From TLD, Whole Number 18 (September 22, 1997)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Do not go gentle
into that bureaucratic morass


A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral of the man who was executive director of our association when I began working there 17 years ago. Only a handful of our current employees ever met him, and the corporate culture he represented is pretty nearly extinct.

When I started work, Buck was in his late 50s, and not one of his staff members was older than 35. The members of the organization referred to us as "Buck's girls" (as in, "Don't mess with Buck's girls"), and he treated us with a weird blend of professionalism and paternalism that would've gotten him slapped with the granddaddy of all harassment suits in the Nasty Nineties.

I remember one unfortunate president of our board who tried to intimidate me, on the telephone, into committing some infraction of policy. I was still new on the job, and I'd worked for bullies before; I told Buck, choking back tears of white-hot anger, that I wasn't about to get caught under those conditions again. Buck called the man back and proceeded to tell him precisely what he could and couldn't do as long as he, Buck, was in charge. The speakerphone was on. It was not pretty. The president apologized, abjectly, and treated me with total professional courtesy after that. Not the exaggerated courtesy of sarcasm, mind you, but the real thing. As the years passed, he mentioned it from time to time, wryly amused to recall what an idiot he'd made of himself and how firmly Buck had put him in his place.

We worked hard. Our official work week was 37.5 hours, 9 to 5:30, with an hour for lunch, but you couldn't tell that from our time sheets. There was no time clock, and in those days before flextime, Buck managed the business with one eye firmly on our biological clocks. Kathy was a morning person who was at her desk before 7 a.m., but school was out at 3:30, and she wanted to spend the afternoons with her kids. She took work home, willingly, but she was gone at 3, and Buck never thought a thing about it.

On the other end of the scale, Buck considered me to be a dead loss before 10:30 and refused to take seriously any report I produced before my morning caffeine kicked in. "No offense," he'd say, holding the monthly P&L statement gingerly between finger and thumb, "but when did you do this?" When he'd been assured that I'd run the figures the evening before, he'd give the sheet a second look and shake his head. "Well. We really are in trouble this month, aren't we? Feel nasty enough to call a couple of the slow-pay advertisers later on? Take no prisoners."

I was the association's bookkeeper back then, snatched away from the temporary-help agency that had sent me over for a "two-week assignment." In fact, I was still officially on the temporary agency's payroll (although Buck and I had shaken hands on a starting date and salary for me) when Buck sent me down to the bank for a new set of signature cards so we could establish me as a signatory on one of our checking accounts. I pointed out that I wasn't bondable yet, and that it wasn't really prudent of him. In fact, it probably wasn't legal. "Look," he said, putting the card on my desk blotter, "the maximum amount you can draw in one check is $1,000. If that's all your integrity is worth, then the sooner we both find that out, the better. Now sign the damned card."

I hadn't been on the payroll for real for a full month when Buck, the office manager, and most of the rest of the staff went off to Chicago for our annual conference, leaving me behind with a task list that included handling the exit interview for an employee who had resigned, reviewing our auditors' statement, and negotiating design changes with the interior designer who was decorating our newly purchased office building.

"Of course you can read blueprints," said Buck. "They're intuitive, like road maps. And besides, if the little bugger thinks you can read blueprints, that's probably enough to keep him honest."

Buck was a firm believer in hiring people who were willing to learn and figuring out what to do with them later. Except for me, every new employee who walked into the office had started off as his secretary. Buck had a vast number of eclectic projects in various states of development: a hazily defined workshop series, a textbook series, a scholarly journal, and God alone knew what else. After a few months, a new secretary would show signs of interest in one or another of the infant projects, Buck would spend a week or so explaining what direction he'd like to see the project take, and then he'd put an ad in the paper for another secretary.

When his protégés made mistakes (and we all did), even expensive mistakes, he'd shake his head, call them into his office, and say something like, "Well, now you know not to do that again. Let's talk about what you should have done." He hardly ever fired anybody. And he seldom let anybody quit.

There weren't very many of us on the staff, and the 10 of us juggled projects back then that require a staff of 110 now. When we managed a seminar or a conference, we knew we'd be going to some strange location where we'd be working 18-hour days, nine or 10 days in a row. I remember one late-October night in New Orleans, when I was locked into a tiny windowless room trying to reconcile an enormous pile of cash and checks to a massive stack of receipt forms, which represented conference registration fees and assorted incidental charges for roughly 4,000 people. After the fifth or sixth pass, I was only a few hundred dollars out of balance, which wasn't bad considering the entire process was manual, most of the documents were handwritten and in somewhat ambiguous figures, and I had gone beyond unendurable exhaustion into a kind of fugue state. Suddenly there was a knock on the door, and when I unlocked it, there was Buck, wearing a cheap Elvis mask, with a paper bag in his hand.

"It's Hallowe'en," he explained, "and since you weren't able to go out trick-or-treating, I went for you." And then he was gone, leaving me with a bag full of chocolates, salted cashews, and miniatures of single-malt scotch.

And when several of our staff members were out of town over a weekend, Buck would research and distribute the schedule for the local cathedral, and make sure that Sunday morning work assignments allowed time off for those of us so inclined to get to Mass. By contrast, one of our employees received a reprimand last December for referring to our holiday function as a Christmas party — nowadays an act of extreme insensitivity, don't you know.

