Monday, May 1, 2017

For the fifth anniversary of my retirement

Why I decided to retire

By Moristotle

In the final hours of overnight between Thursday and Friday, the remnants of sleep inundated me with what felt like some hidden layers of past remembrances, with feelings of loss, of shortcoming, of empathy for a few people along the way.
    It was fascinating stuff, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t take notes. I guess it was fortunate, for the “black” tone of those layers of remembrances felt burdensome, and I’m glad that the somber images that visited me that morning have not hung around to haunt me, although an inner voice says that it would be useful to revisit them and explore further. I’ll ask my muse to arrange this.
    At any rate, that early-morning dystopia delivered the gift, somehow, of reminding me that May 1 would be the fifth anniversary of my retirement from UNC-General Administration, which is ironic, because the remembrances didn’t reflect my fourteen years at UNC so much as some of my preceding thirty years, at IBM.
    I think (but am not sure) that two stimuli may have occasioned the remembrances – being reminded (by a question from my son about teaching empathy) of my interest in designing “experiential learning” training sessions during the 80’s (at IBM), and receiving a comment on Facebook the same day from an IBM friend and training colleague of that period. Whatever the actual stimulus for Friday morning’s inundation, I am grateful for it, for reminding me of this occasion to republish my article about retiring from UNC, originally published on May 3, 2012 and titled “Why I decided to retire.”

When it comes right down to it, my retirement story is utterly banal – one of the innumerable “bad-manager stories” told by workers all over the world. You just don’t expect to have to tell such a story when you worked for a great university. But, then, maybe you don’t expect to have to tell it when you worked for a great corporation. I have a similar story about IBM.
    Maybe we need to look at “great” and see what’s missing.
    But that’s for another time, or never.

I posted here on February 1 [2012] that I would announce my retirement officially later that day. The event that prompted the announcement took place the day before. When I called my wife immediately after it, we agreed that now was the time for me to leave. I initiated retirement proceedings the next day.
    So, what was “the event”? I characterized it on April 1 by quoting from the movie and Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help:  “The white ladies aren’t your friend.”

No, the white ladies weren’t my friend.
    On January 31 my supervisor required me to meet with her and a member of her Human Resources department. I say her HR department because it certainly isn’t mine, or any other worker’s. HR departments serve the white ladies (aka “The Man”), not the help.
    Both of these literally white ladies insisted that I stop working a half-hour a day at home, even after I explained the consequences—that I would have to stop commuting by collective van (whose timetable allowed me only eight hours total at work, including the mandatory half-hour for lunch) and start burning either a gallon of gasoline a day to catch the nearest bus or two gallons to drive to work and back. They showed not the least sympathy for the environment.
     Nor did it seem to matter to them that I have a tendency to doze off behind the wheel, a tendency exacerbated by surgery sixteen years ago to remove a tumor in my pineal gland. Fortunately, in the three months I complied while waiting for Retirement Day, I nodded off only twice—each time waking up in time to avoid colliding with another car or running off the freeway.
    Nothing doing, they said. They said—literally, in the case of the HR lady—that they don’t trust employees to actually work when unsupervised, and neither of them believed that much can be accomplished in a lone half-hour. These two white ladies had (and no doubt continue to have) a low opinion of employees generally.
    My supervisor’s “cover story” was that she needed me there forty hours a week (not just 37.5) to “collaborate” with her and the rest of the team. To see how absurd that is, consider that she seemed to regard (and no doubt continues to regard) cooperation as something meant for employees to do with their supervisors, but not for supervisors to do with the help.

A third white lady was centrally involved in this, as it turns out.
    The same afternoon as the meeting, a friend overhead my supervisor’s supervisor thanking the HR lady for her help with the meeting. It immediately appeared that the meeting had been a set-up, either to cow me into proper colored-maid servility or to actually hasten my departure. I could not in good conscience accept the first alternative.
    The third white lady had been my immediate supervisor for several months, during which time she finagled permission to create a position into which to recruit the new white lady, who had worked for her in their previous fiefdom. The new white lady finally arrived—precisely two weeks before she and the HR lady came down on me.

The third white lady was (and no doubt continues to be) a piece of work. Any self-respecting individual is naturally going to find it hard not to bridle when such a person climbs on his back. Minny and the other colored maids may have had more profound reasons to write about Miss Hilly (her campaign for bathroom sanitation) and the other white ladies for Miss Skeeter’s book than I have to write about the conditions where I worked.
    But I worked for dozens of managers in my forty-five years “in the work force” and in all those years of course had a few bad ones. But until this chief white lady came along, I never had a manager who was so widely despised among the help as she seems to be.
     And also feared by those who, unlike me, have something to lose.

