Friday, September 3, 2010
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.