It was hours before her alarm would sound, but Kathy Davis was awake. Her telephone had rung just after 3:00 a.m., and she had experienced escalating panic as she reached for the receiver. No one calls with good news at that hour.
It was a shift supervisor at the plant. "I'm sorry to wake you," he began. She didn't say it aloud, but Kathy gave him points for realizing the hour; this supervisor was a quick study. "We have a sexual harassment problem here ... " he continued. Kathy shook her head and held the receiver at a distance. She struggled to focus her vision on it, as if seeing it would somehow make this conversation credible.
"Sexual harassment?" she said, without listening to anything further. "Now?"
"Yes," the supervisor said, and plunged on with his story. In her head, she deducted the points she had given him earlier. She fought her grogginess in an effort to care.
By the time he hung up a few minutes later, Kathy was fully awake. As often happened in these situations, however, she wasn't really alert until she had missed most of what was said. She remembered something about a gender identity crisis and a security employee. She also remembered making an appointment to meet with him in the morning; she would have to go in early.
As she drifted back to sleep, Kathy thought about the absurdities she so often faced at work. When they make "HR: The Movie," she thought, the guy who made "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets" -- James Brooks, wasn't it? -- should direct it. He could capture the swings between pathos and hilarity that characterize the job. And when they make it, she mused, Meg Ryan can play me.
It rang on schedule, but the alarm was still a shock. Kathy stared at the ceiling for a time before forcing herself out of bed and into the bathroom. A quick glance in the mirror reminded her of the lost sleep. "OK, maybe not Meg Ryan," she moaned. "Maybe Bea Arthur."
Already the day had "crisis" written all over it, so Kathy rushed through her shower. Because she hadn't reset her alarm, there would be no time for a leisurely breakfast or to read the newspaper. Instead, she turned on the TV news. There was more about the Clinton/Lewinsky mess, and Kathy wondered whether the White House HR staff got calls at 3:00 a.m. She had a few spoonfuls of dry cereal and some coffee, burning her tongue as she gulped too quickly en route to the car. No one in business school had warned her about these days.
Kathy tossed her briefcase on the back seat, then got behind the wheel and fastened her seat belt. It was a little earlier than usual, so she hoped to beat some of the traffic. The radio was still set for the news station, but she wasn't in the mood for more about Monica. She punched at the buttons, catching pieces of several commercials before finding Celine Dion wailing the song from "Titanic." It was the kind of song that would let her map out the day in her mind.
At this hour, open parking spots were not the fantasy they would become by 8:00 a.m. Kathy chose one indiscriminately and headed for the building, snaking her way through the parked cars. She was close to the entrance when she spotted something out of the corner of her eye. Should she investigate or keep moving? She thought about the disgruntled supervisor and sighed. He could wait. She looked again and confirmed what she had suspected: There was a pair of feet jutting out from behind a parked car, and they were pointed upright, like those of the Wicked Witch of the East after Dorothy's house fell on her. Kathy had friends in HR who had faced employee deaths; she couldn't believe she might have to deal with it. She walked along the length of the car before nervously peering around the bumper. A woman -- with a company name badge around her neck -- was sprawled out between two cars, and a car door was open. "Oh, my God!" Kathy said aloud.
She stepped carefully over the woman, then lifted her wrist. Please have a pulse, Kathy thought. It was there; Kathy began breathing again. She reached down and nudged the woman, gently. "Hello?" she asked. "Hello ... Marge," she read from the name badge. Slowly Marge shifted.
"Yes?" she answered.
"Are you OK?" Kathy asked.
"Course I'm OK," the woman slurred. "It was a swell party."
Kathy sighed. OK, she thought, much better drunk than dead. She pulled the keys from the ignition and dropped them into her pocket, then helped the woman back into her car, and made a mental note to call security.
As Kathy rounded the corner to the HR department, she almost bumped into a young man. She apologized and then looked up to see that he was carrying a picket sign. "Unfair hiring! Who needs HR? Fire Kathy Davis" it read. Kathy looked at the man; it was the temp she had tried out for two days before deciding he wasn't capable of filling in for the absent HR assistant.
"What are you doing here?" Kathy asked.
"Protesting," he explained.
She looked again at the picket sign. A photo of her cut from the company newsletter was glued into the center of the 'o' in "who." "You're picketing me, personally?" she asked.
"I can't deal with this right now," she said. "I'm sorry. I have a meeting. I'll let you know when we can talk."
He started to object, but Kathy shot him her best third-grade-school-teacher look and kept moving. The disgruntled shift supervisor and a security staff member were outside her door.
