Mixed Blessings

View from Hell

The realization of the lost month hit her all at once when she received the email announcement. She didn’t know what to do so she reread the email again, then printed it and read it yet again. As she read her email, she realized that the whole thing was a complete and absolute waste of time. Once she allowed herself to catch up with her racing mind, she actually printed the email, in hopes that changing the method of communication was going to change the content. However, after reading the words on paper, she crumpled up the hard copy email and physically threw it away. Within a few minutes, she turned off her office light, logged off her computer, grabbed her purse and left to get drunk. It didn’t matter what time it happened to be that moment, it was time to have a few stiff drinks and re-shuffle the cards. She was literally out of the door when she returned, grabbed the crumpled email, stuffed it into her briefcase and continued with her original plan of imbibing. This email was a lesson worth preserving.

The next day, sporting a solid hangover, she returned to her office and began work on her only deliverable of the day: the monthly report detailing her activities andoverall contributions to the success of the company. During the composition of her obligatory monthly activity report, the loss of five working weeks of life returned to her thoughts while trying to diminish the shocking memory. As she tried to summarize in an activity report the official accomplishments for the month, the shock morphed itself into real physical pain. She had never experienced a migraine headache before but she start there in her office with her eyes shut, the ability to imagine what one felt like was hers to appreciate.

As the stubborn consequences of her hangover combined with the litany of ridiculous and recent circumstances, she finally understood the absurdity of both her job and the work environment; which apparently surrounded everything in her life. Every month, she dutifully listed her accomplishments, issues and concerns making a summary of monthly efforts but this report was going to be different. The task usually took less than an hour, as one month’s report was an updated version of the earlier month’s report. This report, which would also be sent up the chain to the bosses, would take more time to compose.

Her boss, would collect all her subordinate’s reports, and cut and paste them into a new report, which was sent to the next set of bosses. This collecting, regurgitating and reformatting of activities would continue until they reached the desk of the President of the company by the tenth of each month. The thirty plus page report was a collection of activity that was actually completed by junior and mid-management types; parsed and politically altered by subsequent levels of senior management to represent the activity of the entire group. The President would review it as if he was looking at the TV Guide; specifically seeking out his favorite programs and rarely deviating from the pattern. If someone wanted to slip in a paragraph of greeked gibberish, the chances were better than fifty/fifty that it could have made the final rollup report. The only recent upside with this method was no one was actually (and literally) was cutting and pasting these reports anymore. Technology had allowed a few trees to be saved with soft copies but all in all, the world remained the same: staring in front of logic...pantless.

A report has an illusion of readability in the same vein as a bestseller, which is purchased but is rarely read by anybody. It sits there, uncracked and dormant, almost challenging the reader to actually take the time to absorb both the content and the writer’s intent of enlightening the audience on an issue. However, this illusion quickly dissipates as the new report arrives before the old report is read and digested, forcing the reader to promise themselves that they will make every effort to read it over the weekend or on the next plane ride.

That promise falls by the wayside and the next report comes dutifully at the tenth of the next month and the second report suffers the same fate as the first report. This pattern of unread information continues with a cruel consistency but the first-line supervisors continue producing the variations on a theme and the second line supervisors take the variations and blend them into yet another version of their last variation and the cycle of contrived and useless insights continue unabated, ignored and unread. The handy bromide of “perception is reality” was created not by a modern-day philosopher but rather by some tired executive named Bill who couldn’t find the time to read an executive summary.

“Bill, what do you think of the report?”

“It is hard to say.”

“What do you mean? Did you read the report?”

"Of course I looked at it but remember that perception is reality.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that I will read it, some day.”

"Oh, I understand. Where did you get that ‘perception is reality’response?”

“I am not sure. I might have read it somewhere.”

