Monday, March 5, 2012

Another Necessary Ending - Chapter 22

This is a Chapter 22 in a series entitled Telling My Story.   

After an eventful three and a half years at the dental office, I went to work for a county health department.  It was an entirely new adventure for me since the staff consisted of a few dozen employees, whereas I was used to working in a small group of about six or eight people. 

My boss later told me that my application was one of thirty five reviewed for the position. I felt blessed beyond belief to be selected for the position. I walked into that building each morning with a sense of gratitude and left each evening with a sense of satisfaction. That little bubble of euphoria lasted about six months.

When reality began to set in it dawned on me that I seemed to be assigned more and more work, while others appeared to have ample time to roam the halls, chat around the coffee machine, and take long lunch breaks.  Meanwhile I was going at a dead run from morning till evening.

As time went on I discovered what it meant when they informed me that I was an "exempt" employee.  Basically it meant that regardless of how many hours I worked, I was not eligible for any overtime pay. 

However, by now my responsibilities had grown and required that I attend various community meetings in the evenings, speak at non-profit gatherings, and analyze new legislation that could affect the funding for our department.  I enjoyed a lot of it tremendously and when given the opportunity I learned to write grant proposals.  This resulted in the local hospital receiving several hundred thousand dollars in new equipment, and I received a special commendation and a plaque from the board of supervisors.

Well, hot dog, and goody goody, but I could not deposit a plaque in my checking account to pay the bills.

Meanwhile a staff member, whose position closely matched my own, could often be seen in his office, with his feet propped up on his desk.  He would thumb through whatever he was reading, while slowly munching on chips and drinking a soda.  He often left the office in the middle of the day and no one knew where he had gone. This became so common an occurrence that whenever he was actually needed for something, inquiries would go around as to "who was on Dan watch."  (Dan is not his real name.)

Dan's only real value to the department was that he was something of a computer geek, and in those early days of desktop computing very few employees, including me, knew anything beyond how to boot up, log on, and do their own tasks. Dan, on the other hand, was an early "networking guy". It was a key role and he knew it, so he milked his expertise for all it was worth.  

One day, a lady who had been with the department about twenty years took me quietly aside and told me that I needed to "slow down" a little.  I did not understand what she was talking about.  She explained that I was working too quickly and that I was "making the rest of us look bad."

I honestly did not get it ... at first.  But around there, people dragged their feet.  They divided projects up among several employees, when one or two energetic people could have done the whole task.  They set timetables that ran forever, and only delivered what they had to when it became absolutely imperative.  I had never seen anything like it. I had not yet learned the axiom that "work tends to expand to fill whatever time is allowed."

For a long time I just kept my head down and concentrated on my own work; but finally after two or three years of watching this kind of nonsense go on I began to let the director know what I thought of the whole thing.  Since he was "the boss" I had to be careful about voicing my concerns, because after all, this was all happening on his watch, and therefore apparently had his tacit approval. 

It is still my honest conviction that most employees want to do their best. But it is not always the case, and in this organization  blatant favoritism coupled with a lack of accountability had produced an unhealthy work environment.

The breaking point came when I discovered two things within weeks of each other.  First, a woman whose position was similar to my own, was also required to attend the same evening meetings with board members that I attended.  One day we were discussing taking some time off and she mentioned that she had several weeks of "comp time"coming, mostly due to the "time and a half" credit she received for these after-hours meetings.  If she attended a three hour meeting, she received credit for four and one-half hours of time off.  I did not.

I was first perplexed and then furious when I realized that although we were attending the very same meetings and putting in the same amount of time, I was receiving no extra pay or compensatory time off, while she was accumulating several extra paid days off each year.  It also turned out that everyone but me knew this, and they knew it was because she was one of the "boss's favorites" on the staff.

Secondly, the foot-propping, chip-munching, doofus down the hall got a raise, and I learned it was identical to my own. I was dumbfounded.  How was this possible?  Everyone knew he was a complete slacker.  When I asked the director "why" - he explained that departmental raises were not performanced based, they were uniformly set on a scale by the county administrator.  The entire department received "X" percent raise for the year.  Quality of contribution did not figure in.  Whaaaaat???????

I watched this kind of thing go on year after year, while I privately fumed.  But after learning about the two incidents above, I regretfully concluded that it was time for me to move on and I resigned. As the saying goes, "If nothing changes, nothing changes."

They fussed and feuded, manipulated each other, and formed little cadres that then morphed into new conflicts; but they were like a weirdly dysfunctional family; they kind of liked themselves the way they were.  They knew the game and how to play it.  I was not interested in learning that particular skill set.

During the time between when I gave notice and my actual last day on the job, the posting for my job vacancy went up on the public bulletin board.  A week later a second position was also advertised.  Then a third opening for half-time position was also posted.

I confronted the director, soon-to-be my former boss, and asked him, "Are you telling me that you are going to hire two full time people, plus one part-timer to do my job?"  He admitted that, yes, that was the plan.

He had some trouble looking me in the eye, but he finally muttered, "After all, Marsha, there is just no way we could find one person who would do everything you have been doing around here."

With barely concealed disgust, I asked him pointedly, "Then why have I been doing it?"  He said nothing, as he simply shrugged his shoulders.  Although we had worked together daily for nearly five years, I made sure it was the last conversation I ever had with him.

The year after I left, a former colleague let me know that the department had been subjected to a special investigative audit by the board of supervisors, and furthermore, the director had been personally reprimanded for poor managerial practices.  There is, upon occasion, some justice in the world; but it is sometimes very slowwwwww in coming.

It was a painful, but necessary ending, and one from which I took lessons that would stand me in good stead going forward.  There would come a time when I was responsible for the compensation programs impacting hundreds of employees, and I determined that fairness, accountability, and appreciation would be my watch-words when it came to rewarding performance.  It was a real joy to administer those reward programs.

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                For God does not show favoritism. - Romans 2:11


  1. Good grief! Governmental waste at its worst. So sorry you had to be the vicitm in this. It slays me about that lady asking you to "slow down" so as not to make the others look bad. I'll bet they felt your loss acutely once you left.

  2. As hard and unfair as all this was, you took the lesson and let it guide your behavior in your future work environment and many people were blessed because of it......

  3. I'm glad you wrote about this, but I'm sorry it happened to you.

  4. To Shelly, Nancy and Saleslady371 - thanks for the kind feedback.

    Fortunately, I have just one more "necessary ending" to tell about, and then I RETIRED! :) hang on - it does get better.

  5. Wow, I think it is the same way everywhere. In the county office here the same thing is told to new employees, don't get your work done too fast, they will find a way so you don't keep your job.
    This was a great story, I can't wait to see the good part. :)

  6. Another great chapter which once again shows how honest you are and what good work ethics you have. It must have been hard to take to see others being slack and lazy but getting more rewards. (that has happened to me also) It is a wonder you lasted so long but I guess you benefited by learning more office procedures.