How we treat each other

Gym time is thinking time. When I am alone and just doing my List-of-the-day on my own, I tend to process and work out a fair amount of stuff. Like what to title today’s food in pictures post. Or where I am in whatever book I’m reading. Or work-related issues and events. Or just what a pretty color someone else is wearing. Or other random crap thoughts that may come to mind.

This week has been a good and great week, primarily for its uneventful eventfulness. But there were a bunch of little things with a common theme that had me deep in thought this morning while going through my practice.

We all know and understand (I hope, anyway) the terms courtesy, respect, civility, etc. Relationships of all stripes are complicated, but foundational tenants should be mutual respect, courtesy and civility toward one another. In my book it goes beyond relationships as customarily defined and into most or all interpersonal interactions. But let’s start with friendships and other typical human relationships.

I have an old friend that is nearing the end of a long, bitter divorce and financial settlement battle. The H in that relationship had an affair, a one-night stand while he was out of town. To his credit, he confessed immediately upon returning home. The marriage had been in trouble for a number of years, but his tryst, while ill advised, regrettable, and costly, was a bit of an epiphany. H literally woke up the morning after and realized the drunken sexual encounter the other woman was a symptom of his overall unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He did apologize to his wife and informed her he was moving out and would be consulting legal counsel about a divorce.

When we were told about it – by the wife in a hysterical phone rant a few nights later – M was completely and strongly disapproving of this friend’s actions and felt we should immediately discontinue our friendship and cut off all contact with H. I disagreed and tried to remain more neutral. H was stupid and uncharacteristically cruel to do that to his wife, and I said that when I reached out to him. At the same time, I was relieved they were separating, because their marriage seemed toxic and made me miserable to be around them as a couple.

In my own marriage M and I had some pretty strong discussions over my unwillingness to cease contact with H. M felt the mistake compromised his character and his values were no longer in alignment with ours. It became one of those agree to disagree relationships between us, and while I saw H from time to time, M was unhappy about my choices and it remained a point of contention between us for nearly a year.

Friend H lived his life. He got an apartment, worked at his job, spent time with his sons, and stayed alone and rather quiet and separate from old friends. Wife, on the other hand, played the victim card to the hilt, as is her right as the injured spouse. The periodic mean streak she displayed toward H during their marriage became a constant, vicious smear campaign, to the point that her sons refused to have any contact at all with her. H just took it, said he had made a big mistake in cheating and deserved a share of her wrath.

M softened toward him watching the drama unfold. As their middle son is G’s best friend, contact between our families is fairly regular thing and we got earfuls from G’s bestie and his brothers about the animosity between their parents. I am not saying she did not have every reason to be angry and to be hurt, but when the man you are so livid with happens to be the father of the children you love, it is probably best to vent your rage in channels unconnected to your sons.

Sometimes separating the behavior we despise from someone we believe we know and have come to like and to love can be very challenging. M came around and was able to reconcile his disappointment with a very serious error judgment by the guy he has known, liked, and respected for more than 20 years. H is once again a good friend who hangs out with both of us frequently. The divorce is final this month, assuming W does not pitch yet another delaying fit to draw out the agony and increase the legal fees, and H is starting to think about putting a toe back into the dating pool. He seems as ready as anyone to dive back into dating, and he has been meeting with a therapist to talk things out (rather than bleeding it all over publicly where his sons have to deal with it as well) and is running and starting to think about joining a gym. Things are indeed looking up for him.

Similar situation with my kids’ cousin on their dad’s side of the family. This cousin in a few years younger than G, so she is maybe 25 this year. At a very young age (18 or 19) she married her boyfriend and quickly became pregnant with their first child. Then their second child (the kids are 13 months apart). Last October she delivered their third child, becoming pregnant again while separated from her husband, and putting about 2 years between middle and newest. Despite marriage and now 3 children, most of their married life they have been living with her parents. Cousin’s husband does not have a high school diploma – he got his GED at 21 – and cannot seem to hold down a job, talks down to her, is never wrong about anything, is rude to other family members, and is fine with living with  and being supported his in-laws for most of this brief marriage. Fast forward to a couple of different separations, a few domestic violence and drug (pot) charges, and cousin and the 3 children (all under 4) are again living with her parents and child protective services is involved and overseeing their lives. Dad is living elsewhere and is only allowed supervised visitation when her parents are present, and cousin herself is undergoing mandatory, court-ordered parenting classes as well as individual therapy.

What a mess.

Now, both my kids are very polite, respectful people, but they tend to not tolerate misbehavior from other adults all that well. My son has a particular dislike for cousin’s husband, and cousin’s sister is K’s best friend (and she absolutely hates her brother-in-law). So it came as no surprise to me that cousin’s husband was excluded from the save-the-date G and K sent out last week. Cousin, however, was shocked and hurt, so much so that she texted my daughter to ask if their save-the-date was only addressed to C or to C and A (it was addressed to C and A). Cousin was very upset upon learning that, stating that “no one cares about family anymore.”