Shelby Donald started writing her report and instead of concentrating on the act of updating and editing her last report, she made the fatal mistake of thinking about it for the first time. Usually, she would move bullet points from the “tasks/projects planned” section to the “tasks/projects underway” section and make a few edits in tense and content. Items from the “tasks/projects completed” would then be deleted or edited (depending on the activity) and items from the “task/projects future” would enjoy reclassification as “tasks/projects planned” or “tasks/projects held” depending on the bureaucratic winds of the moment. This hierarchy of defined effort had a hard set of rules: issues lived and died through the spectrum of evolutionary effort. These categories were, in the nomenclature of the company, ordered as future, approved, planned, underway and completed. It didn’t matter what the actual effort entailed, the steps were the steps and you dropped them into the slots and pushed it up the line.

Shelby, when reviewing her month, movedthe task of interviewing for a security manager from the “planned” section to the “completed” section; an effort that literally spanned from the alpha to the omega. This effort took approximately twenty-five working days during the month which meetings and interviews that ate up six to seven hours a day. Initially flattered to be part of the interview team, the actual process began a quagmire of droning discussions only broken up with desperate interviewees kowtowing to a four-person team of increasingly cynical interviewers. The content of the recent email provided even a deeper sting once she saw the total collision of wasted time, dysfunctional management and a distinct veneer of stupidity across the top of the whole crap fest.

The company was apparently a big fan of two of the most annoying personnel interview practices: using scripts of pre-determined questions and presented those questions within a team environment. These two interview strategies then combined to provide the perfect storm of Human Resources (HR) misery as the team of brain-dulled interviewers is forced to engage in scripted prattle with candidates stressed to the point of self-urination. The collective indifference was only surpassed by the frantic, cloying desire of the applicant to put up with this esteem-destroying exercise without imploding from the stress of their forced smile and illusion of engaged demeanor.

Shelby remembered a quote long credited to Voltaire in which he said that “God was a comedian working in front of an audience that was afraid to laugh.” She was not one for tossing out obscure quotes to impress but for some reason, she was able to pull that quote out of her subconscious with ease. She smirked when the thought of quote enjoying some practical legs in conference rooms everywhere three hundred and fifty years after Voltaire opened with that material in some palace somewhere.

The involvement started easy enough when Shelby was asked to participate in the interviews. Her backgrounds in HR and Information Systems (IS) were a nice compliment to the group, which also included the hiring manager representing the new Security Department, a HR representative and an experienced technical professional. This team of four was going to find the best candidate they could with the tools in front of them and it all started with a plan.

“Here at the company,” began the HR representative with his own scripted remarks, “we believe in scripted interviews.”

“What does that mean,” asked the hiring manager. “Can’t I make this decision based on my own experience and observations?”

“No, you can’t. We believe in team efforts and the value and effectiveness of team observations, not individual ones.”

Shelby’s stomach hurt: she saw where this was going. Not only would they have to take turns with scripted interview questions, they would have to listen to each other ask the same questions, in the same order, to all the candidates that were up for the job. She literally shook her hand to rid the images of dinner theater troupes from her aching head.

The hiring manager had no more questions and the discussions began. Armed with dozens of canned questions from some internal inventory, the group slogged through every example, debating the merits and potential shortcomings of each one. Given the wide range of experience and differences in each of the four, the conversations lasted for several days until the final list of twenty questions lay before the group. Another four hours were needed to assign to each participant their allotment of questions as well as the both the priority and planned order of asking; the running order. Things got so anal that cues were assigned so people knew when they could add follow-up questions and with the last fifteen minutes, a seating order was even blocked out.

This first exercise took one entire week of time. For five straight days, four supposed professionals sequestered themselves in a conference room, arguing question content and debated hypothetical issues and personal opinions as if they were facts. Shelby was a reluctant but polite team member; the hiring manager was new and desperate to make a correct decision while the HR representative was just happy to be engaging with people other than his usual, smarmy peers. The final interviewer, the supposed technical resource, was equally internally cynical as Shelby but maintained an appropriate team attitude because he was the odd combination of process loyal and professionally bored.