Kathy turned on the lights in the department and invited them into her office, where she cleared some books off a chair so they could sit. She was barely into her chair when the story began. In a rush, the two of them -- in often overlapping voices -- told her what had happened. She managed to sort out that the security employee was having a "gender identification" crisis and was upset because a senior vice president had given him "the finger."
"James Brooks, where are you?" Kathy mumbled to herself. The situation was ridiculous ("Maybe Bea Arthur could play ... "she began to think, but stopped herself) when compared to the other issues on her agenda. But the man was clearly frightened, hurt, and feeling very alone. And certainly he deserved to be protected from actions that violated company policy.
Kathy got them both calmed down -- plainly the supervisor had forgotten what to do when presented with a sexual harassment complaint -- and took a complete report. She assured the employee she would investigate, and explained what that would involve. As Kathy was finishing her explanation Sue, a member of her team, opened the door.
"Kathy, there's a man picketing outside ... oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I thought you were alone."
"It's OK, we're finished here," Kathy said. She told Sue about the drunken woman in the parking lot and asked Sue to escort the security employee to the EAP office. After they had gone, she reviewed the sexual harassment policy with the supervisor and sent him home.
Alone at last! Kathy finally could begin her morning routine. She straightened a picture on the wall, then went down the hall for coffee and some water for her plants. Miraculously, no one stopped her, and she got away with a wave to the picketer.
Back in the office, she checked voice-mail. Already there were seven messages, and she knew that she might have three times that many by day's end. She forwarded two to Sue, and returned the others; she was happy to leave voicemails each time.
On to e-mail. There were a dozen messages in her mailbox, and more -- no doubt -- on the way. She sighed as she scanned the messages:
- Who is our health care provider?
- I sent my resume to you last week ... can you please advise me of the status?
- How much sick time is available to me?
- When will I get my green card?
- Is this payday?
And on it went. One message made no sense ("Vacation days + sick days + holidays + flex hours = Yes?") and she deleted it. Another was from the CEO. "While I'm thinking about it," he wrote, "here's a question that occurred to me: How will you invest in HR this year so that we have a better HR function than our competitors?" Great question, she thought to herself.
But there wasn't time to think about it now; she had too much to do this morning. First she reviewed her staff's response to a recent FLSA audit; by responding promptly the company would save some money -- perhaps as much as $250,000. The report was excellent, and she took a moment to pat herself on the back for building such a capable staff. It had taken several years, after first hiring some very wrong people. She shuddered at the memory.
The staff also had completed documentation showing bad faith by the company's insurance carrier. That, too, would save the company money. Next she documented the morning's meeting, then fired off an e-mail asking for an appointment with the executive vice president named by the security employee. She sighed. Would sexual harassment issues ever get resolved?
She was interrupted by the intercom. "Kathy?" Sue asked.
"Pete Channing is on line one. I think you should take it."
"Got it. Pete? What's up?"
"Good morning, Kathy. Have you made that offer yet?"
"Not yet. I have the offer letter here to review this afternoon."
"Oh, good. I've changed my mind."
Kathy rolled her eyes. Damn! They had sought the guy out, and it had taken weeks to get to this point. Even the guy's background check had been clean. They couldn't afford to lose this one. "What happened?"
"He had food stuck between his teeth."
"At our lunch together last week. This big piece of green stuff, right in front. It bothered me then, but I thought I could ignore it. I can't."
Food in his teeth? She clenched the armrest of her chair. "Oh, Pete, you were so sure of this guy." She heard her voice squeaking, and cringed. "Stop it," she thought to herself. "You're not Ally McBeal."
Pete explained his thinking. This guy didn't reflect the company image, wasn't professional ... he droned on. "Did you point it out to him, Pete?" she asked. "Did he ever get near a mirror? Did he have any way of knowing?"
Pete doubted the guy knew. He argued half-heartedly that it didn't matter, but Kathy cut him off. "Call him, Pete," she said. "Tell him what happened and ask what he would have done if the situation had been reversed. That will tell you a lot. Do that before we change our course, OK?"
Pete agreed. She hung up and ran her hand through her hair. Another bullet dodged -- for now.
She went back to working her way through the 4-inch stack of paper in her in-box.
Kathy was good at delegating, but she also struggled with perfectionist tendencies. Earlier in the week the IS department had helped HR with a data dump, and the experts had assured her the data would be clean. Kathy's intuition had told her otherwise, and she had decided to review the data anyway. This morning she was glad she had listened to that little voice. She had found only a handful of errors, but they had serious implications.
She was getting toward the end of the report when she was distracted by some commotion outside her office. "What now?" she wondered.
Kathy stepped into the HR department to find two members of the department restraining a well-dressed woman. The woman was screaming and struggling to get free; Sue was on the phone.
