  I have been honored to work with some of the brightest women in the legal profession and marvel at their passivity when asked to share their experience in a meaningful way with younger women.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, including our fundamental ambivalence with competition.  When competing with men, the permission is overt and our actions will parallel theirs.  Men are comfortable with competition and reflect that comfort from an early age.  In these situations we can explicitly acknowledge that regardless of how level the playing field may or may not be, we will be formidable opponents, and will go toe-to-toe to capture the flag.  We aren’t comfortable competing with other women – there’s too much wrapped up in the fine print of the rules.  We are supposed to ‘play nicely’ even if we don’t like our playmates.  Girls clamor for friendship and affiliation.  They want to be part of an accepted group, regardless of their feelings for these cohorts.  Thus the schadenfreude of a homecoming queen stepping on her dress and tearing it, the most popular girl being ‘outed’ as a bitch.  As much as we feel for their exposure, we love it.  So when we share a professional arena, we compete with a complicated, implicit agenda.  We want to win and don’t necessarily trust that another woman can complement our efforts without simultaneously diminishing us.  We embrace our colleagues with our fingers crossed behind their backs.

We can and should do more.  At the end of the day. wouldn’t we want this for our daughters, nieces, grandchildren?  To benefit from the guidance offered by successful, experienced women who have climbed the ladder and know where the stress points are, which areas require gloves to avoid getting splinters and what to do when one slips and falls (as we all inevitably have).  Can we move past our history to enhance another woman’s future?  We can – we’re that good.  We’re women.