You guys, this is a really hard post to write. It's about a really humiliating experience - a very stressful experience - but it also about an experience where I may have been at fault. I want this all to be about how wronged I was, but it is possible that I was, if not 100% negligent, then contributorily negligent. (I just made that word up.)
How responsible am I for a situation where I know the proper way to act - ie, the way that won't get me in trouble - and don't do it? What if I think (ah! my opinion!) that the proper way to act is bullshit and pandering?
Well. Why don't you guys read this and then we can decide. I will try to be as impartial as possible in telling the story, but realize that I might be an unreliable narrator. However, to put this in context, four people in my nine-person office have quit. One didn't even have another job lined up - he just didn't come back one day after lunch. Two others left for lower-paying jobs.
More than a year ago, one woman had a nervous breakdown, I heard. The guy who preceded my boss apparently developed tremors and twitches that have disappeared since he was fired.
So. You know that the CEO of my company, Sergio, is not my favorite. I find him overbearing and dismissive. When he is in town, he will call meetings at the last minute and then go on for two hours, through lunch. I hate missing going to the gym and I get hungry. But even more, I hate uncertainty. I live and die by my outlook calendar. I don't understand why anyone would just randomly call a meeting. The way it works is you set a time and define an agenda and then you start at the start time and end at the end time, or earlier. You don't just grab people at 11:50 a.m. and tell them to go to the conference room and then keep them there for 90 minutes talking about - what? I'm not prepared because I didn't know there was a meeting!
So that's Sergio.
This week, Sergio and a few of the other headquarters folks were in town. Remember HQ is in Argentina. We had meetings all day, every day. On Tuesday, after we came back from lunch, everyone was just milling around and goofing off. I am a big fan of goofing off, but we were supposed to have started the afternoon session already. I wanted to get going because I didn't want the meetings to run late.
I said, "Let's get started. I want to be out of here by 5:00."
Sergio said, "It will take how long it takes."
I replied, "The meeting norms [that the team had developed! that Sergio had endorsed!] say that we are supposed to be respectful of everyone's time."
No, I should not have said that. Yes, I was stupid. Just because it's in my head does not mean it has to come out of my mouth. Proper response would have been, "Of course, Sergio. You're right. We only meet three times a year. I just want to make sure we are making the most of our time together."
Instead, I tried to use logic to address emotion and that never works.
He snapped, "We've traveled a long way and you need to respect our time. This matter is closed for further discussion."
My eyes flew open. I guess he told me. I resigned myself to getting home late. In the late afternoon, the bus runs only every 30 minutes, so a late meeting can mean that I get home much later than usual.
The next day, we spent the entire day talking about corrective action plans and how to complete a nonconformance report and other very technical things. These are issues that are very important for the audit and operations side of my company, but I am in sales and marketing and my boss is on my butt every single day asking when I am going to close some new business. He tells me almost every day that he is "tired of being beat up by Sergio and the board" and we are "not even covering our salaries," which is true.
So although the training on CA/PA and NCRs was interesting, as it gave me a better understanding of the business, I did not see how it applied to my everyday work. Hence, at the end of the day, when Sergio asked us to rate the day from one to five, with one being "I never want to do this again," after everyone else gave the day an enthusiastic four or five, I, alone, I, stupidly, gave it a two.
I know. I know.
In retrospect - heck, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew.
Sergio does not want the truth. Sergio wants to hear that everything is great. I have seen my boss cross Sergio and have seen how Sergio excoriates anyone who crosses him. I should have known better. WHAT WAS I THINKING? Just because someone asks what I think does not mean he wants to know what I think.
I gave the meeting a two. When pressed for details, I explained that although the information gave me a better understanding of the business, I did not see how it applied to my everyday work.
I thought that was it.
I went home. Went out for a drink with my friend Dawn. At 9:00, we left the restaurant. I checked my phone. A message from my boss. Odd!
I listened to the message. "Hi GD. This is Benedict Cumberbatch." Yes, he gave me his full name. Because I know so many Benedicts that he had to qualify which one?
His voice was really nervous. He asked me to call him.
I thought he had been fired. The last time I had a voicemail like that, it was from a Good Boss who had been fired by a Really Bad Boss. RBB is still at the company and is now the company's chief financial officer. May I note that the company is a Fortune 100 company and that new CFO has never studied accounting or finance? That she was an engineering major? I fear for the company and for my pension.
I called. Ben told me that Sergio didn't want me to come to the meetings on Thursday or Friday.
Yes. I was sent to my room.
Reader, I am not four years old and Sergio is not my father.
Ben was ticked and nervous. He said that Sergio said that "everyone" noticed that I am not a "team player" and that "everyone" felt uncomfortable. He went on for 15 minutes and then told me I could call him later. I asked if I still had a job and he said he didn't know.
I had a job offer a few weeks ago. There were some things we had to negotiate - I would have had to take a pay cut and I wasn't willing to do that - and I was waiting for a revised offer letter. Yes, I did negotiate a higher salary, but I am still at only 85% of where I used to be. (And that's before bonus and stock options.)
But I didn't have the revised letter yet and what if it didn't come and I have three weeks of unused vacation and don't want to lose that and being fired would not be good.
However, it would have been nice to hear my boss say, "You and I both know Sergio is a bit of a jerk" (indeed, Ben and I have had that conversation behind closed doors more than once) "and he doesn't like being challenged. What were you thinking? Anyhow, I think he's being a jerk. But you know there is no arguing with him. Just lie low for a while." But no. No defense. Just attacks from Ben, who himself has developed if not tremors, then a great deal of fear.