“We don’t have any money,” the chief white lady had told a number of people who asked about a raise. No money for raises for the help, no, but money for raises to the supervisors, yes. And money, yes, to bring her protege into that tailor-made, cushy-salaried position.
    The chief white lady’s management style seems to me to be rigidly top-town and authoritarian. She asks for information, you provide it. But don’t expect any information in return.  And little thanks. As I told my colleagues in Atlanta two weeks ago, only commands come down and only servility is expected to go back up.

That’s all I’ll say for now about the chief white lady.
    On Monday, I sent her boss some additional information. I trust that he will investigate. I hope he can confirm my allegations and uncover more.
    “Don’t ask HR to investigate for you,” I suggested.
    But what if these three white ladies are just what The Man wanted (and will continue to want)?
    What if all the help are going to get is a toilet in the garage?

I wrote several other pieces about my experiences in General Administration, adding links to them (and to a related piece by Ken Marks, who was at the time a contributing editor of Moristotle & Co.) when I added this post to the Permanent Collection, under the title “To the three white ladies, I was a colored maid”:
Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. Morris, it sounds like you made the right decision five years ago. I have learned to "live lightly" in the corporate world. An office can feel like a family until, suddenly, it doesn't. I have, in the 37 years of my professional existence, worked for some truly horrible people. I have also occasionally worked for some truly wonderful people. Most of the time, however, it is somewhere in between: they manage to make money without killing too many innocents. But there is probably no better petri dish for breeding evil than the "free market." Which is why a certain political party loves deregulation so much, perhaps.

  2. While I retired for "other" reasons, my last manager was a racist brown woman. Once a friend but the manager promotion unleashed her once hidden demons. Loved my work and employees but the Bruha made it difficult!

  3. The ”IBM friend and training colleague“ referred to in the fourth paragraph commented on Facebook:

    I feel as though I can't get a full breath of air when confronted by such unkind imbalance of power used against anyone by anyone. Watching it [portrayed] on the screen is distressing, also.

  4. Another friend commented in an email:

    I read your blog on the anniversary of your retirement, and though I all too well know the story of your decision to retire, my stomach still twisted as I read it again.
        When I made my decision to finally retire, the “white lady big boss” was a big factor in that decision. Like you I had many thoughts of feeling inadequate (something I NEVER had at any other job, where I was always highly valued and appreciated) and I wondered if I was “just over the hill.” Although my decision felt forced by the situation at GA in some way, I have never regretted leaving when I did. I enjoy being retired, where I can be myself 24 hours a day and not [have to be] what someone else expects me to be (however unrealistic that may be)....
        ...Those who couldn’t retire have left...I’m sure they saw the writing on the wall. Unfortunately, [one of our friends] is still there, though she's been trying to find another job. All this time there is still “no money for salary increases”....
        I think we are the lucky ones to have left with our dignity still intact!

  5. I'm not sure I've ever met a good manager. Research labs tend not to have them. A shrink of my acquaintance was once hired to evaluate management at a local government lab, and reported that not one of them a) was trained in management, or b) actually wanted to be a manager. Without exception, they took the job to keep "HIM!" from getting it.
    The manager I had when I "retired" (laid off in a field with no jobs) was bad enough that I once stopped a phone conversation for thirty seconds while I decided whether to say "yes sir" or to walk down the hall and throw him out the window. HIS supervisor was a pretty good guy. He just had no idea how to be a manager. E.g. I got no feedback about my work, good, bad, or indifferent, except at the annual review. That was more that twenty years ago, and today I can't imagine how I put up with that shit.

  6. I had some good managers, I'm glad to be able to say. At any rate, I can think of eight or ten right off the bat, two of them at UNC (before the "white lady" came along). I'll even name them. Bob Dahlhoff, who had already lost an arm by the time I met him, in San Jose, in 1971 or '72, and he could still play a competent game of tennis; Dean Wolford; Jim Vreeland; Don Custer (beloved of everyone who knew him, may he rest in peace) – Don was my first IBM manager in North Carolina, at IBM's main location in Research Triangle Park; Anne Rice, for whom I worked in North Raleigh; Nino Mannino and Marva Richey, for whom I worked in Cary before transferring back to RTP, where I never had another good IBM manager; UNC VPs Dr. Gary Barnes and Dr. Alan Mabe. A good manager goes a long way toward making a working person's life good.
        I sure hope I haven't momentarily forgotten another good manager whose name I should have listed above....