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It's a Wonderful Corporation

January 1, 1997
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
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Geoff Brady's resignation letter to his boss, Frannie Capra, was a masterpiece of savage eloquence. Geoff had worked for Frannie for 10 years, and he still felt loyal to her, but he thought somebody ought to tell her frankly how things stood with this company. After rereading his resignation letter on the screen for the third time, he gave the print command. But an error message appeared in front of his letter-right over the paragraph about working with myopic cannibals-to say the human resources printer was down again.

You don't usually want your resignation letter printing out in another department, but as Geoff's gaze ran down the list of network zones, it stopped at a printer with the ridiculous name of Greenspan. He remembered that was the printer in finance.

The thought of printing out his letter in Harry F. Porter's department would have made Geoff laugh if he weren't so angry. Harry, the company's CFO, was most of the reason Geoff was resigning.

Geoff imagined some of the staff in finance reading the things he had said about Harry in the letter, and he could not keep himself from smiling. He hit the key to select Greenspan, then chose "OK" at the prompt. Geoff's staff were all busy in the outer office, and nobody noticed him leaving the HR department.

He climbed the basement steps slowly and finally emerged on the first floor. A large potted ficus grabbed at his sleeve as he stepped into the lobby. It was a new one, but Geoff was used to colliding with plants. Harry had an administrative manager whose job it was to oversee decor for the building, and the plants changed too often for anyone to get used to them. Geoff thought of her as the vice president for plants.

He gazed up the wide staircase, which curved along an expanse of white wall and had several paintings artfully placed along its length. He sighed and started up the tasteful beige carpeted steps, thinking about his work at Bedford Designs and why he was resigning.

In any company, the stock of a particular executive can rise or fall depending on the CEO's current preoccupations. And since Harry had not only solved Frannie's cash-management problem but had turned the problem into a new revenue source, he was wearing the halo. And he seemed determined to keep it, even if it meant shooting down the plans and proposals of every other member of the executive team -- the way he had done to the workforce plan.

A decade of experience in building an HR function for Bedford Designs had gone into Geoff's workforce plan. And presenting it to the executive committee had been a peak moment in his career. This one presentation, he knew, was his best chance to do something big, something important. And the presentation went perfectly. He had the executive committee in the palm of his hand -- until Harry's question. "About this projected 35 percent return on investment," Harry had said. "Does that account for the exchange rate between the currency of human resources and real money?"

Geoff knew how to answer criticism, but how do you answer laughter? They were still laughing when Frannie had adjourned the meeting. She asked Geoff to continue his presentation next time, but he knew he'd lost them. His plan was wreckage, shot down by a CFO who believed human resources was nothing but a cost center, a man whose favorite remark was, "What are we running here, a business or a charity ward?"

When Geoff mounted the top step -- within 10 feet of finance's reception area -- he saw there was an argument going on at the laser printer, which was partly disassembled. A woman Geoff had never seen before held a crumpled printout in one hand and brandished an EP cartridge-that part of a laser printer you're not supposed to expose to prolonged light-in the other. She was fending off the vice president for plants.

"This machine needs to be repaired." The woman with the EP cartridge wore what seemed to be intended as a suit, but the skirt and jacket styles didn't match. There was a dark toner smudge on her left cheek. "It was getting ready to print something it shouldn't."

"Who are you?" said the other woman.

"Clarice Tutelary." She pointed toward Geoff with the EP cartridge. "Geoff Brady's guardian angel."

Clarice acted like she knew Geoff. "I have your letter." She waved the crumpled printout.

"I'm calling security," said the vice president for plants.

"We'd better get out of here." Clarice dropped the EP cartridge into a wastebasket and walked up to Geoff.

"Give me my letter," said Geoff.

She handed him the crumpled sheet and took him by the arm. "Let's just go outside for some air."

She was surprisingly strong, and before Geoff really knew what was happening, they were down the stairs and walking past the reception desk. Bert, the security guard, called to them.

"Is everything all right, Mr. Brady?"

