“Let me tell you a little about my shop,” Paul began as if beginning a sermon. “I am the top seller here because I don’t compromise. I don’t bend the rules that I’ve cultivated over the years. Rules that WORK. Rules that brought this company a lot of greens, consistently, reliably, and with increasing success every year. I have a wall of glass teardrops behind my desk proving my success as top salesman of this and every branch of the company. Everyone who works for me knows that they need to bring their A-game every single day. I don’t care if they are junior salespeople or my administrative team. We show up, hit the ground running, and make the calls. They get people on the hook and send them to me to close the sale.”
I pretended to write all this down on my notepad and pretended to be impressed. “Six years in a row,” I said. “It is an solid run, Paul. Everyone knows you’re the king of sales.”
“Here’s a little insight into how I do it,” Paul continued, “My junior sales team sells them the problem, see? Then I get on the phone and offer them the miracle solution to it. I don’t have my team say ‘down the road you might…’ because they lose the sale. No. I tell my team to tell customers that their house is infested with rats and I’m the guy to give them a great deal on the catcher.”
“Yes,” I said while nodding a little bit too aggressively. “But we’re here to talk about Janine.”
Paul rolled his eyes behind a loose facepalm. “Right, Janine. What’s her problem now?”
My partner in HR management, Doris, opened a folder of incident reports. She was about thirty, making her a decade younger than me, but well-trained in the ancient arts of human resource management. “Paul,” she began. “Janine has been in our office several times this past month. Since she transferred to your team from Cindy’s, she claims you’ve harassed and abused her emotionally several times with threats of termination, insults to her appearance, and other inappropriate behaviors that she believes constitute a hostile work environment. You understand we have to look into these reports.”
“This is a safe space, right?” Paul looked around like there might be cameras hidden in our white drywall meeting box. “Jane is…”
“Janine,” I correct him.
“JANINE is a bit of a drama queen. She takes things…personally. I’m trying to train her right so she thickens her skin and can handle the heat of being on THE top sales team in the company. I don’t insult her. I tell her to dress more appropriate to the culture of our offices. She dresses like a Mennonite girl. She talks like Betty Boop. When I ask her for basic information, she literally starts to shake and stutter. I’m working on it with her., but I think – frankly -0 it’s time to cut ties.”
Doris was about to continue on with our usual HR scripted inquiry, but I interrupted. “One thing I found interesting, Paul, was that Janine is a thirteen-year employee with the company and I didn’t know her at all until she came into my office crying. She has no record of performance deficiencies in her previous role. In fact, she has never scored less than ‘Excellent’ on any performance review.”
Paul waved his hand like the dish just put in front of him was the wrong kind of meat. “She was on Cindy’s team. Cindy’s numbers have always trailed far behind mine. I run a tighter ship.”
“When your sales numbers jumped last year, you asked for additional administrative assistants and demanded the best we had. That’s in the personnel request form. We gave you the best we had outside your team. Suddenly, a solid employee is coming to us for help. We just need to know why.”
“I told you Wilson…”
“I run a tighter ship. I’m the best here. She can’t take the Top Gun of sales, you can send her back…fire her..whatever. You just need to get me someone who doesn’t whine and run off to the ladies’ room whenever I ask her a simple question. Maybe someone younger, a fresh and hungry candidate?”
Doris waited to see if I wanted to continue improvising the interview. When I tried to figure out the least malignant way to address Paul, she jumped in. “What are your specific expectations of the position, Paul?”
Paul turned the answer into an epic Greek poem about his hard-won successes and deadly challenges over the years. For two minutes and thirty-seven seconds (according to the dial clock on the wall behind his fat head), I listened. I watched him slick back his hair and adjust his tie, rub his chin in deep contemplation of his overall awesomeness, and then I interrupted.
“You’re a bully, Paul.”
He froze like a videogame character overwhelming an inferior computer processor. He wasn’t even looking at me. He just stared at the wall for a moment.
Doris jumped in. “What we mean is that perhaps there is a more positive approach to developing Janine’s skills in your unique environment. Mentorship. Daily meetings offering encouragement. Maybe…”
Paul sat back in his chair with the non-verbal signal that means he was done with us. Hands flat on the table, he looked at both of us but held on me because I’m the one who poked the narcissist with a stick.
“I asked the for best because I don’t want to train someone up. I asked you to send me someone who could hit the ground running and she fell on her face the first day. It hasn’t been much better since. Now, if you can’t find me an internal admin that works for me, I suggest you keep your opinions of my methods to yourself and do your jobs.”