How I know all about this, C texted me asking for advice on how to handle it, what to say in reply. We discussed it, and C was lamenting about why she’s drawn into this when cousin lives with her parents and surely they had seen the save-the-date in the mailbox, etc. C wants to tell her frankly why her husband was not invited, but fears being the one to tell her the truth about the situation when everyone else seems to gloss over it or not say anything about it. Poor C – she hates this type of family shit.

My advice to C was pretty simple – tell cousin that (1) this is a question that should be posed to G himself, and (2) call her out very directly about that “no one cares about family” comment (yeah, I felt some mommy rage forming because she was painting MY child with a pretty broad, generalized brush).

I also explained to C that her cousin very likely did ask her parents what they thought about the way her save-the-date was addressed, and I strongly believe they said pretty much the same thing I did – that it’s G and K’s big day, they are entitled to invite or not invite anyone they want, and if she has an issue she should be dialing direct. Cousin, not getting the supportive and sympathetic answer she wanted to hear, went to the next resource on the list, her very nice cousin (and sister of the groom) C, who would hopefully have a lot more sympathy to spare.

From there we come to the crux of this how we treat one another matter, in the form of my work-related staff mentoring relationship.

It is not going well. At. All. It is so bad I have basically told her I am completely out of kind-and-gentle methods to work with her and am stripping off the gloves. We are down to bare-knuckle conversations going forward.

I recognize that my anger over a recent incident is fueling this reaction, yet I also recognize that supportive, sympathetic, reasonable, and appealing to her intelligence is getting us nowhere. If anything, she is escalating and getting worse.

What caused this? Well, Wednesday we had our scheduled meeting, discussing the week’s events and how work was going from her perspective. I had heard from a couple of different sources, including the partner overseeing her workload, that she was having a tougher than usual time – there was some snappish interaction with a coworker, some eye-rolling sarcasm with another, and her questioning him (partner) on directions he was providing. What I got from her, she doesn’t really have a problem and cannot understand why everyone feels she is difficult to work with. I provided specific examples from the week, and she tried to argue with me on each. I kept my cool with her and told her our conversations were not about the rest of the staff, but about her and her interactions with them.

Then she got frustrated and says I am in no position to judge because I am not an attorney, I have not gone to law school, not passed the bar. And the final nail in the coffin: I do not contribute to the profitability of the firm.

This is an old argument, one I have dealt with many, many times throughout my career. I simply sat there and looked at her in silence for a long minute while I internally composed myself and did not fire her on the spot. When I finally spoke, I said that may be true, but despite all that, I am still higher up on the org chart than she is, I possess the power to hire and fire, and no matter what she felt personally about my skills, qualifications, and profitability to the firm, my position was empowered by the owners and the position I hold requires her respect. Whatever her personal feelings about me the person, she damn well better respect the position I hold in the firm and keep her personal opinions and attitudes to herself.

She tried to interrupt, and I used my best, sternest, parent-est “be quiet! I’m talking now!” tone and words. I whipped out my fillability spreadsheet, showing her fillability in 2015 and through March 31, 2016 (the holy grail of information in professional services firms), her profitability for the same periods, and how she was close to dead last for the attorneys. Even among the other associates at her level of experience, she was second, and  only a small percentage ahead of the third and a significantly larger percentage behind the first.

That certainly shut her up. Typically this type of stuff is only disclosed when discussing salary adjustments, bonuses, or promotions.

I told her in very specific ways what kind of turn around I needed to see in her attitude and her behavior. I ended with supportive words, because she has been putting forth some effort. But it seems difficult for her to grasp that the special snowflake that is her is not that special in the world of attorneys at large.

That was Wednesday. I went home exhausted, but hopeful that she continued to absorb the message.

Thursday morning I come in feeling quite upbeat and happy after training with J. On my way to the kitchen for coffee I overhear her in the copy room berating the receptionist so severely that the woman was in tears. I immediately stepped in and told receptionist I needed her up front, I’d finish supervising the copy job she was running and very sharply told my problem child to cancel or redirect her job and then stay in her office until I got there to discuss what I had just observed.

I have been reduced to a professional minder, sending my errant charge to her room until I had a moment to cool off and discuss her behavior calmly.

Because really, who does that? Our receptionist is not the brightest bulb but she’s competent and professional and works hard. I don’t care if she’s not an attorney, or all she can do now and may ever do at this firm is be the receptionist. She does a fine job at it, and she should be respected as a person and a member of the team that keeps the firm running.

To say I was completely livid it the understatement of the week.

So first I had to talk to the receptionist and get her calmed down, face fixed before someone higher up the food chain or another staff person came in and saw her crying. I then had to briefly brief the higher ups about what had happened and that I was in the process of doing immediate damage control.