Geoff didn't feel he was in any danger, and he realized he wouldn't mind getting some fresh air.

"Everything's fine, Bert. Would you sign me out, please?"

The winter sun shone rather feebly in the parking lot. Geoff turned to Clarice. "Why didn't Bert ask about you?"

"They don't always see me," said his companion.

"Who are you, anyway?"

"I told you. I'm your guardian angel. I'm here to keep you from sending that resignation letter."

Geoff realized he was in the presence of a nut case. This didn't look like one of those fatal attraction things, and she didn't appear to be armed, but he was still uncomfortable.

"Oh, you don't need to be scared of me, Geoff," said Clarice. "I'm harmless. I don't even have my wings yet. You're going to help get them for me."

"Yeah, well I'm going home now," said Geoff. His car was on the other side of the lot. It was times like this he wished he'd never come up with the most valuable employee (MVE) parking plan.

"What do you think will happen to the MVE parking plan if you resign?" said Clarice.

"Are you on a furlough or something?" Geoff started toward his car.

"I'll tell you what would happen." Clarice grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back. "Without you here as the moral authority for the MVE system, it will die. First, Harry and the vice president for plants will take the MVE spaces near the door. Then the other executives will start appropriating spaces. And pretty soon, the employees will think the company is two-faced and hypocritical because it's always the little things, like parking, that set the tone of the relationship between a firm and its employees. Before you know it, the company will lose its most cost-effective motivator."

Clarice let go of Geoff's sleeve and pulled a calculator from her jacket pocket. She rapidly punched several sequences of numbers into it, then squinted at the little screen. "Bedford Designs will suffer a 5 percent decline in sales, and a 7 percent increase in costs, mostly due to absenteeism and tardiness." She put the calculator back in her pocket. "All because of parking."

"I have to go now," said Geoff.

"This isn't a joke, Geoff," said Clarice. "You can't resign because of a small-minded remark at an executive-committee meeting."

Geoff remembered Harry's remark and felt bad all over again. "What do you know about it?"

"You want to know what I know about it?" Clarice had apparently had a course in active listening.

"I can't prove a 35 percent return on investment," said Geoff suddenly. He was surprised at himself for opening up this way to a stranger, but it was as if she reached in and turned a spigot handle inside him. He felt a tirade coming on. "Not if they won't approve my pilot. I wish I'd never come to Bedford Designs. I wish I'd never gotten into HR." He was getting ready to mention several other things he wished he'd never done, but he stopped because a strange look had come over Clarice.

"That might just work," she said.

Geoff wondered how to get rid of her. Clarice stared upward as if having a conversation with the lowering winter sky. Geoff felt a shiver pass through him, followed by a feeling he could only call "disembodied."

Clarice looked down from the sky again. "OK. You got your wish. You never came to Bedford Designs. You never got into human resources."

"Yeah. Right." Geoff started toward his car.

"Geoff," said Clarice. "Where's your resignation letter?"

Geoff looked down at the crumpled paper in his hand, but his hand was empty. "I must have dropped it." He looked around at the pavement.

"Don't bother looking for it," said Clarice. "You never wrote it. You never came to Bedford Designs. You never got into human resources."

Geoff decided it was time to get away from Clarice. He began to trot toward his car. As he walked, it seemed to him there were fewer cars than there had been when he first came outside. The last four rows, in fact, had no cars in them at all. Geoff stopped and looked up and down the empty rows. His car was gone.

"It's not stolen, Geoff." Clarice was somehow right beside him, although he hadn't heard her running after him. The toner smudge was gone from her cheek. "It was never parked here to begin with."

"Where are all the cars?" said Geoff.

"There aren't any more cars than these," said Clarice. "There used to be more, but the company laid off half the workforce in 1991. The recession hit Bedford Designs pretty hard, and HR wasn't here to develop the job-sharing plan that got it through the tough times. When business picked up again, the company wasn't ready for it. There was nobody to do applicant screening, and the company couldn't hire qualified people fast enough to keep up with production. It lost its three largest customers."

"I had better go tell Bert about my car," said Geoff.

