Like the many that preceded him, Jack Burdon had a sloped walk, dour expression and ruffled appearance and bore the weight of someone who had spent his life moving through the corridors, in and out of the cubicles that housed employees whom he’d supervised and bullied for too many lifetimes. When I agreed to meet with him at the Starbucks on Mack and Woodward just south of downtown Detroit, I assumed he was less concerned about privacy or he just wanted to use his Starbucks gift card.
I sat at a two-seater table, next to the window that offered a view of the mechanized and pedestrian traffic. I watched the blue and red QLine glide noiselessly by carrying its diverse citizens to their Woodward destinations when he stood over the seat next to me
“Are you H.R.?” He asked before he sat down. After years of hearing that as a lead in question, I’d run out of snappy answers and learned to live with just giving a nod.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.” He slumped, nervously, in the chair as if a huge predator had just swooped down on his shoulders. “I am at the end of my rope and I hope you can help me.”
After 30 years in the people business, that statement had been uttered by thousands of lost souls who were, usually, at a crossroad where the next step would take them down a darker path or toward a dimly lit road. “I’m listening,” I said.
He sighed as if his heart was lodged in his throat, making it difficult to release his exasperation in a long exhale or worse, he was getting ready to cry. “All my employees hate me.”
“Any idea why?” I asked as my mind raced through the thousands of reasons that had their own variations under several re-occurring themes.
“No,” he stated, “It has me completely bamboozled.”
I remember taking a moment to recall the last time I heard someone use that word. Regaining focus, I asked, “Can you think of anything you might be doing that would bring about this perceived hate?”
“It’s not perceived,” he shot back. “Just yesterday someone put drops of Coca-Cola in my contact lens cleanser.”
“Regular or Diet?”
“Diet. My pupils were only slightly irritated.” He rubbed his left eye and continued. “What could I have possibly done to make someone do that?”
“Which goes back to my question. Can you think of anything you might be doing that would bring about this prankish hate?”
He delayed his response by taking a sip of regular coffee from the grande cup, swished it around, swallowed and said. “I’ve been told that I am a bully.”
“Who told you that? Your employees?”
“Just the 15 that I’ve fired as well as my wife, my pastor, my two remaining friends who both live outside of Michigan, my next door neighbor and her cocker spaniel.”
“That’s a pretty diverse crowd with a similar opinion,” I said. “When did you decide everyone, including the cocker spaniel, was right?”
“Someone changed my screen saver at work. It used to say, ‘Because I am the boss, that’s why?’ ”
“Now, what does it say?” I asked.
“There’s a box seat in Hell with your ticket number.” He added, “The message also included red emoji’s with horns and a pitchfork.”
With each sentence he uttered, I pieced together his profile from the thousands of cases stored in my memory. Promoted to a manager at a young age (check), started out as the ‘shining star’ of management (check), never trained to be a manager (check), learned by dodging (check), was beat out by someone on his high school athletic team (check), likes scaring sleeping cats just to watch them jump (check), hasn’t been promoted in years (check) always told by the company that he’s needed in the role that he’s in (check), motivates by fear (check).
“…so now my boss is sending signals that he wants to get rid of me.” (check)
Profile almost complete. Refocus.
“Mr. Burdon, finish this sentences with the first words that comes to mind. My employees are my..,?
“A good manager is..,”
“..,easy on the furniture.”
“The best employees are..,”
“I like my job because..,”
“..,it’s who I am.”
Jack Burdon was a beached whale wallowing in the fast lane of social movement. His shining star was caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole and there was no passing comet to bump him back into orbit. He relabeled his frustration as loyalty and convinced himself that the world owed him a debt of gratitude for keeping the barbarians in their cubicles. He was a legal staff’s worst nightmare. Protected by a boss who values productivity over decency and the numbers speak to his worth. It was clear that the shift in Jack’s stellar universe after the third denial of a promotion by a boss whom he made look good.
Unable to move up or out, he directed his inability toward the residents of Cubicle Court, slashing at every one of their attempts to better their performance and backing himself into a corner where he was an easy target for anyone wanting to fight back. He didn’t chose to contact me, it was chosen for him. His next step was not about his career, but his survival.
“Jack,” I said, “Your story has a far too familiar ring to it and while I find it fascinating that I had a similar conversation with someone in 1988, and 30 years later, this conversation still exists. It’s not a matter of whether I take you on as a client, which I will, the issue is whether you are willing to work on what ails you, not the people that you sicken.”
Stunned, he leaned back in his chair, pondered for a moment and said, “I have to get better or I am going to be fired. Where do we start?”
“The gap between survival and success is only as wide as the willingness to move forward.” Anonymous