Monday, November 22, 2004

Underneath People's Houses

I interviewed for a supervisor position at the cable company where I work. I applied for the position because I wanted more money and greater responsibility. Also, as a cable technician, I think I’m becoming way too obsessed with crawling under people’s houses. Sometimes, I find myself daydreaming about building the perfect crawlspace.

Clearly, it’s time to get out of the “field”.

First, though, I needed to ace the interview. In preparation, I rehearsed my “inscrutable” look. I use this look whenever an interviewer asks me a question I don’t immediately know the answer to. When used correctly, the “inscrutable” look makes me look mysterious, pensive and wise. In other words, it buys me time to do something career experts call “pulling something out of my butt”.

The interview began as most corporate interviews do; I took a seat on one side of a table and my three interviewers took their seats across from me. In the past, less sophisticated Human Resources departments might have used just one interviewer to vet a candidate. Modern HR departments know that you ideally need at least two interviewers if you want to really intimidate a candidate – and at least three questioners if you want to completely surround a candidate and cut off all routes of escape.

Things went well enough until one of the interviewers asked this question:

“Give us one specific incident where you had to discipline someone in your department. How did you do it and what were the results?”

I froze up. It’s been so long since I’ve actually been in charge of someone that absolutely no anecdotes sprang to mind. While I searched my memories, I put my patented “inscrutable” look on my face. I assumed the look was working like a champ until one of the interviewers said:

“Are you okay?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You looked like you had a little…indigestion.”

My face went red. “I was actually trying to project an air of inscrutability.”

Another of the interviewers gave a tired sigh.

“Oh,” he said. “For a second, we thought you were trying to pull an answer out of your butt.”

So, I’ve gone back to planning the perfect crawlspace. It’s eight feet high, so a cable technician doesn’t have to crawl. It’s well lit and open. Most of all, there’s no spiders. Why? Because sometimes a customer can chart my progress under their house just by listening for my girlish screams every time I hit a spider web….

Saturday, November 06, 2004

On Being Replaceable

It’s obvious to those of us in the lower half of the food chain that the economy sucks. We judge this by a number of factors; are there fewer job ads in the paper? Is it harder to advance in whatever company we work for?

But mostly we can tell how the economy is going by the way that our employers treat us. Case in point: three people close to me have had their bosses pull employees together and tell them this:

You can be replaced.

In a previous life, I was a manager of people. I know the pressures that managers face. I know your bosses want everything in the world – and they want it now. I know that the people you manage will sometimes take advantage of your good will. I know that your job is only as good as your last spreadsheet. I even know that, really, everyone can be replaced. Hell, I’ve actually been replaced.

But only in a bad economy do managers get bold enough, desperate enough or desperately bold enough to actually say these heart-killing words:

You can be replaced.

Many managers immediately regret saying these words, but slough off the guilt because they are only “telling it like it is.”

Well, there are two types of people in the world, those who “tell it like is” and those who tell the truth.

Here’s some truth, managers. Because you use spreadsheets to gauge our progress, you will be tempted to reduce us to something like a “Dungeons & Dragons” character. This person has an Intelligence of 13 (out of a possible 18), that person has a Budgeting skill of 8. We have a certain amount of “Hit Points” and when we run out of those, we’re not “dead”, we’re “fired”. And then we’re replaced.

We’re more than that. Me? I’m a cable technician who is terrified of heights, but climbs telephone poles every day. I do this in the wind and rain, not out of loyalty to a manager or company, but because at the top of that pole, I see something more real.

I see health insurance for my family; I see diapers and formula for my infant daughter. If you’re a manager and think you have your employees by the “short ones”, you’re right. In my case, the “short ones” are named Gabriel, Julian and Riley.

I’m not writing this because a manager has told me I’m replaceable. I’m writing this because managers are saying this to my friends. I can hear the anxiety in my friends’ voices and I can identify with that angst.

I know that the managers who say this are anxious, too. But you get paid the bigger bucks to look at the whole of the problem. You get paid the bigger bucks to realize that though spreadsheets are useful tools, they only describe your employees. Your employees are bigger than spreadsheets.

You should be, too.