When Geoff got back into the lobby, he was surprised at how dim it was.

"It's dim because there are no skylights," said Clarice. "Don't you remember those skylights were put in after the recovery of 1992, when Bedford Designs became one of the four biggest suppliers in the industry? But this company didn't have a recovery in 1992. It still doesn't have a human resources department, either. The CFO is fond of saying, 'This is a business, not a charity ward.'"

Geoff walked over to the reception desk, which was empty. "Where's Bert?"

"The company outsourced security in 1993," said Clarice, "and the new supplier only works at night. Who needs security in the daytime?"

"But what about trade secrets and industrial espionage?" said Geoff.

"That's not a big worry for a broken-down outfit like this." Clarice nodded toward an employee who was on his way out the door with a thick portfolio under his arm. "And if the employees sell internal information, well, that's a nice supplementary income for them. Most of them aren't very well-paid, you know."

"I don't know what's going on," said Geoff, "but I'm going to my office to call the police about my car."

Clarice just shook her head as Geoff headed for the basement stairs. But at the foot of the stairs, where Geoff expected to find the HR reception area, there was nothing but a closet filled with cardboard boxes.

"I've been trying to tell you, Geoff." Clarice was at his elbow again. "There is no human resources department."

"Where's my office?" said Geoff.

"You don't work here," she answered.

When Geoff turned toward Clarice, he saw she was holding a laptop computer. "Look up your record in the employee-information system."

Geoff took the laptop from Clarice and sat down on the step with it. "It has to be logged onto the network."

"Wireless," said Clarice. "I'm a bit of a computer whiz, if I do say so myself."

Geoff peered at the screen. There was indeed an icon for a server, but the computer's display didn't look like anything he was used to. "Where's the icon for the employee-information system?" he said.

"There is no employee-information system," said Clarice. "You weren't here to propose and implement it."

"How do they update payroll records? How do they project profit-sharing payouts? How do they handle reference requests? Compliance? How do they terminate payroll accounts for employees who leave? Track sick time? Monitor employee turnover? For God's sake, how do they protect employee privacy?"

"Watch your language, Geoff." Clarice took the laptop from him and folded it up and put it behind her.

Geoff leaned around to look over her shoulder, but the laptop wasn't there. He was feeling very strange.

"The company doesn't do most of that stuff," said Clarice. "It's up to departmental managers to handle it. The managers complain about it all the time. They say it keeps them from doing their jobs effectively." Clarice looked around the dingy basement. "I think it shows, don't you?"

Geoff heard voices, and he looked up the stairs to see two young men coming down. One of them was holding what looked like a little wad of paper. They stopped when they saw Geoff.

"We didn't know anyone was down here." He hurriedly put the wad of paper into his pocket.

"What are you doing down here?" Geoff still felt managerial, despite everything that had happened.

There are no mechanisms to create HR consistency. Each manager does what he or she thinks is best, but it's pretty chaotic.

Neither of the two young men said anything, but they both turned and started back up the stairs.

"I said what are you doing?" Geoff called after them.

"Don't bother," said Clarice. "They were just coming down here to smoke a joint."

"You mean drugs? That's criminal."

Clarice shrugged. "The company doesn't have a drug policy. You weren't here to write it."

"You don't need to write a policy about criminal activity," said Geoff. "Are you telling me the supervisor of those young men lets them take drugs?"

"I'm sure their supervisor doesn't know they're taking drugs," said Clarice. "There are some good and intelligent managers here, but there's nobody to advise them on the telltale problem signs. And there are no mechanisms to create consistency in human resources management. Each manager does what he or she thinks is best, but it's pretty chaotic."

"I should do something about this." Geoff started back up the stairs.

"You don't work here, remember?"

Clarice was right. Geoff didn't work here. But he still felt loyal to Frannie. It's hard to write off 10 years, even if you're the only one who remembers them. The least he could do was tell Frannie what was going on in her company. He started up the stairs.