Somewhat to her credit, my errant associate had the good sense to understand that she had overstepped, overreacted, and behaved appallingly. She also knew, vaguely, that she should apologize for her behavior. I had to explain to her that it is beyond unacceptable and unprofessional to act that way, and that I had to be reduced to explaining to her where and why her behavior is unacceptable … there is just so much wrong with this entire situation.

Anyway, I laid down the law about how professional coworkers act. There is not caste system in place in our firm. Being an attorney billing hours does not make her better or more valuable than anyone else.

By the time I was finished with our conversation she looked like she was ready to burst into tears herself. But I do not feel guilty nor do I believe I was too hard on her. If anything, I’m starting to think we (and perhaps the rest of the world) have coddled her too much. My bosses are good and decent people, very caring and very fair and equitable about treatment of staff, giving people the benefit of the doubt for honest mistakes. If they were anything but horrified by her behavior toward our receptionist I would have quit on the spot. Thankfully they were horrified, and if anything they thought I should have reprimanded her more strongly.

And then yesterday was meeting with the partners to discuss staff performance and quarterly bonuses. We send the staff home at 2 and then sit around with beer and snacks and talk billed hours, profitability, etc. I had no snacks or beer – guacamole and salsa is not my thing – but I drank water. Go me!

The partners in this firm are generous people and strive for fairness, yet ensuring they reward exceptional performance to retain the talent we have. Going over the staff performance and individual issues demonstrates they are thoughtful as well as shrewd and intelligent. Despite the staff issues I’d had to deal with – reminding me again why I hate being a supervising manager – I am glad to be in the position I hold within this firm.

Discussing the associates, paralegals, and receptionist as well as their individual case loads was interesting. It was nice to know I am doing well, they are thrilled with the way the firm is running and believe me to be a great fit. Those kinds of things are always nice to hear. But at the same time I was hearing echoes of J, tell me what you don’t like, don’t be agreeable, find a little fault with something I’m doing. Still, it is nice to have efforts acknowledged and appreciated.

All this stuff this week left me lost in thought and processing through my practice this morning. I have always been proud of my kids for having enough self-respect to not want to stand by and watch others they care for and about being disrespected and mistreated. The family dynamic while with their aunt and uncle and grandparents – I get why they are unable to stand up and call cousin’s husband out on his behavior. However, when it is G’s wedding and cousin is complaining to C and suggesting G does not care about family, those are the instances when stating your feelings clearly is acceptable. M has a set of values that infidelity does not fit into, yet he has enough compassion and willingness to listen and decide on a case-by-case basis. A long friendship has been rehabilitated and continues because we are not completely black-and-white, all sins are equal type people.

As for my associate, I honestly cannot foresee what will happen to her. My instincts say she needs a level of professional help we are not equipped to provide, yet we cannot say “go to therapy” as a disciplinary action either. Next week there will be a heart-to-heart laying down guidelines and specific behavioral targets we expect her to meet, my suspicion is one way or the other she will not be with us much longer. Which is sad to me, because I already feel as if I may be failing her. But I am now grown-up enough to understand that I am not equipped or trained to work with someone who does not understand normal social or professional behavior. Her inability to respond to my mentoring technique is not my fault, and truly not my problem to solve. My bosses were terrific about emphatically reinforcing that with me yesterday.

So all this stuff was churning this morning. People will always make mistakes, sometimes big ones that alter the course of our lives. There are those who are bewildered about where they belong in the world and accept less than stellar treatment from another with whom they thought they had a special bond and commitment, enough so to create children. And then of course there are those who seem to be so intellectually brilliant yet emotionally handicapped.

I came to no new conclusions thinking about it this morning, but I feel better having thought about it and written it down here. I have such strong convictions on the topic that I actually fear being overbearing about it. I see TM’s fine hand in my attitudes and how I strive to be fair and balanced in the emotion-packed situations that intersect with my life. Even if I did not generally like everyone I work with does not give me license to treat them from that place of disdain; my personal feelings within the boundaries of the workplace must be kept separate from both of us doing our jobs and interacting professionally. Friends I can choose, family I have to tolerate until I choose not to do so any further.

I never want to lose my ability to be kind and respectful toward others. A reader chastised me on a couple of occasions for letting my self-righteous ego get the better of me when someone else has been rude to me first. Not in those precise words or terms – he’s far more diplomatic in his directness – but that was my takeaway from it. It came to mind today and this morning while thinking about the week’s events, and while I would not go so far as to apologize even indirectly for my behavior in the prior interactions he called me out on, were our paths to cross again I would strive to be the bigger, better person and not sink to that level of churlish behavior.

Far from perfect, I try to be polite and to be kind. I can always do better, and knowing that will keep me honest in my behaviors and interactions with others.

I always hope, anyway.

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