Ben didn't say that. Instead, he told me to come in early so he and I could talk the next day.
I called my work friend Angelina Jolie. She was appalled and told me that I was not crazy, that it was Sergio and Ben who are crazy. She also told me that almost everyone she knows - including her - has been put on a performance improvement plan and that the company looks at PIPs as a way to manage, not as a way to fire people. That is, they go straight to DEFCON five rather than saying, "Let's work on these issues."
I got to work early. Went to Ben's office. Closed the door. Listened to me excoriate me for 20 minutes. How can I be so blah blah blah? Hasn't he warned me?
I asked when he had warned me and he mentioned a time when he and I had been complaining about Sergio. Ben told me that I was cynical and said what I thought.
Does that sound like a warning to you?
I said, "That didn't seem like a warning."
"I was trying to be diplomatic," Ben said.
Let me tell you some more about Sergio. The week before Easter, we got an email from the Argentina HQ that they would be closed on Good Friday and Easter Monday. It is already a sore point in the US office that the Argentina office gets more holidays. One of my co-workers, Regina King, emailed a response to the announcement: "Must be nice!"
Sergio fired back an email to Regina: "If you have a problem with the holidays in this office, we can certainly adjust them so they are equal by taking away some of the US holidays."
We were stunned at his vindictive response and confused as well, as the US already has fewer holidays.
So after 20 minutes of Ben beating me up and my nodding and saying, "You're right, of course," Sergio came into the office.
I stood and said, "I owe you an apology. I was rude and insensitive and should have thought before I spoke. You put a lot of work into these meetings and you didn't deserve that."
Of course, that was all BS. I mean yes, I should have thought before I spoke and should have lied, but really? I was being punished for expressing an opinion after I had been asked for one?
He said, "Well, I didn't think it fair to do anything without hearing your side of the story."
Which made me think, "Then why did you call Ben last night and tell him to tell me not to come to the meetings today? Why didn't you just pull me aside and ask, 'What's going on?'"
Indeed, BEN, if my HOSTILITY and NEGATIVITY that you cited were SO OBVIOUS to EVERYONE starting on Monday and making you look bad, then why didn't YOU pull me aside and say, "Hey! Knock it off!"
Because there was no issue.
Sergio explained how committed he and the others are to the company. "Madonna had to reschedule her grandson's baptism because of this trip to the US," he said. "She missed her father in law's funeral because of the last trip."
[I would not miss Sly's funeral for anything because I want to make sure he's dead.]
He continued. "I don't ask people to do these things. They do them because they care."
No, I thought to myself. They do them because they fear you. What kind of leader are you not to say, "You cannot miss your father in law's funeral?"
Sergio accepted my apology. Accepted when I said I was committed to doing a good job (which I always am, just because I am too prideful in my work to deliberately not do a good job) and that I would do what I needed to do to mend things with my co-workers. Told me to go to the meetings.
I went over to the meeting rooms. Found Jennifer Anniston, who had put together all the work for the day before, and told her I wanted to apologize for what I said. Jen had no idea what I was talking about. "You know, the 'two' rating," I said.
She raised her eyebrows. "That didn't bother me none," she said. "I thought your explanation made a lot of sense. I wasn't offended at all."
I found Angelina again. "I am so happy you're here!" she said. "I have been so angry since last night. Here we are talking about teambuilding and implementing quality systems but we can't be honest with each other? I haven't seen anything wrong with anything you have said or done this week!"
Then I found Brad Pitt. Brad is the guy who has made sure we have had coffee and bagels and donuts every morning and granola bars and peanut butter cups in the afternoon. I asked him if I had offended him. "Nope, not me," he said. "I'm fine. Sergio asked me on Tuesday evening about what you said about getting done by five and I told him that we all just wanted to know what the plans were so we could make plans for the evening. I don't see how what you said could be offensive except that Sergio takes everything personally."
Three down. That evening, I went for a drink with Enrique Iglesias, who works in the Argentina office and is the person I work with the most. He and Sergio are personal friends. He waved off the Sergio issue. "This is his passion," Enrique explained. "He lives and breathes this stuff. But no - no big deal. You just have to give him what he wants - you can't cross him because you will never win. He won't let you. As long as you can live with that, you're cool. If you can't, then you have to go somewhere else, because he is not going to change."
Four. Four out of the ten had not seen my egregious behavior. I didn't ask Madonna and the others because I don't know them well enough.
Thursday right before we finished, Madonna asked how many people would be going to dinner on Friday. That was the first I had heard of it. Primo and I already had plans for Friday night. I said as much.
Then I thought about Sergio's praise of Madonna for rescheduling a baptism. Going to tennis lessons with Primo was not even at baptism level.
I sighed, sent a message to Primo saying Friday night was off, and told Sergio that I had changed my plans and would be joining the group for dinner.
Did I mention that Brad had asked Sergio two weeks ago if there would be any evening activities and that Sergio had said we would discuss later?
Friday morning, I got an email with my revised offer letter. I pulled Angelina aside and showed it to her. She smiled.
We finished the meeting at 3. Sergio reminded everyone we would be eating at 7:30. My face fell. I had thought dinner would be at 5, after the meetings were supposed to be over. I shook my head. I just couldn't do it.
I remembered the revised offer letter. Told Sergio I had not realized that we would be eating that late and that I had transportation issues. He told me not to worry about it. Now that I have a place to escape to, I am not worried about it.
PS By the time you read this, I will have been in my new job for almost two months.