Monday, 14 May 2012

The Job Application

Please accept the following conflict case study review as part of my application for the position of “Ministry Complaints Officer.” In keeping with our confidentiality policy all names have been altered.

I came into my office at the Ministry of “Work” fifteen minutes early as I do each and every morning. If I am not the first into the department I am almost always the second. One of my junior staff likes to show up before me when everything is quiet to get through her paperwork and do her breathing exercises before the phone starts ringing. She is also the one who turns off the alarm, a bit of a relief really because I often forget my passkey.

The situation in question occurred on the day of January 12th, 2011. If I recall correctly the day was crisp and cold with a heavy bank of cloud looming just to the west. I wore galoshes and a dark grey overcoat. I like the sound of the word ga-losh-es and so that is what I call my mid-calf rubber boots (“ga-losh-es”). My papers were packed haphazardly in my briefcase along with my laptop and breakfast wrap.

As I walked past Ms. Doilah’s desk I said good morning and made my way to the door separating my office from the secretary pool, otherwise known as “the tank”. When my blinds are open I can see the backs and sides of three secretaries and an auditor. In my office I always hang my coat on the second hook so that room is made for a visitor or my divisional head if he wants to meet. My brown loafers are left each night. I occasionally polish them while drinking coffee and pretending my pencil is a cigarette.

On my desk I check for notes and my morning mail. Occasionally I bring a newspaper. I always leaf through the sports section and obituaries first. Like Ms. Doilah I like time to think in peace before the day begins. I am tidy and I need to be ready for anything. This day would prove to be both long and very difficult, testing every negotiation, mediation and anger management tool I learned after years of intense training at the Justice Institute of Mediation.

I have a good memory and can recall details with ease. There were precisely three yellow sticky notes on the desk beside my daybook. One of the notes was folded in half. I could feel my neck swelling slightly, a condition I have that has a name sounding like thrombosis but in truth has nothing to do with blood clots or arteries. It is a nervous reaction to potentially stressful situations. Folded notes stress me out. Like my sandwiches, I prefer my notes to be open-faced. They are honest, conceal nothing and invite immediate consumption. Folded notes mean complaints, closed-door meetings and lengthy reports. But this is what I am trained to do, for I am a skilled complaints officer with years of experience.

I sat down with a new pencil in hand, nervously lighting it with the butt end of the pencil I imagined I had just finished smoking. Open-faced note number one asked me to sign up for three more kitchen cleaning days next month. I never volunteer my time because I never use that fetid hellhole of a fridge to store my lunch. In the morning it smells as though something warm-blooded crawled into the lettuce crisper drawer to die a slow cryogenic death. But I digress. In truth I am a team player, I go out of my way to help others and volunteer readily when I see a problem situation. My colleagues think of me as a “go-to-guy!”

Open-faced note number two referred to an impending training seminar that I was supposed to lead. I do these often. A bit of a song-and-pony dance that has me finessing power point stats, projected up-turns, new HR matrix standards, diametric analyses of recent policy addendums and so on. You know the drill. I always receive warm applause when the lights are turned on and invite questions with a measure of enthusiasm. The dates for the seminar have changed, now conflicting with my three-day heli-skiing trip with friends to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. I adjust to scheduling changes with ease and am able to work towards a positive outcome no matter how inconvenient such changes may be.

Things weren’t looking good. Open-faced note number two almost qualified as a fold-over, at least as far as I was concerned. My manager knew I was planning on going away then. There was a ray of hope. I saw him do something he shouldn’t have at the annual Christmas breakfast, something that breaches section 11a of the “Respect Others, Respect Yourself” Office Code and Guidelines Manual (aka RORY). I am adept at reading, studying and remembering policy and procedure manuals and as an office head I implement rules and regulations strategically to ensure all staff needs are met.

I was sweating a bit then and noticed I was chain smoking. Pencils were lying everywhere.  I picked up the final notes and opened it up. Written in Ms. Doilah’s ever so elegant script were the words:

You have a meeting scheduled for 9:00 am this morning. Two accountants from HR require reconciliation  treatment. Please meet in rm. 205 fifteen minutes early for briefing.                                 A. Doilah

My desk clock showed 8:40 am. I had less than three minutes to get prepared. There is a routine I have to prepare for any conflict resolution session. It is a technique I learned at a team spirit workshop last summer. I finished the last of my coffee. I took a few deep breaths. I massaged my neck. I took out my ten-pound weight and did a few pumps upward as if I was pushing against the ceiling. This represents reaching for the heavens. It means hopefulness. I did a few outward pumps as if I was boxing with my shadow. This means fearlessness or warding off your opponents energy I think. Finally I brought both of my hands together around the neck of the weight and brought it forcefully downward as if I was chopping my manager’s head off with an axe. I repeated this ten times.