I don’t know what happened to my brain at that point. Something snapped or popped in there. Maybe it was a long-hidden memory of the schoolyard bully or Janine using up half my tissue box explaining how Paul greeted her in the morning with a fashion critique and called her out in group meetings as “Minnie Mouse” or ‘incorrecting’ her grammar in correspondence. I didn’t know Janine very well and it was true she was not an extroverted person. She wore a simple silver crucifix around her neck and dressed plainly. She did her job at the company for over a decade without complaint, without issues. Her husband was out of work, a fifty-year-old construction worker with no other skills and a worn-out body and emphysema. Janine, all of forty-five herself, lived for her family and ignored the pain in her knees and back to get through a typical day so she could be home with her husband and two grandbabies. She was a person struggling with life, bills, health issues, and kept it all under her hat.
“It’s hard to determine your ‘requirements’ as a manager, Paul, when your team of twenty hasn’t had their job descriptions updated in five years or more and you haven’t submitted performance standards for anyone in….ever. So how am I to serve the great and powerful Paul when he doesn’t fulfill his basic responsibilities as a manager – an aspect of the job we actually pay you to perform?”
“Nothing changes. If a new sales technique comes out, I train my team. I’m with them every day. Every one of them, I guarantee you, knows where they stand with me. We don’t have time for paperwork. You are about paperwork and ass-covering. And when you sent me Janice…”
“For chrissakes, Paul: it’s JANINE.”
“Okay, JANINE! When you sent her to me, it was not what I asked for. And now you’re wasting my time insulting your biggest fish like you know how my job works. Cindy plays your HR game, which is why she went from second to fourth in revenue generation last quarter.”
Doris chimed in, “I think her maternity leave had something to do with that, but…”
“I care. If I had a kid in my stomach, I’d be making it cold call people by the second trimester. I am the GOAT, okay? No one will ever outperform me. Learn from me. I can’t learn anything from you.”
“Except how to be polite and kind to someone working for you that doesn’t think like you. You’re living a David Mamet play and don’t even realize it.”
“Who the hell is David Mamet?”
“You’re a goon, Paul, and the only tool you know is a hammer. Sure, you made sure all of us had a nice holiday bonus last year and you walk the links with the owner twice a week, but that doesn’t excuse how you treat other people.”
Doris, who decided long ago that I’d left the tracks of a simple procedural meeting, put a hand on my arm to signal she was taking control of the meeting from our side. “We have an issue that opens us up to legal complications. Janine is planning to leave and mentioned suing the company – and you specifically for creating a hostile work environment. We want to avoid that. I suggest we reassign Janine back to Cindy and post the job for an outside candidate. You can set the standards and sit on the interviews. If you want to refer someone you like, we’ll do our best to accommodate them. How does that sound?”
Paul stared through my head at the blank wall behind me. “Glad one of you is service oriented. Get her out of my shop this week. And I expect an apology from you, Wilson.”
I let that go. “Oh? The Alpha male needs his ego stroked? How beta of you. If you think my attitude toward you is wrong, look in the god-damned mirror you fossilized turd.”
Doris took a breath and let it out slow. “Oh-kay then.”
Those words did not seem like they came from me, but they rang off the walls of our meeting box for a full minute. In that time, Paul quietly stood up, pushed his chair back against the table, and walked out. He had his phone in-hand by the time the door closed behind him.
I took in a lungful of Paul’s Old Spice cologne and said to Doris, “That went well, I think. How about you? Lunch at Georgios?”
“Winston, I don’t know how…I just… did you…? What the hell, man?”
“I don’t know. Cupping the man’s balls wasn’t going to help Janine. It seems that was the only language guys like him understand.”
“But the whole point was…jesus, Winston, that was not a good move for you.”
Doris and I spent the next half hour compiling and sharing our notes and recommendations. It felt like a stupid and futile gesture because we both knew that money wins. Rules are bent and broken because someone is too valuable to be tarnished, too important to be diminished. Doris was cold and distant when we adjourned the meeting and went back to our separate offices. We had a second meeting an hour later on a less-contentious matter and were about to part ways again when phone chirped at us from Doris’s side of the table.
“Conference room…oh hey, Tyrell. Yes, he’s sitting right here, do you want to…? Oh, sure. Of course. I’ll let him know.”
She hung up the phone. “You know who that was and I’m guessing you know what it’s about.”
“He wants you in his office as soon as you can make that happen. His words.”
Tyrell Williamson, Director of Human Capital Management, SHRM-certified change influencer, and award-winning thought leader for three years running, was someone I considered a “friend” in one world. By that, I mean that Tyrell believed firmly in social firewalls. Work is work and life is life. When you’re at work, it’s strictly “Mr. Williamson” until you are officially granted permission to “just call me Tyrell. We’re all a family here.”
Tyrell was another employee about a decade younger than me. We came up through the ranks together. In fact, I helped him get his job with my firm five years earlier, a fact that kept me well-protected during my year on leave with leukemia. He had my back when management wondered why they had someone on the payroll, working from home, but not really generating any work product. Tyrell and his wife joined Claire and me on a few beach and camping trips over the years and went to many ball games together.
But that only gets you so far…
(Part 2 on WordPress soon)