The unsaid but collective initial feeling was this exercise might not be completely futile. This could have been the start of a pure exercise in needs analysis and resolution. The politics involved with actually adding someone new to the staff was complete and the budget dollars for this needed but unplanned position was over. The work that these four executives embarked on a few days ago was going to actually be brought to fruition. The position description was read and re-read with countless edits and cosmetic modifications imposed upon it. A headhunter service was engaged to validate their findings and within a week, the online posting hit websites, the various professional organizations and even the newspaper. Within a few hours, the resumes started to come in and the pile of potential candidates were presented to the group.

The pile of resumes, now dutifully collated with four copies of each candidate, began to collect confidentially on the desk of the HR representative. In the early stages of searches, the quantity was far more important than the quantity. The paper pile calms the ignorant and allows the HR representative the much-needed prop to wave their hand at during updates.

“I have a ton of candidates,” the HR representative would crow, while waving a hand either stage left or desk depending on their desk set-up with the stack of resumes used as the ultimate prop to reassure folks seeking redemption from the outside. Once the postings hit the web and related mediums, the stack continued to grow the hiring manager was drunk with specifics. So drunk, another meeting was called to raise the bar even higher due to the corresponding height of the resume pile. More and more requirements were added with reluctant agreement by the hiring team.

The candidates were across the board: frustrated security ex-cop types, mousy and introverted auditors, passive yet aggressive self-described operational geniuses and the well-represented group of desperate job seekers that compensated for their lack of occupational qualifications with the desire to do something new.

Finally, the day came to begin the first round of interviews. The first two were carbon copies of each other; both ex-military right down to their spit-shined black shoes. The re-use of military issue shoes by veterans always fascinated Shelby because of the analysis of motivation. Was it another version of re-working dyed wedding shoes into a business wardrobe or was it a calculated respect for fully utilizing government property with no regard to the social stigma? Shelby was both unsure and unimpressed no matter the reason.

The interviews were kindly parsed four hours apart, allowing the volunteers to at least remain connected to the world around them but the long scripted interview questions, detailed down to who owned which follow-up question, was showing high potential to eat up the entire four hour period. The two military types were literal copies of each other: blathering on about standard operating procedures, MIL-SPECS, chain of command and the respect for predictability. Neither were impressive in person and Shelby began to suspect that the new HR representative was confusing impressive resumes with resumes that were saturated with jargon and abbreviations. At the end of the day, it did not matter how they got an interview; they were both stiffs.

Over the two weeks, the four sat inassigned seats in a generic conference room and went through the sisyphusian exercise with interview after interview, asking the same questions and getting generally the same answers. The next sets of candidates were no better than the military duo. Each candidate had their basic experience that qualified, in the loosest possible definition, them for consideration but they also all had possessed some other qualification that easily declared them unworthy of hiring. Inaccuracies in their time lines, incredibly stupid answers to standard questions, troubling personal habits that collectively turned off the committee and the mother of all turnoffs, the smell of desperation combined with narrow mindedness.

At one break, Shelby asked the group some questions with the intention of using the answers as an internal sorbet to cleanse her mental palate.

“I think we are looking for a new security manager reporting to Kristine.”

“And how many people have we seen?”

“I lost count,” said the HR representative.

“So have I,” said Shelby. “I don’t know if it the inane script we are following, the ponderous questions, the well-rehearsed ad libs or the mind-numbing waste of time just to hire someone.”

The Security Director, now long past the novelty of hiring someone, finally said the words Shelby had been currently fantasizing in her head for the last several days.

“I have had enough. I can’t keep looking at people, no one is good enough.”

Shelby knew a week ago that the combination of initial requirements compounded by the secondary batch of requirements resulted in an impossibility of satisfaction. No single individual could satisfy all the requirements listed nor could they endure the amateurish attempt at Machiavellian manipulation. The questions, the good intentions of the volunteers and the lack of wisdom came together in this waste of time. The sheer volume of questions seemed like a good idea at the time but now, they were imploding under the weight of it all. “I know this isn’t popular,” said the technical resource, “but none of the candidates meet the qualifications set forth by this group last week. A few come close but none achieve our agreed-upon standard. It is clear that either we do what we want or comply with our earlier decisions. Right now it is the worst of all worlds: spirit sapping bureaucracy, built by us, which we are ignoring.”