I'd been with the association about three years when I was devastated by a sudden and unexpected death in my immediate family. We didn't have a formal bereavement-leave policy, and when I returned to the office after the funeral, I was still in a state of shock. Buck told me to take a few days of sick leave: everything I thought I had to do at the office would be there when I got back, and a couple of days wouldn't make any difference to the company, whereas they'd do me a lot of good. After all, what was sick leave for if you couldn't use it when you felt bad?

That was more than 14 years ago. Buck retired in the mid 1980s having served 25 years, and our subsequent executive directors (there have been four, plus a couple of interim guys) have hired a lot more staff and assembled a bureaucratic hierarchy that makes Byzantium appear Spartan in contrast. The things that Buck did from instinct and good solid people skills not only never happen anymore, they're probably illegal.

Take the fiduciary leeway Buck gave me because it seemed like the simplest way to run the business: now only two people in the company can sign checks, and only after at least one other person examines all the documentation. Even petty cash disbursements require two signatures. Any reconciliation of cash receipts takes place under the watchful eyes of a supervisor and an armed guard.

Now it takes six months minimum to hire a new employee. Interviews of prospective hires are conducted by teams of two to four people; references are checked by private investigators. Working hours are carefully scrutinized, and absolutely nobody is permitted, under our Moderate Flextime policy, to start work before 7 a.m. or after 9 a.m.

In Buck's day, the company picnic meant going down to the Southern Maryland landing where he kept his boat in the summer, and we'd all sit around eating boiled crabs, drinking beer, and playing Trivial Pursuit or euchre until we ran out of kerosene for the lanterns or the sand fleas devoured us whole. Now the picnic is a sterile affair where tickets are distributed to restrict the consumption of beer to those of us who can produce proof of age, and the manager of human resources instructs the caterer not to cook the hamburgers rare so we won't get sued for damages if someone gets food poisoning. Most of us carefully time our arrival to coincide with the first drawing for door prizes, and after the last drawing of the afternoon, everyone vanishes within 15 minutes. It's not a big deal, since the beer keg is locked down an hour before the last drawing anyway.

Last year I had to take a few days off unexpectedly because of a serious illness in the family. Buck would've told me to take sick leave and made sure that I had somebody available to ferry me back and forth from the hospital. Under the New Regime, I got a fat bundle of forms in the mail which had to be completed in duplicate and signed by the admitting physician before my eligibility for time off under the Family Leave Act could be evaluated. If the evaluation (by one of our HR staff who couldn't interpret a physician's diagnostic analysis on a bet) had been unfavorable, I'd have had to take leave without pay instead of sick leave, despite my having accrued 90 days of sick leave.

Our last-but-one executive director was with us for three years. When he left, he still couldn't match names with faces on his staff, and in at least one case he couldn't match a name with a gender. He'd have died before he put on a silly costume and delivered Glenfiddich miniatures to the bookkeeper. Hell, he didn't know who the bookkeeper was, let alone what her libation of choice was.

The incident that reminded me how far our workplace, and probably any workplace in the country, has come from the days when the Bucks of the world ran things took place in March, just a few weeks before he died. I was in Chicago, working a trade-show booth with two members of our board of directors, and my purse went missing, irrevocably, from a cabinet in the booth. I have very good reason to believe that the theft was the direct result of the thoughtlessness of one of our board members, who cheerfully told me that she knew my purse had been in the cabinet, because she'd taken it out and put it on the floor behind her in order to open the box underneath it. And she was fairly sure she'd put it back ... Sometimes, O Best Beloved, there are no words to express one's inner desires. However, thumbscrews and the iron maiden figured into the tamer of my fantasies.

After I discovered the theft, zany antics ensued, as the reviewers would put it. There were security-force reports, and police reports, and insurance reports. I had to replace my passport, cancel all my credit and telephone cards, close my checking account, get a new airline ticket home. I had to replace my wallet, my day planner, my Swiss army knife, my telephone/address book, my keys. I had to get the locks changed when I got home. Not to mention that I was penniless, in a strange city, and the credit card my hotel bill was charged to had just been canceled. I couldn't get into the airport without a picture ID, which I didn't have.

By the time everything finally got sorted out and returned to normal, the tab had come to something over 600 bucks, not including the work time lost by Mr. Dare, who did all the scut work involved in closing down the checking account and canceling all my credit cards. (After all, I didn't have any of that information with me. I was in Chicago with a canceled telephone card.) When I got back to the office, our current executive director was very sympathetic, and our controller was ecstatic because I'd gotten a copy of the police report that could be submitted to back up the claim for the stolen airline ticket. Added to which, I'd had the foresight to put the company telephone card on my credit card insurance list. My pleasure, fellas.

The other day Mr. Dare asked me how I thought the whole incident would have been handled if Buck had still been at the helm. I thought a minute about how the board president who'd given me a tongue-lashing had been slapped down; I thought about the Hallowe'en treat bag. And I thought also about the time the association had received a cash award from a professional society Buck belonged to. The award was for an innovative event our association had designed and managed. Buck split the award money, equal shares, among the staff, because we'd been the ones who'd done the work.

I suspect that Buck would have managed to finagle at least a partial reimbursement of my loss from our insurance company. Or at least, that's where he'd have told me the money came from. And I wouldn't have wanted to be the board member who had negligently moved a handbag belonging to one of Buck's girls.

Hardly anybody working for the association now was there when Buck was executive director. The place doesn't inspire the loyalty it used to. But seven of us took time off to go to his funeral. I don't think he'd recognize the company these days; I don't think he'd like it very much. Some days, I'm not sure that I do.

Rest in peace, Buck. You got out while the gettin' was good.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion and is one of TLD's chief Humane Resources.

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