For two years in the mid 1990s I was the manager of a hospital medical records transcription department. It was my first and only full-time management job. I was 30 and inexperienced, but I very much wanted to do the job well; in fact, the reason I took the job was that everyone would probably have been outsourced and fired if I hadn’t. That’s another story.
The time came when I had to hire a new person. HR put an ad out and I plowed through resumés, and found a few candidates worth interviewing. We had both an interview and a test, so anyone I hired would at a minimum be able to do the job without a doubt.
My first hire was Mary Sue (not her real name). She was a quiet, diffident woman about my age with a good resumé, obviously highly intelligent, and tested nearly perfect. She was eccentric; all medical transcriptionists are eccentric. Everything about her was buttoned-down. She had tasteful, conservative clothing without a button out of place, finely curled permed hair, the exact right amount of makeup, and a precise and muted voice. She played the subservient office lady role the whole way. Everything was an apology or a question, with the head tilted slightly to one side. She was so pale that “white” didn’t cover it; I think she was partly transparent.
I seated her in an empty cubicle and she began to silently churn out good work. I congratulated myself on a successful first hire! She always looked worried and hunted, but most of the people I worked with were functional neurotics and I didn’t think much of it.
A couple of weeks after she started I was talking to her at the photocopier and she mentioned that she hadn’t slept well the night before due to noisy neighbors. I made commiserative noises. “Well, I don’t know, it’s, worse, worse than that” she said mournfully. “How so?” “Well my neighbor. She is. I think you know, she is a prostitute. So many men coming and going all the time.” I paused for a moment. “Really?” I didn’t think of West Covina as being a haven of condominium whorehouses. “Oh I’m sure of it. I know. You know, we’ve had this before. It’s like it’s taking over.” I made some polite gesture and retired to my desk. Whoo, I thought. I’ve got a sexual paranoid on my hands. This should be entertaining.
A few weeks later Mary Sue showed up at my desk asking for a private conference. I closed both doors and we sat down. “I am having some trouble in the mornings,” she offered. “What’s up?” “Well, you know, Barry (a subject of a previous profile here). and T. and C., they work that same time. And they talk a lot and they’re loud. And it’s hard because I can’t get things done, and you know they aren’t doing anything. And then they’re really rude and mean to me. Barry came up to me at my desk and called me a bitch.”
I was shocked. First of all, I knew that the morning crew didn’t “do nothing”. Although I wasn’t there early I could see their workflow precisely. They were a bit slower than when I was there, but not more than reasonably. And I knew they were BSing around talking. They’d all known each other for 10 years and worked as a team at another hospital. And I couldn’t imagine any circumstance in which Barry would call someone a bitch. Finally, this wasn’t the kind of workplace where you couldn’t stop and chat for five minutes, either. If you didn’t let work pile up or mess with anyone, it was cool. I told Mary Sue that I’d stop in unexpectedly a few times to see what was up, and that if anyone was abusive to her she should log it exactly and I would take appropriate action. She was very grateful and teary and went back to her desk.
I did pop in unexpectedly early a few times over the next month. There were some embarrassing/comic moments when I saw people with their feet up on their desks expounding long stories to each other, but mostly people were just churning along doing their thing and waved a hello to me. “Hey, early guy. There’s bagels.” There wasn’t any loud boorish talking, or any sign of hostility to anyone.
About a month later Mary Sue returned to my desk. She was even more upset this time. Again she told me tales of the other morning employees harassing her, doing no work, and being loud. I mentioned to her that I was puzzled because I’d seen nothing on my surprise visits. She was silent for a minute or so and then said “Well, let me tell you it’s happening. They’re just like that. Those people are idle, it’s their way. I’m sure you know what I mean here. Those people. I knew you would understand.” Thunderbolt. I realized that everyone on that shift but Mary Sue was black. Oh crap.
I told her that if she had continued complaints she’d have to file a grievance with HR and/or talk to my boss, because I had nothing to go on based on the information I had. She looked terribly sad and betrayed, and said that she would do that, but that she had hoped I would understand the situation. I looked at her for a long moment and said “I think I do understand the situation, actually.”
I managed to call my boss before Mary Sue did. She (boss) shared my reaction. “Oh, SHIT. Barry? I don’t think so. Yeah, I’ll talk to her. Thanks.” I asked what the hell we were going to do; can you fire someone for being an insane racist? “No. But I can quit her.”
Over the next couple of weeks things were very tense. Barry came to see me and said “Well, I guess you know why I’m here.” “Yeah.” “I just wanted to say, I’ve been here seven years, and there’s been no trouble. Nothing. I just want to get my job done. I hope..” I cut him off “Don’t worry. It’s not going to be me.” He smiled and left. The others dropped by and this was repeated. Mary Sue barely spoke to me but occasionally would sit at her desk typing with one giant tear rolling down a powdered cheek.
Mary Sue quit at the end of two weeks. She arrived in my office in a portentous way and delivered a note to my desk, a generic quit note. As I read it, she intoned “I am pursuing other opportunities because both you and the Vice President have made it clear to me that serious problems are not taken seriously here.” I took the note and filed it, saying to the wall behind her “I can promise you they are, Mary Sue. Very seriously indeed.”
We had a pot luck the day after her last day. I brought the meringue cookies.