Friday, September 3, 2010

Part 2: a change would do you (and all of us) good

Okay, okay, under intense long-distance pressure from New Hampshah, the rest of the story (part 1 is here):

So, I have to preface this story with another one. On the Friday that I had lunch with the interns, I got back to my desk ready to call it an early day when an email marked "High Importance" popped into my inbox from an interior designer. Turns out all of the interiors gals--the few that we have left, that is--wanted to meet with me. They heard that I was meeting with the interns about good and bad things in the office and was going to report on that to the partners and associates, and they had a few things to discuss. I said I had planned on leaving, but I had a few minutes for them.

I spent the next ninety minutes in a small conference room with three women in their late twenties and early thirties as they described a workplace just this side of the the third concentric ring of Dante's Easy Bake. Prudence, the head of our interior design department, has never been a snuggly person to deal with. I've found her to be prickly and difficult, but I had no idea how bad things were for her staff. These talented young professional women told me of how any attempt to work in a meaningful way on projects with the architects were met with backlash and from Prudence, and even minor mistakes were punished with being thrown under the bus by Prudence to the architects. "Carrie was never sent the carpet pattern submittal for the XYZ Hotel project," said one designer. "So the carpet got installed all wrong! When the architect got the call about it from the owner and took Carrie to task for it, she went to Prudence for advice on how to handle it. All Prudence said was 'well, Sadie made a similar mistake on Will's project last year, and she was laid off a couple of weeks later.' That's it for the 'advice' she gave Carrie on the situation."

I listened in near-horror as they described how unclear and frustrating their day-to-day jobs were. Prudence is evidently so focused on how much profit her jobs are making that she literally looks over her designers' shoulders at their computer screens and carps, "What are you drawing?! You better be billing that to the architecture code on this!!" The designers are never told at the start of the project what exactly their fee entails, so when they start doing something that would reasonably be their job, they get shouted down and told "stop that!" Meanwhile and unbeknownst to the interiors department, the architects in our office (especially Howie) have a terrible opinion of our interior designers as lazy and penny pinching because the refrain over and over from that department is "we're not doing that; we don't have the fee for it."

At one point, designer Carrie grabbed the hand of each girl on her left (Claudia) and right (Saffie) and said, "Yesterday, I was so upset that I called my husband at work and asked him if I could please quit work. Every day, we just pat ourselves on the backs and head so we can talk ourselves into coming back to work each morning. And we don't have any backup or support or guidance or mentorship or anything...we just lean on each other."

Saffie, the youngest of the group piped up. "We heard you were doing this Intern 101 thing for the architects and teaching them about the business side, and we thought, 'why isn't anyone doing this for us?'" I was mortified to realize that I'd never included the interiors group in my intern seminars, and I informed them all that they were welcome to join us and would be included in all events from here on out.

Claudia then jumped in. "Pixie, we haven't had reviews or raises in two years. We've all been working at least eight hours of unpaid overtime a week for months. If we're not going to be treated with some sense of respect, then there's no reason to stay here anymore. As soon as the work comes back elsewhere, we're gone."

I thanked them for sharing and told them that I'd talk to the partners on the following Monday. That very Monday morning, Carrie came downstairs and asked me to step into a conference room.

"Look," she said, her breath and voice catching a bit. "We still feel the same way we did on Friday, but...maybe we should just lay low for a while...."

"Not at all," I replied. "Carrie, when you have to talk yourself into coming into work every day, that's not acceptable. That's not the kind of workplace that Design Associates want to promote. I'm not going to say anything bad about Prudence, but I want to tell someone about what's going on with you ladies. Frankly, you've suffered enough."

After the big group discussion during lunch, I figured I might have the best chance if I talked to Audrey alone. So, we went into a small conference room, and I laid out for her the working conditions that interiors has been dealing with: the lack of support, the retribution when they dare to work for architects instead of her, the sniping and looking over their shoulders, the snarkiness and veiled menacing threats, the lack of backup and support and reviews, the continual unpaid overtime.... Audrey started the conversation with the usual concerned but deflecting observations: "well, Prudence has never been a very touchy-feely person...yeah, Prudence has always been about the profit and nothing much else...." By the end of the discussion, she had a couple of steno pad pages of notes, and she looked genuinely concerned and even a bit horrified.

"Audrey," I finished, "Carrie came down here this morning to ask me to not say anything just now, that they wanted to 'lay low' for a while. They're terrified of her and of some kind of retribution."

Audrey's face twisted into the kind of expression one usually makes while watching "Silence of the Lambs". "They haven't approached her about this?"

"Audrey, they don't feel safe doing so, given the lack of support in their day-to-day workplace duties," I explained. "How can you confront the boss about their behavior when you're terrified of him or her?"

So, we'll see if Audrey shares any of this to the rest of the partners about Prudence's behavior. There's only so much that I can do. I just hope that something is done. This is a good way to increase turnover in a very important department at our office, and there's just no excuse for this kind of behavior anywhere. Meanwhile, I'm going to go attempt to have a quiet and truly restful Labor Day weekend, and I hope the same kind of weekend for all fifteen of my readers.


Kimberly said...

Count me as #16.

I hope this works out okay for them - I've had that bad conditions/scary boss before and it's just the worst.

Vic said...

#17 Here.
I did quit over a somewhat similar situation. I almost regret it in the current economy. At least these women have an advocate in you, Pixie.

St. Blogwen said...

I've experienced being thrown under the bus for minor mistakes as a young professional. Great way to stop the learning curve.

Scarlett said...

I did speak out against a similarly psychopathic boss, and when the next round of lay offs came through, I knew it was coming. When he walked me to my car to make sure I wasn't stealing office supplies and to take my car pass, he basically told me, "I don't wish you luck because you don't deserve it."

The fear those girls have is real. Very real. Especially since DA has been doing layoffs.

They eliminated my job, but within 3 months after me leaving, they put it back in the organization. I did have legal recourse, but not the stomach to have my reputation trashed.

Eight hours of unpaid overtime per week with no reviews for two years? Wow. Your description of the partners makes me think they would absolutely be aghast to know they had employees being treated that way.

Prudence *clearly* is not manager (much less mentor) material. She needs to be put in a place where she can do a technical job without having to direct people.

They also have a "hostile work environment" case - the liability potential should scare the shit out of the partners. Its being done to all three of them, which adds credibility to their claims.

You did the right thing. Make sure you follow up to find out what's going to be done. Many many MANY managers (I have one right now) are so "anti-confrontational" and "focus on the happy" that they simply close their eyes and refuse to deal with the problems that need serious attention, even when you bring it up loudly.

If nothing else, it will show you who is willing to deal with the problems. And frankly, if you work for leadership that doesn't address the abuse these girls are suffering through, you need to sit down in the quiet and ask yourself if that's really an organization you want to sweat and toil for.

And WTF? You have 15+ readers? Bitch.

Enjoy your holiday! It was 108 here yesterday, and tomorrow, its supposed to be a blessedly cool 97! YAY YAY YAY!

Miss Kitty said...

Prudence needs to have her ass kicked. But I guess she's gotten away with this for so long because she saves the firm money and gets new work. [sigh]

is group said...

It's nice of you to step in and try to sort the situation. I think most of us have found ourselves working for a 'prudence' type character during our younger years. Hopefully the situation can be resolved- although when it happened to me I found the best resolution was to go out and get a new job and have the satisfaction of quitting.

WG said...

When I left the Kitchen From Hell in 2000 they replaced me with 2 people. Same with the in-house food service at the place I met El Seebano. Then I went to Rockhead. Yup. There's a lot of Prudence-s around the working world. Same thay can't be broken down for parts.