Geoff didn't think there was time to walk up to the fourth floor, so he went to the elevator. There was tape over the elevator doors and a bright yellow certificate stuck on one of them.

"OSHA was here and sealed the elevator," said Clarice. "It hadn't been serviced or inspected in a long time. It was unsafe."

"Doesn't the company have a maintenance department to deal with that?" said Geoff.

"Oh, yes," said Clarice. "But the CFO has the maintenance department busy making RESERVED signs for the finance managers' parking spaces. There was no one to remind them about OSHA."

Geoff started up the steps. There was no beige carpeting, and the linoleum was warped. It seemed like a metaphor for this company.

The receptionist in Frannie's office appeared to be busy with a personal call.

"I'll just take a sick day," she said into the telephone.

"She does that a lot," whispered Clarice.

"No sick-leave policy, right?"

"You're catching on," said Clarice.

The receptionist looked up and saw them, and then covered the telephone receiver with her hand. "What do you want?"

"I want to see Ms. Capra," said Geoff.

"Go on in," said the receptionist.

Geoff started toward Frannie's door.

"She doesn't screen the visitors anymore," said Clarice. "It's her way of getting back at the company. She's angry because she found out the receptionist in corporate communications gets paid 50 percent more than she does for the same work."

"Why am I not surprised?" Geoff tapped on the door.

There was no answer.

"Just go on in," said Clarice. "What do you have to lose?"

Geoff walked in and found Frannie at her desk. It was a shock to see her. He knew her as an extremely competent manager with a sunny disposition. But the woman behind the desk looked haunted. Harry was pacing back and forth in front of her desk, and the two of them appeared immersed in a conversation, which was why, Geoff supposed, they hadn't answered his knock.

"I think she'll drop the whole thing for thirty grand," said Harry.

"We don't have thirty thousand dollars for this," said Frannie.

Then they both noticed Geoff and Clarice and stopped talking.

"I've just come to give you information," said Geoff hurriedly.

"Thank goodness," said Frannie. "You're the consultant from Twentieth Century, right? They said you would be over here today and that you could handle this negotiation for us."

"Negotiation?"

"The gender-bias suit," said Frannie impatiently. "They said you were the best in the business."

Geoff's curiosity got the better of him. He couldn't resist taking advantage of the situation. "They didn't tell me much about it," he said.

"The usual kind of thing," broke in Harry. "A woman didn't get a job here. Says the manager who interviewed her asked her if she intended to have children."

"Well, did the manager ask that?" said Geoff.

"I should hope so," said Harry. "We're running a business here, not a charity ward. We have late-night work on short notice. We can't have employees moaning about their children all the time."

"Why not just ask applicants if they have any problems working late nights on short notice?"

"It can't be that simple," said Harry. "What if they lie?"

"Showing respect for people and their ability to make decisions is simple," Geoff admitted. "And we've found that simplicity usually pays off in human resources management." He looked at Frannie, who seemed to be absorbed in what he was saying. "If you make the ability to work late on short notice a condition of employment," he added, "you have a basis for dealing with any employees who can't meet the condition. Just make sure you ask everybody, male and female, the same question."

"It would have saved us a lot of trouble if we'd done this a long time ago," said Frannie. "Are there other questions like that we could use in job interviews?"

Geoff nodded. "And in performance appraisals and promotion discussions."

"Promotions, too?" said Frannie. "We have had some problems with employees on that."

"You would eliminate a lot of these problems if you write yourself some human resources policies," said Geoff.

"Tell me more," said Frannie.

"But Frannie," said Harry, "this is a business, not a charity ward."

Frannie glared at him. "Shut up, Harry. I want to hear what this man has to say." She turned back to Geoff. "Sit down, please."

Clarice whispered in Geoff's ear. "I think you're going to be busy for a couple of minutes. I'll be out in the parking lot when you're done."

Geoff turned to her. "Will you be able to give me a ride home?"

"I don't think you'll need one," said Clarice. "This place would have done a lot better over the past 10 years if it had had an HR function, and, by the way, you have another wish coming."

Workforce, January 1997, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 34-41.

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