It was now 8:42 am. I gathered my notebook and a fresh pack of pencils and bolted out of my door. Other staff members were arriving now. I tried to look serious and self-important. As I darted around the desks I could feel that all eyes were on me and perhaps just a glimmer of envious admiration hovered in the wake of my advance. One of these paeans wanted my job but I couldn’t quite figure out which one yet. David (kiss my ass) B. was a candidate. So was Ron W., Mr. Matchbox MBA himself. Over my dead body is all I can say. I readily identify the talents and strengths of others and delegate tasks that will encourage both individual and team growth.

When I reached the door of Rm 205 I stopped briefly to tuck my shirttails in and adjust my glasses. I knocked twice before turning the knob and seeing my way in. My manager was seated in his normal chair in the corner. A counselor from HR had arranged herself around the table to his right. Two chairs remained empty but I knew it was expected that I would face the door along with the others. This was a classic seating strategy to instill trust and confidence in the complainant and might have been suggested in that copy of Feng Shui for the Office and Home: Western Edition that was passed around a few years back. I assumed a grave yet relaxed pose facing them and greeted the others as I sat down.

For whatever reason my attention was immediately drawn to a large stain on the chair which the counselor was seated on. When she crossed her legs the stain was fully visible- a cookie-sized opaque smear. When she shifted her body towards me the stain disappeared. Somehow this stain, no-stain, there it is again, situation was bound to distract me throughout the course of the two-hour meeting that lay before me. There is a good reason eating in this room is prohibited. I often focus on an unusual detail like this. It relaxes me and gives me time to collect my thoughts so that I can respond to the emotional nuances of the conflict tactfully. I am able to find inner calm when faced with difficult decisions. Training and life experience have prepared me to handle sensitive inter-personal conflicts professionally.

We spent some time quietly studying the grievance dossiers that had been waiting for us on the table. This could be intense. When conflict between employees involves personal strife from outside the office we hear about problems that are better left on the welcome mat. I never understood this about people I work with. I have always felt this is what makes the workplace bearable- it is a retreat from everything we assume life is worth living for which s nothing more than the predictability of desire and disappointment. As soon as I pass through those revolving doors on the mezzanine I am released from the daily numbness of home- an indifference to food, pruning in the garden, the tepid warmth of my cat. What really turned me on was solving the Sudoku-like algorithms of human incompatibility. It was soon clear that the story unfolding on my lap was going to make my day.

Two forensic accountants from HR weren’t getting along. Their cubicles shared a wall and they kept shorting out their surge protectors. They routinely exceeded their plug-in capacities with a mélange of chargers for phones, blue tooth devices and even portable espresso makers. Amazingly, both staff members had worked in a similar office back east for the same supervisor and had been dismissed for the same reason. They were incompetently competent- thorough and hard working but belligerent and narrow minded, like high-strung foals getting ready for their first race out of the gate. As we tend to joke in the senior management circle, these guys were products of the same Ritalin popping business school honor rolls we see more and more of these days. I sighed as I read on and wondered how we could keep these two as far apart as possible. The last thing we needed was for morale to dip among the bean counters only months before tax statements and ministry audits were due.

The infraction occurred last week. John M., the taller of the two, alleged that Angus C. had been spreading rumors about his shortcomings as a logistical SWOT facilitator. While piecing together a strategic planning retreat for staffers to review departmental “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats” it is relatively easy for someone of John’s caliber to let the proceedings fall apart as boredom seeps in after hours of arguing and navel gazing. Add to this the endless mound of crust free ham sandwiches and fruity pastries and a collective malaise will set in big time.

The bottom line is that nobody really wants to be at those meetings and so it can be real hell for the facilitator to keep the momentum going. A former SWOT leader I know put it this way, “imagine holding an auction in a palliative care ward and you’ll know what it’s like to come in and motivate staffers about the future of the public service.” I always laugh aloud when I remember that line. I think of myself as someone who has a good sense of humor and a sunny disposition. I believe that laughter is a useful tool to help relieve tension, particularly when there are extended periods of awkward silence.