“Let’s either save time and just make a decision or let’s actually comply with our decision and redouble our recruiting efforts. But what we are doing is wasting time and then ignoring our earlier efforts. In fact, I would question the use of the word ‘recruiting.’ There has been no recruiting, but rather just posting jobs and hoping something good walks in.”

“Let’s just make a decision,” said the supervisor. “I have to have this out of my system.”

“Out of your system?” Shelby recognized the sound of her voice and was surprised at its volume and intensity. “I have spent several weeks of my life sitting in this room with the group, yammering on about questions and their goals, our structure and plan and now you have determined the time is a waste? I haven’t even addressed the candidate quality and their collective demonstration of living torpor.”

The group’s eyes were down on their interview notes while Shelby continued. She had spent time decompressing over the last week, researching synonyms for stupidity and had been waiting all week to drop ‘torpor’ into a sentence.

“We discussed fifty multi-tiered and open-ended questions and re-discussed them until their initial points were mired in individual, muddled interpretation.”

No one said anything.

“We then combed through the resumes and since we made the qualifications impossible, we have to water down our criteria to actually get people to interview.”

“Correct,” said the young HR representative while he raised his head to re-engage.

“Then, after enduring two weeks worth of interviews in which we all sat together and listened to the canned questions and the canned answers, all scripted within an inch of their mutual life its life, we decide now that it was a waste of time?”

“Yes,” said the Security Director.

Shelby picked up her notepad, handed the interview script with her notes to the HR representative and walked to her office. This was a complete waste of time; precious time that would never be recovered. The thought of finding thing that could have been accomplished during this time period began to pour into her head: to circle the globe, to build several houses, to lose ten pounds or to get a great start on finding a new job. They all seemed so valid, so sensible and so ridiculously distant.

Shelby did not formally quit the team but no one had the guts to see if she wanted to come back into the fold for the next round. She heard a few days later that an unseen internal candidate was going to be hired for the position and that he was a majority of the first generation qualifications. Shelby hoped that the HR representative had followed up with the interviewees and assured them that the decision not to hire them had nothing to do with their qualifications, but rather the dysfunctional environment that made up the company.

Three weeks after the internal candidate was hired or transferred (Shelby didn’t have the either the heart or genuine curiosity to ask), the email arrived on her desktop. The Security Director’s job was eliminated due to mounting internal labor costs and he was gone that day. The new Manager found himself now reporting to a group at headquarters that he didn’t know or didn’t meet for several months. The rumor is that the new hire sat in his cubicle and waited for instructions that didn’t come for months.

Three months after the Security Director was taken out, the technical resource was also let go for similar reasons and the rumors of future consolidations loomed large for everyone else. As Shelby began to put together a resume for defensive reasons, the time wasting interview team kept staying right in her face. It was a month of her life stolen through stupidity and the time was never coming back. Shelby shook her head and wondered what difference that month would have made on her life, her job or her sanity.

Shelby met one of her best friends that day for lunch. Her hangover had subsided and she was recovering nicely with a healthy salad, lots of water and adult conversation.

“There is good news in bad events and obviously, bad news in good events. Nothing is absolute and we need to realize that life is a series of ideas and issues, which can blend in fascinating ways,” said Shelby. Her friend, still reeling from the story of the lost month, paused and asked, “How so? It sounds like you had a month of your life stolen from you.”

“I did but I grow tired of people that make absolute declarations about things; especially trying to sum up complex issues with simple solutions. Take it from anyone who knows: things are not that simple.”

“No argument from me.”

“We continue to chip away at problems and do the best we can with what we have. The many factors that effect issues, including time, money, culture, education and energy. They will have significant influence on what happens but don't kid yourself that a one sentence sum-up of an issue does the trick.”

“Well, if you could sum it up, what would you say?”

Shelby smiled and said, “Life is always something: it might be complete crap from eight to five but I am alive, healthy and have realized how lucky I am. It is kind of a mixed blessing.”

“How do you feel?”

“I feel better now.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I have to get a new job.”

Back to Short Stories