"What's going on?" Kathy asked.
Linda, the company's staffing professional, pointed at the woman in custody. "She choked me," she said.
"Choked you?" Kathy asked Linda in disbelief.
Sue had hung up and nodded to Kathy. "Security's on the way. I saw it myself ... Linda was interviewing this woman, and then she stood up, walked around Linda's desk and started choking her."
"Actually, it was weirder than that," Linda offered. "I had the results of the woman's skills tests, and I planned to share them with her and suggest she get further training and reapply. I barely got started when she asked me to touch her face so I could see how excited she was about the job. I declined, and went on. When I started to talk about training, she stared a moment and mumbled something about children to feed. Then she started to choke me."
This was a new one. An angry ex-employee had thrown hot coffee on Kathy once, but no one had resorted to hand-to-hand combat. Security arrived and escorted the woman out, after which Kathy invited Linda into her office. "I was surprised more than anything," Linda said. "She wasn't really hurting me, just expressing a lot of pent up frustration. It's sad, really."
Kathy thanked Linda for handling the situation so professionally and asked if she'd like to take the afternoon off. Linda said she was fine and returned to her office. Kathy knew she would have to consult the corporate attorney about whether to press charges against the woman. She looked at her watch; wasn't it lunch time yet? It was.
In the morning rush Kathy had forgotten to pack anything, so she decided to go to the local supermarket and hit the salad bar. On the way out, she offered to pick something up for the picketer, but he declined. She was gone only a few minutes, but she was relieved to find calm in the department. As she ate, she reviewed the offer letter to Pete's candidate. Then she pulled the latest issue of Workforce out of her in-box and read the cover story on HR's future. "I love that magazine," she thought to herself.
After lunch she checked messages again. There was an e-mail inquiring whether Kathy would work with the city to change the timing of the traffic signal in front of the office building, so that leaving would take one two-minute light change and not two two-minute light changes. "I'll get right on that," Kathy thought to herself. There was a voice-mail asking for help reading a bus schedule; that one went to Sue.
And there was an e-mail from a supervisor advising her that one of his employees "would be absent from work for a few weeks while a felony morals charge was worked out." Worked out? She wondered how one "worked out" a felony charge. And why was she only hearing about this now? She picked up the telephone to call the supervisor.
Kathy had a 2:00 p.m. meeting with Henry Luker, the CEO. "I'm going down the hall," she told Sue. On the way out, she called over her shoulder, "Before I die, I'm going to understand how and why people decide to involve HR. Either I get trivia, or the big stuff never surfaces."
Henry kept her waiting only a couple of minutes. They had worked together for the 14 months since he was brought in to assume the top job. Kathy joked early on that he was the "new breed of CEO" who actually understood HR and valued its contribution. In turn, Henry joked that she represented the "new breed of HR" who saw the function as more than administrative and worked to make their businesses better.
They started the conversation with Kathy's summary of the reports she had reviewed earlier in the day. They discussed progress on the plan to improve participation in the company's 401(k) plan. Next came a lengthy discussion about employee turnover.
The discussion had begun two weeks earlier. Kathy had expressed her frustration at the problems HR faced hiring enough people to staff the manufacturing facility for the company's new product. At the same meeting, Henry had raised the possibility of layoffs in another plant because sales of the product made there were declining. Kathy had balked at that, sharing that the company had a history of layoffs followed by hiring. The pattern was expensive and demoralizing. Henry had then suggested that Kathy do some research, to find out what the company had paid in severance over a five-year period.
Today, Kathy was ready with the information. "What I found is that the amount we paid in severance over the period was often higher than the profits made on new ventures," she explained. "It also affected cash flow in several key quarters. Call me crazy, but I'd say those results aren't ideal."
Together they reviewed the numbers. Henry could see what Kathy was describing, and they agreed that it wasn't healthy. He asked what Kathy suggested they do.
"Well, I did some other research and realized that some of the people we laid off at one plant were later hired at another," she said. "I also found that the cycle of hiring and layoffs was pretty predictable as the product mix changed. I think we could help solve this problem if we could transfer employees from one location to another, instead of downsizing. We can't do it now because we don't know what skills our people have, so we'd need to upgrade our software. And we could do better still if we started cross-training on the skills people need in the new plants. Without that, some layoffs are inevitable."
They talked further and Henry agreed to postpone any layoffs until Kathy had done some further research; she agreed to explore the software and training options and return with a proposal. In the meantime, she would talk with others on the management team.
On her way out, she paused and turned around. "Oh, Henry," she added with a smile, "great question this morning. Let me do some benchmarking sometime between the crises and the histrionics. I'll get back to you."