My laughter did halt the silence, leading the other two to stop and look at me with raised eyebrows. My neck began throbbing again ever so softly. As I reached for a pencil I turned back to the report and remarked,

“This is fairly straight forward don’t you think? I mean, here we have two very competitive mid-level junior accountants who are both climbing on each other’s backs to get the ball in the hoop. I suggest we bring Angus in for a chat, get this wrapped up before lunch and move on?”

David, my manager, either nodded in agreement or wasn’t listening. Finally, he looked up at me and replied, “I had a pre-brief session with Angus earlier this morning. There’s more, but you won’t believe it.”

At this point Marianne the counselor and I shifted in our seats before putting our reports aside. The strange food smear on the seat was plainly visible again. “Go ahead David, I’ll take notes,” she announced.

David passed around two photos. In the first picture I could make out a hand holding a small object. It was a tool. This tool had a handle resembling a chopstick. The shaft of the handle had a razor blade attached to it with two small brass rivets. It looked potentially lethal, like something used to help convince pilots to fly into buildings.

The second photo was of a bag lying on a table. David explained that it was John’s “murse”, otherwise known as a “man bag”. It was from Japan and made out of material recycled from old leather pants. It was large enough for a laptop and files and had the same kind of stitching that baseball gloves are constructed with. It was elegant, useful and ugly. When I squinted I could make out three diagonal lines on the surface of the bag that were not, as we were told, part of the original design.

David then elaborated on his meeting with Angus. It was revealed that,

“He has been under a lot of stress over the past few months. His contract is under review, he has a child on the way and there is a hefty mortgage to pay on his west side condo. Work has been piling up and he has been punching eleven-hour days. On top of this Angus has been taking night courses at a cooking school, spending four hours a night learning how to make Danishes, pretzels and bread. The night before the incident with John he had been told his baguettes required work, especially his, uh, slashing!”

David then referred to a wiki document that described what slashing is. When freshly proofed rolls of dough are ready for the oven it is traditional for the head baker to walk by and slash a series of diagonal cuts along the length of the baguettes to allow the crust to expand without cracking. Fascinating stuff. John had a lot of difficulty with this and foolishly carried his tool with him to work to practice. Apparently he had been twirling it around during his early morning commute on the train, making mock cuts on the arms of fellow commuters.

Somehow this frenzy went undetected until all hell broke loose when he got to work. John had arrived at the office before Angus and had “accidentally-on-purpose” plugged his Kindle charger into Angus’s power bar. John’s murse happened to be dangling over the cubicle wall and before it could be avoided the slasher was back in action. Delivering well-placed strokes, Angus cut three fine lines into the leather bag at precisely 45 degrees, the exact technique he had been asked to work on before his bread presentation that night. Had this been bread, the murse would have risen to perfection alongside the rest of the baguettes under examination.

I was rapidly taking notes at this point. I was filling out Standard Resolution Form 2.a. for Internal Review. As unique as the dispute was it fell into the same old category as every other issue that had come before the committee this year. It was customary for conflict between staff to flare up into a sudden, intense altercation that was physical in intent yet harmless in effect. This was a case where “transference” was the modality by which anger was directed at the target. In this case “the murse” had become a stand-in for “the man.”

The counselor then took my notes. She would hold conflict remediation sessions with Angus and John separately. I was further recommending they do two weeks of group processing and that John M. be compensated for the  damage to his property. If necessary the value of the “murse” is to be assessed and replaced in full if the said damage is irreparable. Moving Angus C. to a different cubicle was required immediately.  

After David, Susan and I shared a few pleasantries I returned to my office to look over a few documents. I felt good about the day so far. So good in fact that I put the pack of pencils I had been clutching back into the drawer. I was one step closer to quitting the habit for good. I picked up the remaining pencil on the table and held it evenly between my two hands. I placed both my thumbs along the pencil bridge and applied pressure evenly, watching as the wood bowed under my force. I heard a soft crack just before it exploded, the pieces flying across the room and landing just shy of the wall. Yes, this had been a good start to the day.

I complete my work in a timely and efficient manner, ensuring that I devote energy each day towards self-reflection and a full performance review. I feel that no accomplishment is too small no matter how similar one day appears to be like the last. _______________________________________________________________________

In short, I trust that I have submitted my application as required. I look forward to your reply.



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