Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anniversary, part 3

(continued from part 2)

We had several handbook revisions that year, including the aforementioned "gifting policy," so it seemed like a good idea to reprint the handbook in its entirety, give each employee a new copy and have them sign an acknowledgement of receipt. It was my job to distribute the new handbooks and collect signatures from the employees.

For convenience, a list of the major changes was attached to each employee's new handbook, so if they didn't feel like reading the whole thing and comparing to the previous version, they could easily reference the changes which had been made. Most employees were not interested. They signed the acknowledgement of receipt without batting an eye. A few people brought questions to me later for clarification. But not Carol...

Carol insisted on looking up and reading every single revised section while I was present. She provided a running commentary on why and how she either approved (rarely) or disapproved (overwhelmingly) of the changes that were made. She may just been venting or she may have thought I would make further revisions based on her valuable input. I'm not sure. But when she reached the gifting policy, her eyes narrowed, she pursed her lips and said in a tight voice:

"What is this all about?"

"It's a new policy. We are asking that employees who wish to show appreciation for their co-workers do so by treating them with professionalism and respect every day. If you want to recognize a special occasion, please keep it on a personal level with your co-worker, rather than attempt to involve the entire store."

"And what do you think of this policy, Andrea?"

"I think it's exceptionally well-crafted. Whoever wrote it must have a lot of experience writing handbooks in order to be able to address the underlying problem with such tact and clarity," I replied, knowing full-well that she knew I'd written it.

Since she couldn't tell if I agreed or disagreed with the policy, she shifted gears with a long sigh. "You know, this company has changed so much since the original owner died..." *sigh* She peeked out of the corner of her eye to see if I was going to urge her to continue. I didn't. She went on anyway.

*sigh* "We used to celebrate things around here. We used to recognize special occasions, and that made everyone feel special. I mean, is it really too much of a strain on the budget to buy someone a card for his birthday? I think..." she lowered her voice conspiratorially, "the managers now are just too cheap for their own good. And that's really sad. Don't you think? Too cheap to buy a card." She clucked her tongue.

I remained silent, hoping she'd take the hint and do the same. This was the wrong strategy. It encouraged her to continue airing her grievances.

"You know, it was my 25th year with the company a few years ago. And I can't believe how horribly I was treated. It was my special day. I came to work expecting the royal treatment. I don't think any other employee has ever been with the company for so long. And do you know what happened?"

"They did nothing? They forgot?"

"Noooooo.... even worse. They gave me a... a.... thing. Some kind of stereo thingy. You know, it hooks up to your TV, with speakers and other electronic things. It was HUGE."

"Like a surround-sound system?"

"Yes! One of those. I just went into my office and cried. What am I going to do with a bunch of stereo stuff? They should know I don't have room in my house. Well, I do have room, but I'm not going to clutter up my living room with speakers. There were at least five huge speakers. What would I have done with all that? I was just disgusted. It was so... so... insensitive. I don't even watch that much TV and I certainly don't want it blaring in my ears. They really should have known better. I would have preferred that they didn't recognize my special day at all rather than give me a gift that they obviously put so little thought into."

"Well, see with the new policy, there's no danger of that happening again... to you or anyone... We're really just setting the expectations so that people aren't disappoin..."

She blazed on with her story, though. "You know what I did then? I. Gave. It. Back. That's right. I just marched right on in there and told them that if they weren't going to get me something meaningful, I didn't want anything. Oooh boy, was I ever mad. But I think they got my point."

"I'll say. You sure showed them."

"I think they took that stupid thing and gave it to one of the other guys for a wedding present later in the year. He was thrilled to get it. He had to bring his truck to work that day just to cart that big old box home, though."

I couldn't tell what offended her more. 1) That someone couldn't read her mind well enough to know she wouldn't have use for a $500 surround-sound system or 2) That the box it came in was so HUGE. But she seemed to be making my point for me.

"So, Carol, what I hear you saying is that you would rather have let the anniversary pass completely unnoticed, than get a gift you didn't feel was meaningful? Is that right?"

"Absolutely! It was just such a slap in the face to put in a quarter-century of devoted work to the company and get something they should have known I wouldn't use. But they did make it right eventually..."

"Make it right?"

"Well, I was so angry for weeks afterward that I could barely even come to work. The store manager was out of town, but when he got back I marched right into his office and told him how I felt. He wasn't going to do anything about it though. I told him he owed it to me and because I was still so mad, eventually he made it right. I was remodeling my kitchen at the time and he finally agreed to buy a new stove for me. He even came out and installed it for me. That's a meaningful gift. Something I needed and could use. Something with thought and feeling behind it. Not just a big box of speakers."

When I talked to the store manager later about my conversation with Carol, he confirmed that things had gone down essentially as she had related. He was able to fill in some details, though, details Carol might not even have been aware of at the time.

The surround-sound system that they ended up gifting to Carol had not been purchased specifically for her. One of our vendors had sent it to us as a thank-you-for-your-business present. It was highly coveted among some of the employees and the store managers had been wrestling with how to fairly decide which employee would get to take it home. When Carol had arrived that day and announced that she was expecting special treatment for her anniversary, the managers felt obligated to do something for her. To them, it seemed like a win-win situation.

So, yes, Carol did have a point. It was a thoughtless gift. It was, essentially, something they just had laying around. Five-hundred dollars worth of something they just had laying around.

"I remember she was so angry that she didn't really talk to anyone for a couple of weeks. You could tell she was just seething inside every day," the store manager recalled. "So, I tried to explain the situation. but she wasn't interested. I finally had to buy her a replacement gift so she would lighten up. If I remember right, I had to spend several hundred dollars on a new stove for her kitchen. And... I had to deliver it and hook it up for her, because she didn't want to pay someone to do it for her. Her reasoning was that she shouldn't have to shell out money, just because I got her a gift. Even though it was the gift she specifically wanted and the only one that would make her happy. I ended up spending hundreds of dollars and several hours of time, just to recognize that she'd been getting paid to come to work all these years. It was a... weird situation."

Weird. And the weird part really is that, after all these years, Carol still feels like the got the short end of the stick. And she's still bitter.

I never did get to ask if her stove came in a big box, and if so, was it bigger than the box of speakers?

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