To the three white ladies, I was a colored maid

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 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?
   [Originally published as a post on May 3, 2012
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  1. Morris,

    I hope there is a special place in Hell for such persons. By the way, this is not only cruel, but it constitutes incompetent management. We published a pamphlet this year entitled Employee Engagement: Understanding the Business Case and Providing Tools for Increasing Engagement in the Workplace. The paper won an award from the American Society for Quality as the most important paper in the quality field for 2011. Data from Gallup and other prominent firms indicates that the behavior of your manager will lead to low levels of engagement. In your case it led to complete disengagement. Worse for the organization perhaps are the employees who remain, but are not engaged. Maybe someone upstream from your supervisor will get the message. By the way, you can buy the pamphlet on Amazon, and send it to the right person, if there is one.

    Most important, I feel very sad that you had to endure this. It literally makes me feel sick.


    1. Brooks, The "someone upstream" is the president of UNC, whom I informed of the goings on and from whom I received the reply summarized in "The situation."
          For this blog's readers, here's a link to your pamphlet's Amazon page.
          I know well from reflective experience at IBM how important "employee engagement" (or participative management) is, and I have taken the lesson to heart in all of my acts of team leadership and coordination.
          How the chief white lady and her protege came to be hired at UNC General Administration will forever remain a mystery to me (and others who haven't made their escape yet).

  2. Name Withheld But Morris Knows Who I AmThursday, November 15, 2012 at 10:04:00 AM EST

    Brilliant assessment and analysis! I enjoyed both of this article and "Modern face of a katydid," Morris. Keep writing! I am glad you found your passion in writing. This is your unique skill and you should continue that.
        This place started suffocating [our mutual friend] as well. I am happy [this friend] also decided to leave and found a nurturing working place [elsewhere]. I miss you both!
        I am glad you realized the selfish agenda behind the characters and chose to leave instead of pandering to them. Good Luck! This decision will give you good health, lot of cheer and ultimate happiness!