Kathy headed back to her office. She would be a few minutes late already for her appointment to shadow the manufacturing facilities manager, but she was eager to share her thoughts about the training and skills inventory.
Sue offered that no one in HR had been attacked in the last hour and gave Kathy permission to leave. "One quick question -- does our health plan cover penile implants? Someone wants to know," she smiled wickedly.
"Only if it would be necessary to perform essential job functions," Kathy shot back on the way out.
It was a short drive to the manufacturing facility. On her way in, a man stopped her. She remembered him from a supervision-training course offered several months earlier.
"Kathy, I'm so glad I ran into you. I've been meaning to call," he said.
"Is there a problem?" she asked.
"No, not at all. I was going to call and say thanks. That training class has really helped me. There are fewer misunderstandings and the staff seems to respect me more. It's made such a difference, I can't tell you. Thank you."
"You're welcome," she said. "Now maybe you can stop calling me Catbert."
The man looked sheepish and shifted awkwardly. "You weren't supposed to know about that," he said.
"I know all," Kathy laughed. "Take care, OK?"
The plant manager was waiting for her. She had been shadowing him for several hours a week, at different times of day and at different points in the production process, for several weeks. Kathy's goal was to learn firsthand what the employee-related issues were in running the plant, so that she could develop a role for HR. An HR professional would then be assigned to the facility. If it helped, HR professionals eventually would be assigned to all business units.
At the outset, the manager had been skeptical. But Kathy had selected this plant because the manager had a reputation for being more ambitious and more open to learning than some others. Over time, he had concluded that she was serious about helping him and capable enough to do so.
Kathy apologized for being late, and offered to share some of her conversation with the CEO. She reiterated much of the conversation about layoffs, severance, reassignments and training. She reassured the manager that his plant wasn't the one targeted for layoffs, but he knew that could change.
"If we could solve the layoff/hiring cycle, it would really help morale around here," he said. "And there would be many rewards to that."
Kathy agreed, and told him they would discuss it further. For now, however, Kathy wanted to be sure that they spent some time on the floor.
They spent the next couple of hours observing and asking questions. Kathy talked to several employees and asked about their jobs. She asked what obstacles they faced in doing a good job. She asked the manager to identify top performers she could observe.
At the end of the allotted time, Kathy told the manager that she thought they were 30 days away from having the formal job description for the new HR position, and that they would then begin hiring. In the meantime, she said she would like to begin bringing others from her department to participate in the shadowing.
"One of them may really connect with the issues over here and want to come do this job," she explained. "If not, they'll still learn things that will be helpful in their current jobs."
The HR department was quiet when she got back. The picketer was still patrolling the hall, but the others had gone home.
Sue had left a note advising her that she had set up an appointment for the following morning with two employees and their supervisor. The employees had gotten into a fight in an elevator; one had armed herself with a juice bottle and the other with an umbrella. Kathy sighed. "I can't wait to hear what that was about," she thought.
Her e-mail messages were the usual assortment. An employee whose vacation request had been denied demanded to know why the company had a right to expect that he schedule his vacation in advance. One employee wanted to cover his mother on the company's health plan; another wanted coverage for his cat. There was an e-mail in all caps from an employee raging that someone had parked in her regular spot, and threatening to take her complaint "all the way to the CEO" if Kathy didn't resolve it. And an employee was asking for an appointment because his supervisor had asked him to buy illegal drugs for her. There was nothing from the finger-wielding vice president; she could tell this situation wasn't going to be easy.
She fared only slightly better on voicemail. Pete Channing left a message that he had talked to the job candidate with food in his teeth. "Your advice was great," Pete said. "He was very professional. Apologized and explained to me how he would have handled it in my place. His idea was better then mine. So please go ahead and make the offer."
And then there was one from an irate former employee. He had been terminated for stealing, which he admitted to, but still felt he was wronged. He had threatened to sue from the beginning, but had called today to announce he had figured out a plan. "I will sell my blood to make enough money to sue you!" he shouted into the telephone.
Kathy put down the receiver. All of this could wait until tomorrow.
Kathy gathered her things together and turned out the lights in the department. In the hall, she paused and turned to the picketer. "See you in the morning?" she asked.
"Have a good evening," she said.
After stops at the dry cleaner and the greeting card store, Kathy pulled into her driveway. "What a day," she sighed.
She put some pasta on the stove and did some simple chores while it cooked. Finally, after 7:00 p.m., time was her own. She sat down to dinner, a glass of wine and the new Grisham novel. She read for more than an hour before getting up to wash the dishes. Then it was time to watch "ER."
"Please," Kathy thought as her head hit the pillow. "No sexual harassment complaint calls at 3:00 a.m."
Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 56-62.